Co-parenting, whether because of a separation, divorce, or lifestyle choice, is difficult for any parent. While the decision can be painful, it is helpful to note that, rather than remaining in a toxic household, effective co-parenting built on a foundation of trust and open communication leads to more positive outcomes for children.
According to Jenny Reynolds, author of Parental Conflict: Outcomes and Interventions for Children and Families, “children from high-conflict homes are more likely to have poor interpersonal skills, problem solving abilities and social competence.” Whether living apart or together, regular, healthy communication with your co-parent is essential for ensuring children’s and parents’ optimal mental health.
We spoke with Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Marissa Shannon about the importance of positive communication for parents. Shannon has more than 10 years of experience working with families to identify strategies for conflict resolution and establish healthy methods of communication.Together, we compiled the following Communication Guide to provide all parents with practical tips for improving and maintaining open communication to ensure positive, healthy relationships with each other and their children.
Validate each other’s feelings and opinions
Validation is when we respect a person’s feeling, opinion, or need as true and acceptable, even when we may not understand or agree. We show this in our body language and tone. Having an overall gentle manner during a conversation establishes an emotional connection where each person can feel understood and respected.
“We feel more at ease and are able to listen better when we feel heard and understood,” Shannon says. “So, take a minute to appreciate the challenges, stresses, or other obstacles that your partner may be facing. Validate feelings and opinions, and soften your approach, and chances are you will be able to team up to address a problem together, rather than stand apart at war with each other.”
Beginning from a place of mutual respect allows parents to focus on the issue at hand, rather than becoming defensive or argumentative. Like any other social skill, validation takes practice.
Agree on a parenting plan
Ideally, co-parents operate under a shared set of values and have agreed-upon parenting styles and strategies. If not, that’s an important place to start.
“Get on the same page about how to feed, sleep, and discipline your child. Things won’t always adhere to ‘the plan,’ so remaining flexible and calm is important. But having the same understanding of what is generally acceptable or not will ensure consistency for your child.”
Model positive communication
Remember, children look to their parents on how to manage stress, conflict, and unfamiliar situations. If they see compassionate, patient, and respectful communication in their home, they can adopt these skills in their own lives more easily.
Shannon says, “It’s ok to disagree, and even be angry with one another in front of your child, but the most important part is to model appropriate ways to express this anger, demonstrate how to disagree and apologize respectfully, and get to a solution collaboratively.”
Keep it kind; never use abusive language and always avoid name calling.
Schedule regular check-ins
Set aside time each month to meet with your co-parent one-on-one. Use this time to discuss school, upcoming events and activities, schedule changes, and any areas of concern that you would like to address.
If conversations become heated, take a break, and return to the topic later.
Routines provide children with a sense of security. The changes that come along with separation and divorce can lead to increased anxiety in parents and children. Help children retain their sense of self by maintaining normal routines as much as possible.
For young children, having a predictable order of daily events promotes a sense of control and builds confidence. Keeping meals and bedtimes at predictable times allows for healthy habits to form and also reduces power struggles. When house rules are generally the same between different households, children know what to expect and how to behave, and there is less likelihood for meltdowns.
“Children can manage changes to their routines best when parents can prepare them ahead of time through discussion. Reminding them of what is coming up and talking through what will happen is reassuring for a child. Using familiar cues or tokens such as special blankets, stuffed animals, or even songs, can ease anxiety when changes arise,” Shannon advises.
Use co-parenting tools
Twenty-first century parents have a leg up when it comes to the ability to easily communicate. Creating a shared family calendar with a tool like Google Calendar is a great way to ensure both parents have insight into a child’s schedule, upcoming doctor’s visits, vacation plans, or any other events that may affect a child’s care.
Tools that allow parents to collaborate on feeding and sleep routines, as well as milestone development, like ParentPal’s Care Team feature, ensure both parents remain up to date and in the loop on their child’s health and well-being.
Enlist the help of a family therapist
Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Couples therapy, family counseling, and related services can go a long way in improving and establishing healthy lines of communication. Marriage and Family Therapists, like Marissa Shannon, are trained clinicians providing families with effective communication tools and problem-solving skills that result in more positive relationship outcomes.
Therapy can help identify and change maladaptive patterns of communication that contribute to relationship problems and family stress. This is essential to resolve hurt feelings and resentments that are often worsened by bickering or shutting the other person out.
“Something special happens in the therapy room when partners are able to honestly express their feelings and needs after being coached to speak and listen to each other in a calm, assertive, and also validating way,” says Shannon. “Partners feel understood, trust each other, and can move forward tackling the demands of parenting, together.”
Remember the love
Regardless of your and your partner’s situation, one thing remains true: your co-parent loves your child just as much as you. When in doubt, focus on the love that you both have for your children and remember to keep your kids at the center of every discussion.
Shannon’s final word of advice: “We’ve learned to make accommodations for our children, for our employers, and for our social circles. We need to extend this same grace to our co-parent as well. Let in a little humor, try something new, and remember to be patient with each other.”
Marissa Shannon, MFT works with individuals and families in private practice in Walnut Creek, CA and is accepting new clients in 2022.