Co-Parenting Effects on a Child:
The Positives & Negatives
It is an unfortunate reality that 40-50% of all marriages end in divorce and that many of those divorces involve children. As a result, many children are being raised in two homes by co-parents who will either continue to engage in the conflict that led to the divorce or will move beyond their issues with each other and learn to work together cooperatively on their children’s behalf. The path they choose will have a huge impact on all aspects of their children’s future functioning. The effects of co-parenting, both positive and toxic co-parenting, cannot be under-estimated.
Co-Parenting Effects on a Child
There are many ways that the parenting relationship impacts children. The primary goal for partners post-separation is to create a parenting relationship that continues to focus on the children’s well-being, their emotional growth, and their overall development. A nurturing co-parenting relationship, where children feel safe, can shape a child’s future positively.
Conversely, a toxic co-parenting relationship has the potential to cause extensive and long-term emotional damage, keeping the children caught forever between their warring divorcing parents.
Understanding the Importance of Co-parenting
The negative effects of co-parenting done poorly are far reaching and will impact all family members. Toxic parents’ effects on the children can include poor school performance, unstable relationships, developmental delays in young children, behavioral problems, substance abuse, and sexual promiscuity.
Toxic co-parenting will have a negative impact on the parents as well. It will result in frequent conflict, on-going stress, and emotional turmoil which will impact all aspects of their functioning.
Healthy, successful co-parenting will be protective and supportive for everyone in the newly configured family. It can take many forms and can be guided by a variety of different types of parenting plans. However, there are a several essential factors that must be present for a co-parenting relationship to be considered healthy and to avoid the negative effects of co-parenting on the children. These include:
- Parents do not expose children to their conflict
- Parents have effective strategies to resolve conflict
- Parents create productive forms of communication
- Parents rise above their painful emotions for the sake of their children
- Parents do not put children in the middle of their issues
These parental behaviors are the building blocks of a healthy co-parenting relationship between separated parents. While most separating couples have a desire to do what is best for their children, this is clearly not an easy task, and it is unfortunately not always accomplished. The pain and hurt that the break-up has caused often get in the way of them making choices that are in the best interest of their children and result in them engaging in toxic co-parenting. That does not make them bad parents, but rather human beings who are suffering and who can’t always see beyond those struggles to make the right decisions.
In most separations or divorces, however, these goals can be achieved once the parents make the deliberate choice and commitment to create a healthy co-parenting relationship and to put their children’s needs as their greatest priority. To accomplish this, they need to step back from their own struggles with each other and recognize the power they have to work together, reduce the negative effects of co-parenting, and do what is best for their children. This must override the desire for revenge and payback which can feel incredibly powerful at this time. Their children’s futures literally rest on their ability to make this choice and to take the steps necessary to make it happen.
What if my former partner is unable to be a healthy co-parent?
There are unfortunately specific situations where it is impossible to develop a healthy co-parenting relationship with a toxic co-parenting partner. These include where one partner has a serious drug/alcohol addiction, is physically/sexually/emotionally abusive, or has another physical or emotional disability that renders them unable to be an equal and effective parenting partner. There are other child rearing plans and living situations that are more appropriate in these situations (parallel parenting, sole custody, supervised visitation) and which will protect the children from further emotional harm.
Essential steps to take to protect children post-separation or divorce
Regardless of the type of parenting plan that is created, parents must adhere to these basic rules to avoid exposing their children to toxic co-parenting and causing their children additional emotional harm. Doing so will give the children the greatest chance of successfully coping with the difficult family transition and moving forward with their lives and their relationships with each parent in a positive, healthy way.
- Keep children out of the middle of adult business
- Minimize the amount of conflict children are exposed to
- Give children permission to love and have a relationship with both parents
- Avoid asking children to keep secrets
- Never bad mouth the other parent
- Respect the other parent’s and children’s boundaries and privacy
- Never use children as messengers
- Create peaceful transitions between the two homes
- Maintain as much consistency as possible for the children
The essential parenting work following a separation or divorce is to first acknowledge that the effects of co-parenting are far reaching, that it has a significant impact on children, and to then create strategies to minimize causing the children any further emotional harm. Achieving this goal is not only possible but essential for every parent who is concerned about their children’s future mental health.
It is also important to understand that you cannot count on or wait for your former partner to engage in these positive parenting behaviors. Empower yourself to do what is right for your children, regardless of whether they are doing the same. You must do so regardless of their behavior since “one is better than none” in this situation. Positive co-parenting, and avoiding toxic co-parenting, have the power to protect your children. You owe it to them to do everything within your power to make that happen!
Dr. Erica Ellis, a licensed psychologist, has devoted her 30+ year career to helping divorcing parents learn how to protect themselves and their children from divorce-related emotional harm. She created Two Healthy Homes to provide parents with the tools and resources necessary to achieve that goal.