The short answer to the question “does co-parenting affect children” is – yes, absolutely!
The ability of the two parents to effectively co-parent following a separation or divorce will have a huge impact on their children’s future mental health for years to come. Healthy co-parenting has the potential to set children up for a lifetime of happiness and thriving while an unhealthy co-parenting relationship can cause the children significant emotional harm and result in the children feeling forever caught between their warring parents.
What is Healthy Co-Parenting?
Healthy shared parenting 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 in the best interest of 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. 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 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 former 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.
One specific mental illness that has recently gotten a lot of attention in the divorce literature is Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). There is a growing understanding of how spouses with this personality disorder pose serious risks to their partner’s and children’s mental health and how specific strategies need to be utilized to minimize these risks once the relationship is over.
How do you know if your spouse has NPD?
There are several specific personality traits that are signs of narcissism. These include a complete lack of empathy, a grandiose sense of self-importance, a need for constant attention and admiration, a sense of entitlement, and an inappropriate level of arrogance and conceit. These narcissistic traits are often coupled with the ABCs of narcissistic behavior which include an abusive level of accusing, belittling, and controlling their partner. Taken together, these traits and abusive behaviors result in the partner no longer feeling safe and often questioning their own sanity and version of reality.
It is very difficult, if not impossible, for an effective co-parenting relationship to be established under these circumstances. Any continued interaction between the parents poses a further threat for further trauma and abuse, both for the healthy parent as well as for the children. Therefore, establishing a parenting plan which involves the least amount of interaction between the parents is in everyone’s best interest. A parallel parenting plan best accomplishes that goal.
Parallel parenting as an alternative to co-parenting
With a parallel parenting plan, each parent has their own spheres of responsibility so that each can take care of certain parental tasks without input from the other. For example, one parent would be responsible for all school-related issues while the other handles all medical issues. In addition, face to face interactions are avoided and all communication is done electronically via text or email. The goals of these parameters are to not only limit any further harm to the adults but to protect the children from as much conflict, and consequently emotional damage, as possible.
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 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 co-parenting 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 positive parenting, have the power to protect your children.
You owe it to your children to do everything within your power to make that happen!