Challenges of Co-Parenting:
The Most Common Problems
Working together to raise children following a separation or divorce poses many unique challenges. These co-parenting challenges have the potential to cause significant stress and emotional turmoil for both the parents and the children involved. So, you might be wondering can co-parenting work? The answer is yes, but it requires a great deal of time, effort, and commitment coupled with knowledge, tools, and resources to overcome the challenges of co-parenting. The effort and commitment are up to you, but I am going to provide you with the knowledge and tools necessary to start the process of improving your parenting relationship and your children’s lives.
Challenges of Co-Parenting: Addressing Issues
To review the most common co-parenting challenges in a clear way, I am going to divide them into three categories: emotional challenges, child-rearing challenges, and communication challenges. They are not necessarily mutually exclusive, meaning that there is overlap between them. But this will provide a useful framework for thinking about the many challenges of co-parenting that you could potentially face.
The process of ending a marriage or long-term committed relationship will inevitably result in a lot of painful emotions. This is normal and to be expected. There will be an immediate period of grieving the loss of the relationship that will be the most painful and difficult to manage. It is essential to understand that, while painful, this process will not last forever and you will eventually start moving forward in a more positive and hopeful way.
If you don’t use this time to work through your painful emotions, either on your own or with the help of a therapist, they will continue to haunt you and negatively impact your relationship with your former partner. This can play out in numerous ways and create various co-parenting challenges. These include:
–uncontrollable anger toward your former partner resulting in constant conflict, ongoing court involvement, and talking negatively about them to your children
–inability to forgive your former partner for the hurt they caused you resulting in an unwillingness to find common ground with them or cooperate in co-parenting tasks
–resentment toward your former partner for moving on with their life resulting in difficulty accepting their happiness or potential new relationships
–intense anxiety or depression resulting in your inability to actively engage in the co-parenting process or function fully in other aspects of your life
–wounded self-esteem resulting in feeling overly competitive with your former partner and wanting to win rather than to cooperate with them
–feeling out of control resulting in an unwillingness to give up any more perceived sense of control when trying to negotiate compromise on co-parenting issues
The second category of challenges of co-parenting pertain to the actual work of raising children together after divorce or separation. These issues can begin at the earliest stages of initiating the family law process and can continue long term if not addressed and remedied, taking a negative toll on the divorced couple and the children’s lives for years to come.
-child custody and parenting plans that are developed based upon emotions rather than what is in the best interest of the children and the family, resulting in plans that do not meet anyone’s needs and cause long-term turmoil
-conflicting parenting styles that result in confusion and mixed messages for the children and constant conflict between the parents
-lack of consistency with following through on schedules, agreements, and child-rearing decisions resulting in tremendous confusion for the children and endless conflict and litigation between the parents
-difficulty making joint decisions resulting in either no decisions being made, lack of clarity or buy-in regarding decisions that are made, and then those decisions not being jointly carried out
-inconsistent discipline between homes resulting in confusion for the children, attempts to split the parents, and acting out with the parent with the more permissive parenting style
-stressful transitions between homes resulting in children being exposed to parental conflict and other inappropriate, emotion-driven parental behaviors
The third category of co-parenting challenges revolve around communication. These problems undoubtedly began during the marriage/relationship and played a significant role in it ending. As it continues into the post-separation period, this unhealthy or ineffective communication can be a significant barrier to being able to work together as a co-parenting team.
–ignoring communications from your former partner resulting in growing anger and resentment toward you
–excessive communications from your former partner resulting in you starting to ignore them and ultimately leading to a breakdown in communication
-inability to communicate without it escalating into conflict resulting in either avoidance or constant conflict, and a great deal of stress for both parents
-withholding important information about the children resulting in anger, lack of trust, and possible legal action
Navigating Common Co-Parenting Challenges
Given all these co-parenting challenges, the question “Can co-parenting work?” must be even more concerning. I repeat my earlier response that it is possible with effort, commitment, knowledge, and skills. Your effort and commitment are demonstrated by your taking the time to educate yourself by reading articles like this one. To further advance your knowledge and skills about how to be the best possible co-parent, I will now detail 16 specific steps you can take to address each of the emotional, child-rearing, and communication challenges described above.
- Either on your own or with the help of a therapist, get beyond your anger and explore the more painful feelings that the divorce has caused, such as rejection and betrayal.
- Understand that forgiving is not the same as forgetting and that it is a gift you give yourself, not to the person who hurt you. Work to accept the role you played in your relationship ending so that you are not putting all the blame on your former partner.
- Accept that your past life is over and that the goal is for both of you to move forward in a more positive way, since that is what is best for all of you, including your children.
- Get professional help to deal with significant anger or depression that is interfering with your functioning. It will allow you to be a more present and effective parent and co-parent and help to restore you to place of happiness.
- Work to accept that divorce is not a personal failure and to forgive yourself for mistakes you might have made in your relationship.
- Regain a sense of control in your life in healthy ways (starting an exercise program, eating a healthy diet, going back to school) rather than exerting control in ways that will be self-sabotaging.
- Create a custody and parenting plan based on your children’s particular ages and individual needs, as well as work schedules and other factors that might impact your availability for parenting time.
- Accept the fact that you and your former partner will have different ways of parenting your children while trying to negotiate a compromise middle position that allows you to present a united front for your children.
- Work hard to follow through on all agreed upon plans, schedules, and decisions and engage in good faith in negotiations when you believe something needs to be modified based upon the best interest of your children.
- Engage in a respectful decision-making process which involves listening to and considering both perspectives and weighing options in a child centered manner.
- Accept that you and your former partner will have different ways of disciplining your children (unless they are inappropriate or abusive) and work to find a middle ground that you can both agree to and utilize for the sake of your children.
- Make transitions between your children’s two homes as peaceful as possible. They are already stressful enough without your conflict being added. Avoid challenging conversations or emotion-driven behaviors that will upset your children.
- Establish reasonable expectations regarding frequency and method of communication and stick to that agreement. Do not arbitrarily stop responding to attempts to communicate.
- Do not harass your former partner with constant emails or phone calls. Work to create an agreement regarding the nature of your communication and stick to it.
- Seek the help of a mediator, attorney, parent coordinator, or therapist to help you and your former partner learn how to resolve conflict more effectively.
- Share the types of information with your co-parent in the same way you would want them to share information with you about your children.
You now have a much greater understanding of the common obstacles and challenges faced by co-parents and many of the effective solutions to address them. This information is based on Dr. Ellis’ 30+ years in clinical practice working with children and families navigating their way through their divorce journeys. Dr Ellis created Two Healthy Homes to provide parents with the skills and resources necessary to overcome the challenges of co-parenting and be able to answer a definitive YES to the question of whether co-parenting can work.