What Is Co-Parenting? The Pros And Cons To Consider

Medically reviewed by Julie Dodson
Updated February 20, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content Warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include abuse which could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is experiencing abuse, contact the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Support is available 24/7. Please also see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

The options for parenting children after divorce or separation have expanded in recent decades. While many parents have had to fight for custody over their children, a new way of raising children after separation has gained popularity among families: co-parenting. Co-parenting is an alternative to parallel parenting, in which parents disengage with each other after separating. In co-parenting, the parents maintain open communication as they seek to establish a new home life for their children. 

When done well, co-parenting can offer many advantages for the children involved. This style of parenting, however, may not be right for all families. This article will cover the advantages and challenges of co-parenting to help you decide whether co-parenting could work for your family. 

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Could co-parenting work for your family?

What is co-parenting?

Co-parenting refers to the process of divorced or separated parents continuing to raise their kid(s) together even after they have separated as a couple. Rather than two parents taking each other to court to gain custody of their children, parents continue to work together in deciding what is best for their children. This can include their child having equal time with each parent or for each parent to have equal rights in decision-making, even if their child is at the other parent’s house.

In contrast to co-parenting, many separated parents decide on a parallel parenting plan, in which the parents interact as little as possible with each other but maintain relationships with their children. Parallel parenting may be necessary if conflicts or animosity between the parents are too great for co-parenting to be successful.

Co-parenting plans are unique to each family. In some cases, parents live together and have a high degree of communication about parenting styles, whereas others have written out rules but less face-to-face contact. They are a collaborative approach to finding what works best for your family as you move forward after divorce.

What are the pros of co-parenting?

One of the clearest pros of co-parenting is that it can be beneficial to the children involved. Working together to make life post-divorce as normal and easy for the child as possible is likely to help unify the parents and kids. For example, ex-partners may work together to create a set of rules and a discipline plan that is followed at both your houses. The consistency of parenting styles at both houses can help prevent further disruption to the child’s life. Parents who coordinate their parenting styles can present a united front for the family unit, even though they are now divorced. This joint interaction can create a stable environment to help child adjustment to the divorce. 

Some co-parents go a step further in creating consistency for their child by creating a “bird-nesting” plan for their families. Bird-nesting is when the children continue to live in the family home, and the parents take turns rotating who is at the house with the children. Instead of a child having to navigate two households, the parents do the traveling. Some parents find that this plan is fairer to the child since the divorce was not their cause or choosing. In essence, this plan places a larger inconvenience on the parents instead of the children.

Co-parenting plans can be beneficial to everyone involved because they work to diffuse tension after a divorce, prioritizing that the children grow and develop in a more stable environment.

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What are the cons of co-parenting?

Although co-parenting can have many benefits and advantages, it can be important to consider its cons as well. Some of the potential downsides that might make co-parenting challenging or unfeasible include: 

You have to set aside your feelings

When you’re co-parenting with your ex, you must learn to set aside or control the negative feelings that you may have toward them, especially in front of your children. You’ll likely need to set aside your personal conflict with your former spouse in order to work together as a team while raising your children. 

It is not possible or healthy for everyone

Co-parenting may not be a feasible option for all parents after divorce. For example, co-parenting with an ex who was abusive in any way can prolong an unhealthy situation for you and your children. If you continue to feel disrespected or unsafe around your ex, this can negatively affect your children as well. The emotional well-being and safety of you and your child must come first. In such cases, an individual parenting plan may be more appropriate.

If you are facing or witnessing abuse of any kind, the National Domestic Violence Hotline is available. Call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or Text "START" to 88788. You can also use the online chat.

Tips for successful co-parenting

If you want to move forward with co-parenting, the following tips can help you and your ex create a successful plan.

1.  Prioritize healing from your relationship

It’s common to feel hurt over a broken relationship or dissolved marriage. Even if you choose to co-parent, working together with your ex can still be incredibly challenging. It can be helpful to allow yourself time and space to heal and grieve. Processing your emotions with a therapist can be one way to prioritize your well-being. A therapist can help you make peace with the past and cope with your feelings more effectively. 

2.  Have a routine but be flexible

During and after a divorce, it is likely that your children’s normal routines will be disrupted. It can be helpful to work with your ex and children to create a new routine that everyone can follow and count on. This could include establishing a common calendar, so the kids know which parent they’re spending time with on what day, or even creating set times that your whole family spends together. 

Being flexible can be important too. There may be times when it makes more sense for your ex to provide child care for the kids during your designated days with them. For example, your ex may have a family reunion that falls on a weekend when you were supposed to have your kids. If you don’t already have major plans with your child, try to be flexible with your ex in allowing them to take care of the child for the day. Remember, co-parenting requires working to do what is in the best interest of your child even if it can sometimes mean not getting your way.

3.  Keep communication with your ex open

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Could co-parenting work for your family?

You may wish to end all communication with your ex after a divorce, but co-parenting requires maintaining the lines of communication open between you and your ex. This does not mean that the two of you need to be close friends or in constant communication. However, effective communication does mean being consistent at answering their calls and responding to their text messages.

It can help to establish boundaries about when you’re available to communicate or create a weekly schedule for when to communicate about your children. (Emergencies, of course, would be exceptions.) Creating a communication plan with your co-parent can include establishing regular times to communicate, how you wish to communicate (phone, email, text, etc.), and what you’ll need to talk about regularly, such as your children’s schedules, school events, and doctor’s visits.

You might also talk with your co-parent about how you’ll handle conflict when it arises. Having a consensus about how you will resolve conflicts can help you handle them without disrupting your children’s lives. As in any team effort, respectful communication can be an important part of successful co-parenting. 

4.  Set boundaries with your ex

It can be essential to set boundaries in any type of relationship. Co-parenting with your ex requires that you maintain some kind of relationship with them. Doing so can blur some of the lines that would otherwise exist if you weren’t co-parenting. For example, when you start dating again, your ex may feel like they can weigh in on who you’re dating because that person may spend time with your children. You may prefer to set a boundary with your ex about commenting on your dating life. Remember that respecting the boundaries that your ex establishes for their life can also be essential. 

5.  Don’t speak negatively about your ex in front of your kids

This is a tip for any divorced couple, whether you’re parenting together or not. Do your best to avoid talking negatively about your ex in front of your children. While you may continue to have unresolved issues with your ex, they do not need to be passed on to your children. Your children can benefit from having positive relationships with both of you. If you frequently speak negatively about your ex, you may find that your children refrain from telling you about what they did while staying with their other parent. This may cause an emotional distance between you and your children. 

6.  Remember who the parent is

Just because you and your ex are working together to make things easier on your children does not mean that the kids are in control. While it can be important to allow your children to weigh in on some decisions, you and your ex are still their parents. There are parenting decisions that the two of you will need to make together that your children don’t need to be included in.

7.  Find a support system

Having a support system to turn to can help you manage the challenges inherent to parenting, especially post-separation. A support system of trusted friends and family can help encourage, motivate, and comfort you as you transition from your past relationship into co-parenting.

A support system could also include a support group for newly divorced and separated parents. Talking with others who are going through similar situations can help grant you new perspectives and a sense of community. They may be able to provide you with insight into how they have formed healthy co-parenting relationships. 

Therapeutic guidance for parents post-divorce

As you adjust to life after a breakup, you may find that therapy can offer a source of support. A therapist can help you move forward into becoming a positive influence as both a person and parent in your children’s lives. If you’re struggling with the demands of your new parenting schedule, it may be helpful to find an online therapist, like those at BetterHelp, instead of meeting in-person. Parenting tends to be a full-time job, which can make attending in-person therapy sessions difficult. Online therapy allows you to meet with a therapist from anywhere you have an internet connection and a smart device. 

Research has shown that online therapy can be just as effective as in-person therapy in addressing a number of mental health concerns. In a 2019 study of an eight-session online mindful parenting intervention, researchers found that mothers with high parental stress showed compelling improvements in self-compassion and a reduction in symptoms of anxiety and depression. The program included meditations, visualization techniques, and writing exercises. Researchers noted that the intervention appeared to be efficacious in improving mothers’ mental health and could be applied to other online therapy programs.

Takeaway

Co-parenting may be a new concept to some parents, especially those coping with the aftermath of a breakup or divorce. While co-parenting isn’t for everyone, it can be a valuable option for some families. Choosing to co-parent often means setting your own feelings to the side for the sake of your children. It can also involve maintaining strong and appropriate boundaries with your ex. For parents navigating their parenting plan post-separation, it can be helpful to speak with a therapist for guidance and encouragement. Online therapy platforms like BetterHelp can make therapy more convenient while you maintain a busy parenting schedule.

Explore the complexities of parenting in therapy

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