An Expert’s Guide To Co-Parenting Amicably

There are many reasons why marriages or long-term relationships come to an end – but if you have children together, a break-up is inevitably a lot more complicated. These days, talk of healthy co-parenting strategies is everywhere – but it can be difficult to know how to implement them successfully with someone you’re no longer involved with romantically. Here, Antonia Felix, a partner in the family team at legal firm Mishcon de Reya, offers her advice by answering some key questions.

What is co-parenting?

Co-parenting is about co-operative parenting where parents of a child who are no longer married, cohabiting or in a romantic relationship work together to make key decisions about the child's welfare, as well as being a united front so the child feels supported. The aim is to ensure children know they are loved by both parents and to provide stability while they grow up. Co-parenting is different from single or solo parenting, where one parent is completely out of the picture. 

Is co-parenting still a relevant concept if your child has limited contact with their other parent?

You can still parent your child successfully, even if you don’t see them for an equal period of time as the other parent. Day to day responsibility of a child or decisions about them are usually dealt with by the parent the child lives with (albeit, if you are seeing your child every day then you possibly feel more involved). In practice it is about (a) communicating effectively for the benefit of the child(ren) and keeping the other parent informed about important issues in the child's life (education, medical issues or even a small issue at school for example), (b) seeking to provide consistent parenting in both homes, (c) helping each other in the parenting role and (d) respecting the other parent's role in the child's life regardless of the division of time which is, in almost all cases, in the best interest of the child. 

What common mistakes do people make when it comes to co-parenting?

Parenting styles can differ, even when couples are together, however parents often lose sight of this after separation and either consider their own style to be the "right" way or the other parent's style to amount to deliberate provocation or neglect. It can be hard to separate parenting decisions from feelings about the relationship with the other parent. In order to co-parent both parents need to be prepared to compromise and where possible put aside their feelings towards each other. Children's needs change as they get older, and co-parents need to be incredibly flexible as this happens which can be hard if you do not live with the other parent. 

How do you set your potential anger or general emotions aside for the children’s sake?

Family separation is difficult for everyone involved and it is important to look after yourself so that you have the strength to be the best parent you can be. If you feel supported, then you will be in a better position to support your child through the process and to help them adjust. There will inevitably, at varying stages of the process, be mixed emotions including some anger or hurt. Seeking therapeutic help is important where possible especially so that as a parent you are better able to cope and understand your own reactions. 

Asking for help if you can’t reach an agreement between yourselves, is a good option. Parents may wish to consider a co-parent workshop or a coaching course. These courses provide tools and techniques that help co-parents communicate and assist a healthy functioning relationship. There are also parenting specialists who can work with the parents and the child(ren) (where appropriate) who will help you address any issues which have arisen and find creative, workable ways to solve them. There is no one size fits all and it may be that at various stages, parents will need to go back to an expert for further input. 

Parenting styles can differ, even when couples are together, however parents often lose sight of this after separation and either consider their own style to be the "right" way.

How should you talk to your ex-partner about co-parenting? 

Try not to talk about anything important or difficult in front of the children and arrange a separate time. Where possible, any conflict should be removed from the children. If you’re worried about what to say, writing notes to have with you can help or you can send an email first to discuss in person. There are some good parenting platforms which can assist communication such as Our Family Wizard. They can help to reduce conflict and encourage productive conversations. 

Try not to use combative language and stay focused on the children rather than making it personal. In difficult situations, try to see the situation from both sides before communicating. If the communication is about day-to-day arrangements, you can have a dedicated email address you use or agree to use WhatsApp – just be mindful that receiving lots of messages can make the other parent feel stressed if the tone is not right. With written communications, it can be easy for the other person to misinterpret what you mean. This can be particularly so if there is an acrimonious relationship between the parents. Where possible, try to interpret the other parent's messages as being well intentioned.

Finally, give the other parent space to think about things instead of demanding an immediate decision over the phone or face to face. If you get angry, the other parent may simply make a decision to have the matter over with, possibly out of spite, rather than prioritising the most important thing – the best interests of the child. 

Any tips for approaching big decisions – be they financial or otherwise – as a team?

In addition to the above, try to give the other parent notice that you want to talk and the topic so they can feel prepared and focus on the important issues for each of you when you meet. Consider getting help from a counsellor/therapist/coach to support you to have your conversations and agree some ground rules. 

If an agreement cannot be reached directly, you can also consider mediation (unless there is high conflict or domestic abuse in which case it may not be appropriate). Mediators are trained professionals who will act as an independent guide in having discussions surrounding the resolution of the issues. Child inclusive mediation is also an option. 

Other options include arbitration (a direct alternative to Court which is more flexible and can be quicker and less formal). While financial issues are important, they should not be mixed with arrangements for the children and often parents can become entrenched in conversations regarding money, which affect their ability to agree important parenting decisions. It is therefore important to keep them separate if you can. 

Is it worth setting ground rules you both agree on & how should you go about this?

Following a separation, each parent will be at different stages of their journey in terms of adjusting to the new regime. It is therefore helpful to have some general rules and principles in place so that both parents feel comfortable that the other parent is including them, and the child(ren) can feel supported from both sides. 

Parents may find it helpful to make a written record of any agreement reached in a "parenting plan". It can be a simple document, or you can include more detail. You can prepare the agreement together, either on your own or with the help of a third party (mediator) or a parenting specialist. CAFCASS have a useful template which can be found here. The agreement covers a variety of issues, and it makes both parties' expectations clear.

If there is no agreement between the parents despite best efforts, then the Court can make an Order which will be binding on both parties and enforceable.

What happens if the other person ignores some of your agreed rules?

While you can hope to agree on the main aspects of co-parenting, the focus must always be on what is best for the child(ren). If there is a disagreement, discussing it and understanding the reasons why there is a particular issue may help. You can also consider seeking advice from a parenting specialist or asking for input from a child specialist who will be able to help you understand what is best for the child, which may in turn help solve the issues. 

The last resort is always Court, but if one parent believes that the other parent is not acting in the child's best interests in their decisions, an application can be made to the Court for a Judge to decide on arrangements for the child but also in respect of specific issues including education, holidays, division of time, location and religion. 

What about if an ex-spouse’s new partner’s approach is different to yours?

Managing the introduction of a new partner needs to be handled in a sensitive way. Hopefully, if both parents have the best interests of the child as a priority it can be discussed and agreed in advance. Often the other parent wants to meet the new partner so that they know who will be spending time with their child. This can help clear the air and make everyone more comfortable. 

If the new partner gets overly involved in the child's upbringing or has, in the other parent's view, a negative impact on the child's wellbeing, the parents should attempt to discuss matters between them and hopefully reduce the conflict. However, unless the new partner is a risk to the child, it is very difficult to prevent the introduction or involvement of a new partner. New partners or stepparents can also attend mediation, therapy or coaching with the co-parents if necessary. 

In your view, what are three solid ways to ensure co-parenting works for everyone?

There will inevitably be bumps along the co-parenting road and it won’t always work for everyone, but it can be a positive experience if the ultimate aim of the parents is to raise a healthy, loving and stable child. My three top tips are:

  1. Try not to talk negatively about the other parent to the child. Even if there is a disagreement, your child will benefit from seeing there is a united front and for any conflict to be addressed in an adult way. 

  2. Put your child's needs first even when it feels very difficult. Regardless of your feelings towards the other parent, you both have a responsibility to the child.

  3. Self-care – look after yourself following a separation as it is a challenging time. You need to remind yourself you are important in your child's life even though the family dynamic has changed.

Are there specific co-parenting rules that can be set in stone by the Court?

If there is no agreement between the parents despite best efforts (or if the parties are so entrenched they cannot even try to agree) then the Court can make an Order which will be binding on both parties and enforceable. However, having a third party who does not know your child or your family making a decision about your child's life is rarely preferable to an agreement reached between the parents themselves. 

Further, day-to-day parenting issues are not usually decided by the court, for example rules around bedtime and routines, what children should wear, which third parties should provide care for the children and so on. However, it is often these issues which cause conflict, and it therefore works in your interests if you can co-parent effectively. 

Any final words of advice?

Nothing has to be set in stone when it comes to your child. Small, positive steps, can lead to a better co-parenting relationship but it is likely to require constant effort on both sides. Children learn so much from seeing the way their parents handle conflict so showing them that you can self-reflect and adapt will benefit them for their adult life. 

Co-parents should try to keep their conversations child focused and away from issues surrounding their previous relationship. They should keep their conversations on track and focused on parenting. Finally, I would always suggest asking for help from friends, family members or an expert if you cannot agree as co-parents. Having independent input may be beneficial and help you see a way forward. 

 

Antonia Felix is a partner in the family team at Mishcon de Reya LLP. 

 

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