Ultimate Guide to Healthy Co-parenting

Children thrive on structure and consistency, so come together as a parenting team. See more parenting pictures.
Children thrive on structure and consistency, so come together as a parenting team. See more parenting pictures.
Peter Dazeley/Photographer's Choice RF/Getty Images

No one ever said that parenting is easy -- even when everyone is nestled happily under one roof. And a separation or divorce can lead to some tough decisions about how to move forward in the child-rearing department. One common compromise is to establish two households where children can be nurtured by each parent separately.

This sounds pretty good in theory, but the reality is single parents are often required to compromise, regroup and rethink their definitions of family in order to develop healthy co-parenting strategies. The process can be complicated and painful when it doesn't work well. But when it does work, healthy co-parenting can be an effective and satisfying way to give children a solid foundation of love, learning, culture and caring from both single parents.


When you throw together two households, differing parenting styles, financial issues and lingering interpersonal hostilities, you end up with the wacky, frustrating and challenging world of co-parenting. Think of it as single parenting with benefits, or single parenting with limitations. Both perspectives will be true at one time or another, but neither is the only truth of what is inevitably a complicated situation that takes planning, finesse, diplomacy and patience. A generous helping of grace, especially under pressure, couldn't hurt either.

All parents want to build healthy home environments to help their children grow into well-adjusted adults. You can view parenting in tandem with an ex as an advantage or a liability. Either way, checking out some single parenting articles, co-parenting resources and single parenting tips wouldn't hurt. The more you understand about your rights and responsibilities, the better off you'll be.



Respecting Your Ex-spouse

With eight children together, Jon and Kate Gosselin should stop the trash talking and start the co-parenting.
With eight children together, Jon and Kate Gosselin should stop the trash talking and start the co-parenting.
William Thomas Cain/Stringer/Getty Images Entertainment

Respecting your ex-spouse may not be the easiest thing you've ever done, but it's necessary to make co-parenting easier on your children. Now that you have a separate household, your relationship with your ex should be about how to raise your children the best way you both can. The focus should be on them, not you. The strategies you develop now are about the welfare of your children, not your lousy marriage or playing the blame game over why it failed. 

To that end, developing a courteous relationship with your ex is one of the most important ways you can make these years productive and nurturing ones for your brood. Look at it this way, other than yourself, your ex is the single most important person in your children's lives. The lessons they learn now about grace, cooperation, compromise and courtesy, they'll carry with them into their own adult relationships. For the most part, they'll be learning those lessons from the two of you.


If you have an issue to discuss with your ex-spouse, make sure to bring it up in private, not in front of your children. Avoid using your children as messengers or as confidants with which to discuss the failings of other caregivers. Cooperate when you can, and deal with conflicts diplomatically. If you're going to squabble about money or anything else, do it in private. The more united you appear in your joint efforts, the more successful they're likely to be.

If the going gets tough, remember that the problems you may encounter single parenting now won't last forever. When your children are older, your co-parenting arrangement will end, and you'll be free to move on to the next chapter in your life. Until then, grit your teeth, keep your own council and smile. Reward yourself every time you think of a disparaging, critical or negative remark in time, but don't say it. Your children are watching. Taking the high road will be hard sometimes, but when did you ever admire someone who didn't?


Co-parenting Strategies

Keep the anger away from your kids.
Keep the anger away from your kids.
David Seed Photography/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

Effective co-parenting requires a plan, sometimes many plans. Co-parenting strategies should be well thought out and agreed upon by both single parents, not just in theory, but in practice, too. They also should be flexible enough to adapt to last minute changes. Where single parenting and co-parenting are concerned, nothing goes according to plan 100 percent of the time.

Come up with ways to address issues like discipline cooperatively. Scheduling visits, handing out punishments and planning events should be strategized behind the scenes, and the results should, ideally, appear seamless when presented to your children.


Avoid wrangling about the details of your arrangement. If you always agreed on everything, you'd probably still be together. Now that you're apart, come together with a more formal attitude and a desire to accomplish a specific set of goals. Single parenting articles and parenting classes will be able to offer sample agendas and single parenting tips that will make it easier to knock out the who, what, when, where and how of your specific circumstances. Getting an idea of the ways other co-parents are successful will help you strategize exchanges and resolve scheduling conflicts.

Plan a call or meeting with your ex, and write out ideas beforehand about how to handle your interaction in the most constructive way. Prepare an agenda and stick to it. Always be willing to compromise. If this is too difficult to do without mediation, get an objective party to help. If warring countries can negotiate treaties, so can you.

There are lots of things to consider, and good communication is important. From details about health issues to coming up with ways to make holidays pleasant for everyone involved, it pays to get everything on the table, sorted and ready to go.


Healthy Co-parenting Guidelines

Shared parenting will reach into many areas of your life, and coming up with healthy co-parenting guidelines is the most effective method for making the enterprise work over the long haul. Once you start to discuss strategy with your ex in a productive way, there are some important topics you need to explore. Although every single parenting and co-parenting experience is unique, there are specific issues that are common to any style of child-rearing.

  • Health - Effective medical management is one area where being able to orchestrate shared living arrangements and useful communication between single parents isn't just good parenting, it's critical to the safety of your children. If you encourage an open exchange of ideas and information via phone, e-mail or in person, you can share intelligence about a child's medical coverage, symptoms, illnesses and medications, as well as strategies about how to handle them. Remember not to put your children in the middle. Share information and exchange medications directly with your ex-spouse.
  • Scheduling - Effective scheduling and responsible conduct relative to the schedule is the backbone of harmonious co-parenting. Say what you're going to do, and follow through. Emergencies happen that force cancellations and delays, but by definition they don't happen often.
  • Finances - If money causes a breakdown in communication, everyone loses. When an exchange of monies is necessary, don't make one of your children the middleman. It may be a sore spot, but details about finances and shared expenses should be resolved before the bills come due by establishing a reasonable arrangement that you both can agree on.
  • Discipline - If you and your ex have radically different parenting styles, exercise a meeting of the minds by using your ability to compromise. Mixed messages aren't going to help your children, and providing consistent discipline is what's really important here. If compromise isn't an option, then discuss the specifics with your children and explain the rules of the road for each household.

Healthy co-parenting guidelines develop and change over time. To see how others are handling the challenge, check out a few single parenting articles with a first-person perspective or join a single parenting group where you can get insight from parents who have experienced what you're going through.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles


  • Bailey, Sandra J. "Co-parenting After Divorce." Montana State University. 12/2001. 2/24/10.http://msuextension.org/publications/HomeHealthandFamily/MT200111HR.pdf
  • Foust, Linda. "The Single Parents Almanac." Prima Publishing 1996.
  • Kemp, Gina M.A.and Jeanne Segal, Ph.D. "Stepparenting and Blended Family Advice." HelpGuide.org. 3/09. 2/22/10.http://www.helpguide.org/mental/blended_families_stepfamilies.htm
  • Margulies, Sam "Co-Parenting After Divorce." Psychology Today. 3/18/09. 2/22/10.http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/divorce-grownups/200903/co-parenting-after-divorce
  • Noel, Brook and Art Klein. "The Single Parent Resource." Champion Press. 1998.
  • North Dakota State University. "Co-parenting Through Separation and Divorce." 10/96. 2/25/10.http://www.ag.ndsu.edu/pubs/yf/famsci/fs565w.htm
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  • Stahl, Philip M. PhD. "Parenting After Divorce." Undated. 2/22/10.http://www.parentingafterdivorce.com/books/parallel.html