Parenting is hard enough, no matter which prefix is attached to the word. Every family is different, with challenges and gifts that are unique to them. Co-parenting is an approach to caretaking that puts the child first and spreads responsibility equally across all parents. For families living apart, parents that are in conflict, or families in any good or bad circumstances, employing the tenets of co-parenting will protect the mental and physical health of the child.
We enlisted the help of Travis Chenoweth and Marcia Giannotti, behavioral health case managers at Banner Behavioral Health Hospital to discuss a few common challenges addressed by co-parenting.
Dealing with gossip
Unfortunately, it’s common for parents, separated or not, to overshare or gossip about each other with their children. “Negative comments can also come from grandparents or other caretakers,” said Giannotti. “Children internalize these sorts of comments and feel pressure to pick a side.” Co-parenting encourages parents to put the child’s needs ahead of their own.
Co-parents should agree to avoid gossiping or venting about each other to their kids. When conflicts arise or if other relatives insist on pushing their feelings on the children, conversations to resolve the issues should be kept between adults.
Parents in distress
When challenges arise, adults are entitled to their feelings just like anyone else. When it’s age-appropriate, it’s ok to speak honestly with your children about hardships. But Chenoweth warned against involving your child in anxiety for which they might feel responsible. “Children are extremely perceptive and will blame themselves when given the chance.”
Co-parents will do everything they can to ensure that their child doesn’t feel guilty about their struggling relationship or resulting circumstances. When a co-parent is struggling or just needs a moment to gather themselves, they shouldn’t be afraid to enlist help from grandparents, family, friends, and organizations.
When parents don’t get along, kids can feel obliged to be the glue that holds the group together. This creates enormous stress for the child who is constantly intervening to keep the peace. Giannotti commented that, “Very often, the child comes to view themselves as a ‘problem’ in a failed relationship. They see themselves as the reason parents who do not care for each other are forced to interact on a regular basis.”
Successful co-parents will not rely on their children to solve their problems for them. Parents who put their child’s needs first will find solutions directly with other adults.
Manipulation can pop up on either side of the child-parent relationship. Giannotti commented, “Children sensing their parent’s guilt will be tempted to manipulate the guilt for increased privileges and material things.”
Although spoiling a child may provide temporary relief to the parent, Giannotti continued to explain that successful co-parents will respond with loving but steadfast rules that are maintained by both parents.
Watching a child struggle can be very difficult. Especially when parents feel guilty about familial circumstances, it can be easy to overcompensate by removing all obstacles in a child’s path. While it is a parent’s job to provide for and protect their child, Giannotti noted that “fighting all of their battles for them will result in a low tolerance for frustration and a sense of entitlement. As they grow up, these young adults will not have learned the skills they need to cope with life’s natural obstacles.”
Finding the right balance can be very difficult. Chenoweth advised co-parents to listen to their children express frustration and show genuine empathy. A child who feels validated and supported will feel empowered to find their own solutions – a skill that will serve them for the rest of their life.
Keeping your child safe
Effective co-parenting is a strong defense against mental illness and addiction. When a child feels neglected or unwanted, they seek approval from other people or turn to substances. Similarly, when parents are wrapped up in a disagreement, they may miss the signs that their child is struggling with bullying, in schoolwork, or in any other aspect of their development. Giannotti expressed the importance of time and regular interactions. “Children who know parents really enjoy being with them do much better in life and become healthier adults. Have meals together, prepare food at home when possible, and monitor food habits to avoid ingredients which lead to hyperactivity, lethargic behavior and inflammation.”
Becoming a better co-parent
Healthy co-parenting provides stability to children in the face of confusion and strong emotions. While the term is used most often in separated homes, the philosophies of co-parenting are vital for any homelife scenario. Successfully co-parenting helps to model communication skills and provides an example for a healthy relationship.
Becoming a better co-parent isn’t something that happens overnight. Chenoweth and Giannotti both emphasized education as an important step in developing co-parenting skills. Many well-reviewed books exist on the topic and will offer expert insight and support. Additionally, Chenoweth mentioned marriage and family therapy, support groups and Arizona’s 2-1-1 services for families in need of support.
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