“Say less,” commanded our couples therapist.
“Ok,” I said, “but I just wanted to explain why Wednesday would be better for our son’s doctor’s appointment than Thursday.”
“Nope — not necessary,” the therapist replied. “Say less. Imagine he’s the plumber — not someone with whom you’re emotionally intertwined. Just make the request, with nothing around it.”
Learning Co-Parenting Strategies
My husband of 10 years and I were in month nine of counseling with this particular therapist, Diana. She was tough but highly helpful. We had recently transitioned from the process of deciding to get a divorce, to launching into the logistics of moving out and co-parenting. Holy wow — I did not realize how entangled our emotions, lives, and communication patterns were until we started to pull them apart!
What follows is a set of highly effective co-parenting guidelines that Diana taught us. I’m sharing them here (with real-life examples from our family) in the hopes of assisting other couples going through this shift from married couple to co-parents. Now, in terms of fit, this article is for individuals who have a fairly solid working relationship to start with. Of course, if there are safety issues, please seek professional and legal supports instead of this list.
As context, our children are 6 and 9 years old, and thank goodness, these tips appear to be at least somewhat working, because in four recent teacher conferences, the educators have shared that our kids are seeming shockingly… okay, despite the changes to our family structure over the past year! Though I know this is a lifelong journey (and heaven knows I don’t always follow these guidelines perfectly), I’m very hopeful about the power of Diana’s suggestions. Let’s see the tips now.
1. Benefitting the kids drives everything.
I’m going to start with the two most classic and well-known guidelines for co-parenting first, then get into the surprising and complex ones. Why? Because this first rule — that whatever is best for the kids needs to take precedence over any adult issues — is obvious, impactful… and all-too-often often ignored. When in doubt, come back to this one.
An example of this comes in the elaborate method Diana had us do for how to tell the kids about our divorce. It required that we live under the same roof for a longer period of time than was ideal for our adult tensions — but it unequivocally benefitted the kids in creating a smooth transition to two homes.
2. Speak positively of your co-parent in front of your kids.
As tempting as it is when you’re frustrated, never insult your co-parent in front of your kids, because it’s mentally and emotionally awful for children to be caught in the middle. It’s also not useful! If there’s a legitimate concern with something your co-parent is doing and you want behavior to change, talking to that adult directly (with the wellbeing of the kids — Rule #1 — at the center of the conversation) is best. If that doesn’t work, bringing in a couples therapist or mediator, or other helpful third party.
To piggy-back on my “What to say about divorce” article, I would extend the, “Speak positively about your co-parent” rule to also say, “Speak positively about the separation itself.” Let me be clear: it IS essential to affirm any sadness or shock your kids are feeling, and not negate them with toxic positivity. However, the reality is that most divorces happen for good reasons, and thus modeling appreciation for the healthy and happy aspects of reconfiguring family structures can go a long way in fostering wellbeing for all.
3. Set up and support simple, predictable routines.
It’s been proven over and over again during my 18 years as a public school teacher and 9 years (thus far) as a parent: Predictable routines are the foundation of calm emotions, positive mental health, and time-saving efficiency. We humans are best able to function when provided with clear knowledge of what is going to happen next — both in the short term, and the long term.
The months when our family was still figuring out our custody schedule and divorce logistics were insanely stressful. Who’s going where, when? Which days are bus transport from school, and which were walking? What needs to be packed? Now that we finally have it worked out, the sense of relaxation is palpable! Routine frees up brain space for all the other — much more important — aspects of life.
4. Craft a custody schedule that works for YOUR family.
Speaking of custody schedules, it is vital that you discuss and decide a plan that works for YOUR family — not what others think makes sense. For example, many families alternate by full weeks (ex: Week 1 with Parent 1 and Week 2 with Parent 2), but because of all our personalities and preferences, it works much better for our family to alternate by day (ex: Monday with me, Tuesday with my co-parent, Wednesday back with me, etc.). Because most of the hand-offs are via school (ex: I drop off, and he picks up), it’s relatively seamless.
Now, several people have told us that this day-versus-week schedule makes no sense — but we know our kids better than random acquaintances, and are confident in that knowledge. Further, we have written in our Separation Agreement to assess, and if need be, alter, structures and plans during check-ins twice a year, spaced out every 6 months. It’s likely this pattern will shift as the kids get older — but for now, it’s a fit.
5. Stock each house to diminish deprivation feelings.
Though your two households will obviously have different items, it’s a worthwhile investment to work collaboratively with your kids to ascertain: Which items would they like duplicates or equivalents of in each house, so there are no feelings of deprivation, and so there is coziness all around? For example, for kids the age of ours, stuffed animals have been central. We now have the ideal balance of 3 special stuffies in each abode, but it took some negotiation — and the purchase of two new ones.
In terms of building “equivalent” excitement and comfort, this is where we can tap into the second part of Rule #2: “Speak positively of the separation itself.” If each house has different elements that would not be possible under a single roof, this helps build the kids’ appreciation of the benefits of multiple abodes. For example, my co-parent now has a giant worm farm and multiple Venus flytrap plants (!!!) in his home. These perks would not be possible under one roof because… mama does not like worms and carnivorous plants so much. But our kids now see this as a benefit of spreading out two different personalities into more space!
6. Refer to houses by street names.
Rather than calling them “Mom’s house” and “Dad’s house” (though that is the title of a helpful divorce book), I’d recommend referring to the homes the majority of the time by the street name. For example, say to the kids: “You’ll be at Zebra Street tomorrow as usual, and back here at Brick Lane the day after.” We’ve found this calming in emphasizing the unity of the family across distance, versus divisions. Shout-out to my mother-in-law for this suggestion!
7. Have a shared Google Calendar for kid stuff.
It took us a while to figure out the settings, but there’s a way to set up a shared-admin Google Calendar for anything pertaining to our kids, so it shows up in each of your regular calendars in a different color, and can send alerts for changes if need be. This has saved us so much stress in terms of texting about changes and sending calendar invites that didn’t always go through! It also creates a sense of joint ownership over the kids’ schedules.
For larger logistical negotiations (like the long and complicated summer plan), we create a shared Google Document with a table that shows all the days, and sketch in a draft of each week, which we then discuss by email, text, and phone, before solidifying and transferring to the Google Calendar.
7. Say less. Imagine the plumber.
In the first months after marriage separation, the reflex is still there to explain everything to your co-parent, and have them hear your feelings and preferences in depth. However, as Diana put it, “Your plumber wouldn’t need to know all that, would they?”
Keep communications extremely short and to-the-point — avoiding emotional aspects. Go back to rule #1: logistics to best serve the kids are the main thing that’s needed. For the most part, your reasons and moods are not. Sure, if you make a request and it’s declined, you can ask if your co-parent would be open to hearing your reasoning and reconsider, but a surprising amount of times, requests are granted with no reasoning needed — just a one-sentence question.
A book that we found very helpful for how to phrase direct, positive requests and communication is (affiliate link), “The Power of Two Workbook.” Though it’s ostensibly for married couples, I’ve used it to great effect with every relationship in my life.
7a. Request with, “Would you be willing to?”
Diana gave many gifts, but teaching us the phrase, “Would you be willing to ____?” to make requests is shockingly high on her list of contributions. Before learning this sentence starter, I would fumble with requests to my co-parent, rambling off vague and frankly triggering utterances like, “If you have time, it would be really great if…” or, “No pressure, but if you want, could you maybe… ?”
These phrases did not go over well, for reasons “The Power of Two Workbook” mentioned above explains. In contrast, using the simple word “willing” distills a request down to its essence, and works fabulously.
8. Use email instead of text most of the time.
This is where things get surprising and complicated. When Diana first coached us to start moving bigger conversations to email instead of text, we both were aghast. “What is this, a job?” we asked, incredulous. It seemed so formal, awkward, and time-consuming. However — time proved Diana right! And yes — co-parenting is like a job, and that’s not a bad thing.
By shifting bigger discussions to email, it forces extra time to compose the message and response — time which really doesn’t exist in text etiquette. It also adds a level of formality and professionalism reflexively, since text is the medium used more for buddies, while email is for more career contexts.
Important note: Text is still fine for time-sensitive items (including a request to please check the email I sent over 24 hours ago because it’s becoming time-sensitive). That said, I realized as the months went on that many of the items I THOUGHT were time-sensitive and needed to be texted… actually weren’t, and didn’t. And ohh, how the fights started diminishing when our phones weren’t pinging with immediate retorts every two minutes!
8a. For email discussions, have ONE topic per email.
I was so very guilty of sending the 10-part email with ten different major topics to discuss with my co-parent! Diana pointed out, however, that that becomes confusing and overwhelming. Though it seems counter-intuitive, it’s actually better to send ten different short emails that can be addressed and answered one by one. Put the topic clearly in the subject line for ease of organization for both parties.
9. Email a weekly summary of kid updates.
This scheduled email summary about the kids is the jewel in the crown of Diana’s advice — but it’s an adjustment to accept. When Diana first brought the concept to us, we balked immediately. “There’s no way we’ll have time for weekly emails! What a huge burden!” we griped… but then we tried it, and realized (do you see a theme here?) that Diana was again completely correct.
Here’s how it works: Every time you hand off the kids to the co-parent (ideally once a week at the very longest), that same day, you email a categorized summary of kid updates. For example:
D and J both showered Thursday, and I clipped J’s nails.
D said Frank has become a really good friend, and he’s hoping to have a play date soon. Would you be willing to reach out to Frank’s father, since you know him better?
J recounted a story about how Maria got upset with her during art class because J took her pencils. We discussed how sharing is important, but it’s also important to honor people’s boundaries and not force them to share if they don’t want to. We brainstormed ideas about other ways to get pencil access.
D mentioned they are studying neurodiversity in school, and that he’s interested in learning more about dyslexia. J was frustrated about her homework on Tuesday, but we took a break and then she was able to finish it once calmer.
We’ve now gotten into the groove of sending these emails twice or sometimes three times a week (since we alternate days with the children), and the effect is that the kids really feel like their parents are in communication, and are on the same team. For example, if my co-parent can reference, “Oh, J, I heard something happened with Maria during art class?” this helps bring closeness to the family as a whole, because J doesn’t have to repeat the whole story again from scratch; she can just dive right into discussing it with her father.
These emails take about five minutes for me to write at this point (which I usually do via my phone, while eating or cleaning up), and whenever I have a grumble about doing them, it all goes right back to Rule #1: They’re what’s best for the kids, so that 5 minutes is well worth it.
10. Change as little as possible for the kids.
The next two tips are closely intertwined. Marriage separation is such a big upheaval for children that it’s ideal to work together so that as few other things as possible change in their lives. Any changes to schooling, activities, and other logistics would, at best, come gradually, later down the line. Give them time to process and reset!
11. Try to live nearby.
In order for as little to shift as possible (besides the marriage separation, and related move from one house to two), it is highly recommended for both co-parents to live within a distance from each other that the children could easily walk, bike, or take public transport between, once they’re old enough. Not only does this proximity assist co-parenting transport logistics, but it also is central in empowering children with a sense of agency.
Much gratitude to the book (affiliate link) Helping Children Cope with Divorce for the encouragement on this tip, because it’s made a HUGE positive difference for our family. (We are 1.5 miles apart, with an easy bus route between.) Bonus points that the new second apartment is conveniently even closer to the kids’ school and friends!
12. Simplify shared finances.
As I detailed in my divorce and credit cards debacle, separating from marriage produces numerous financial headaches. The best advice our lawyers gave us on this is to disentangle as many financial ties as possible, and create a simple, streamlined system.
During marriage, we used to use a giant shared spreadsheet, plus multiple shared cards — but we’ve since closed down that spreadsheet, and all the joint accounts but one, and have transitioned to the Splitwise app for tracking shared expenses and fairly settling up each month. This is the financial equivalent of Diana’s, “Say less.” The less entangled you can be, emotionally, financially, and mentally, the more even-keeled and kid-centered your co-parenting can become.
Co-Parenting Strategies, in Sum
I hope this list of co-parenting strategies for supporting kids after divorce has been useful! Now I’m curious to hear from you: Which of these strategies most stands out to you? What questions do you have? Have you tried any versions of these, yourself (including as a child on the receiving end, and including what it feels like to NOT have these strategies in place)? Do share!
The author, Lillie Marshall, is a 6-foot-tall National Board Certified Teacher of English, fitness fan, and mother of two who has been a public school educator since 2003. She launched Around the World “L” Travel and Life Blog in 2009, and over 4.2 million readers have now visited this site. Lillie also runs TeachingTraveling.com and DrawingsOf.com. Subscribe to her monthly newsletter, and follow @WorldLillie on social media!