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Separation and Shared Parenting

Updated: Jan 10, 2022

I have spent some time cultivating my thoughts and curating the thoughts of experts to provide a resource to pick and choose from as you navigate this transition over the next weeks, months and years. Your needs will change, and my hope is some of this information will prove useful when you need it.

Endings are as important as beginnings. And the ending of a marriage with children is the beginning of a new chapter of parenting. Take the best from the ashes to build something rich and meaningful. The key to a good co-parenting plan is good communication. You need to be able to discuss issues related to your kids, even when you disagree, and have a method to resolve the disagreement that doesn’t drag your kids into the middle of your conflict, your bad habits, your broken marriage and your healing heart. Most parents struggle with co-parenting. Their different parenting styles become amplified and they double-down on an inability to compromise. That's okay. There is a name from what that becomes. Parallel parenting. Parallel parenting is an arrangement in which separated parents are able to co-parent by means of disengaging from each other, and having limited direct contact. While not necessarily a preferred method for co-parenting, it can be a necessary step in establishing and maintaining civility between parents who struggle with high conflict or different ideas about raising the kids. Excerpts below from Communication Email and text message are viable (think, 'just the facts, ma'am") ways to communicate between parents who are separated or divorced (as are Cozi and Google Calendar). These technologies work if expectations for response time and tone are set in advance and respected. But if you are not getting replies in an appropriate time frame, or if agreement cannot be achieved after back and forth by email, aside from a mediator or a conversation with a judge, there are a few co-parenting apps out there that may make communication and scheduling simpler (with less opportunity for commentary).

  • Our Family Wizard.

  • Coparently.

  • 2Houses.

Whatever the vehicle you choose to communicate, you maintain responsibility to drive with caution and observe the traffic signs. How do you do that?

Read the excerpt from Therapist Aid, below.

Do you ever find yourself listening to someone, but focusing more on a killer response? Maybe they're telling you about what they packed in the kids' backpacks, when you're thinking: "I can't wait for them to shut up so I can tell them I need to change our visitation schedule for next week...."

Or maybe you have the opposite problem, offering no feedback and just waiting for them to stop talking so you can move on with life.

Most of us are guilty of these mistakes. In fact, these communication errors are such a normal part of life, that most of us don't even notice when we're guilty of them. However, the consequences of poor communication can be greater when you have kids in common and little time an opportunity to confirm expectations between parents. Feeling unheard can lead to confusion, frustration and double-down on resentment.

Instead, notice common errors, and learn techniques to better understand and be understood. Co-parenting necessitates clearer communication because you don't have the opportunity to check in often for accuracy. Even if you aren't having issues related to co-parenting, yet, learning to communicate effectively can prevent some of the common pitfalls that will inevitably come.

I don't want to mislead. Communication isn't a relational panacea. Sometimes, the best communication will end with the acknowledgement: "We disagree." I mean, there are reasons you aren't together. And that's OK ‐ it's far better than the alternative: "I'm right, and you're an idiot."

With that disclaimer, let's get started. This guide will be organized into several techniques that will help you listen better to feel seen and heard, provided that you both "buy in" to the work. These techniques will help you work toward the ultimate goal of communicating in an open, honest, and fair manner to effectively parent. You will probably start by using these skills in a more formal manner, but with enough practice, they'll become a natural part of how you communicate. Passive, aggressive, and assertive communication refers to three styles of interaction. Everyone has the capability to use all three styles, and everyone uses them all at least occasionally. For example, someone might act passively with their boss, and assertively with their ex.

You can probably picture examples of each communication style just based off of their names. During passive communication, you put the needs and desires of others first while neglecting yourself. Aggressive communication is just the opposite: You concern yourself only with your own needs at the detriment of others. Both of these styles can occasionally be appropriate, but are typically ineffective. What you want to achieve is a:

  • firm but respectful tone

  • relaxed appearance

  • eye contact

  • gestures that are congruent with our words

  • positive relationships

  • more fairness in meeting needs of everyone

  • good outcomes for both

  • feelings of confidence

Beginning to use an assertive communication style will be a challenge if you haven't used it often in the past. If it's difficult to start, or you feel uncomfortable roleplaying, just practice coming up with what an appropriate response to a situation might be. Think about a time you should have acted differently, and come up with as many alternative responses as you can.

Once you feel more comfortable acting assertively, choose a type of situation to practice with. Simply saying "I'm going to start being assertive" might be too much, but it'll be more manageable if you decide on a specific situation, such as conversations about bedtimes for the kids in both homes.

Tips for Assertive Communication

  • Use the word "I". Try saying "I would like..." or "I feel...".

  • Make an effort to use good eye contact. Don't stare, but don't look at your feet either

  • Use good posture. Keep your back straight and imagine your head reaching toward the sky.

  • Avoid ambiguity. If you aren't comfortable with something, don't say: "Hmm, I don't know about that... maybe?" Instead, say: "Sorry, I'm not comfortable doing that."

  • No swearing, no criticism (unless it's legitimately constructive), and no mocking. Be careful, you can come across as mocking or critical based solely upon the tone of your voice.

  • Control the tone of your voice. Talking too loudly or too quietly are both a problem. Yelling feels aggressive, and whispering is like a big sign that says "I'm unsure about what I'm saying."

During sensitive conversations it can be easy to unintentionally place blame, or to feel blamed. Feelings of blame quickly derail a conversation away from its original intention, and turn it into an unproductive argument.

Using "I" statements will reduce the likelihood that you come across as blaming during sensitive conversations. Additionally, "I" statements are a good way to practice speaking assertively because you will be forced to take responsibility for your own thoughts and feelings.

For example, you might say: "I feel worried when you don't tell me you're running late dropping off the kids."

Alternatively, if you weren't using an "I" statement, it might come out more like: "You can't just drop off the kids late without giving me a heads up. It worries me."

  • An "I" statement will be interpreted by most people as less accusatory.

  • An "I" statement emphasizes why the issue is important. If an "I" statement isn't used, the feeling word often gets left out altogether. This can cause you to come across as controlling or demanding. Sharing your feeling empathizes your perspective and how their behavior affects you.

  • An "I" statement forces you to speak clearly and assertively. You explain how you feel, and why you feel that way.

Don't make the mistake of using the "I" statement as a license to say anything that's on your mind. Saying "I feel upset when you act so stupid" still isn't going to go over well.

Listening is equally important to speaking- hearing, thinking, interpreting, and striving to understand.

Using a technique called reflection can quickly help you become a better listener. When reflecting, you will repeat back what someone has just said to you in your own words. Take this exchange for example:

Speaker: "I've been feeling really stressed about work, and then when I get home and you are running late to drop off the kids, it puts me in a bad mood." Listener: "Work has been so stressful that it causes you to feel more frustrated when I'm late dropping off the kids."

Reflections validate the person's feelings by showing that you get it. It might seem like a reflection would kill a conversation‐there's no new question to answer. Surprisingly, the opposite is usually true. Reflections encourage more sharing, because the person can trust that you are listening. See this example conversation:

Speaker: "I get so angry when you spend so much money on the kids without telling me. I thought we agreed that they have too much stuff!" Listener: "We've said we would limit the amount of stuff we give to our kids, so it's really frustrating when I make big purchases for them without telling you." Speaker: "Yeah, pretty much... It feels like a set-up... like I'm the bad cop." Listener: "It worries you because it makes you feel pressured to take on the role as the bad cop." Speaker: "Well, I know that you feel bad now that you don't see them everyday, but I still get frustrated when you make these big purchases."

Watch it in action, here.

Ask open-ended questions to encourage more sharing. Here are some example question formats:

"Tell me more about that..."

"What do you mean by that?"

"Can you tell me an example of that?"

"What do you think about...?"

Show that you're listening with body language. Make eye contact, face whomever you are listening to, and nod to show understanding. Put down the phone while you're at it. Even if you're able to text and listen, it can be frustrating if others think you're ignoring them. Remember, parenting between two homes offers less opportunities to "get it right", so taking a moment to clarify coparenting communication is important.

Never expect the other person to read your mind. It might be obvious to you how you would feel in a particular situation, but it probably isn't obvious to them.

If you or the person you are trying to talk to are frequently distracted, or the conversation quickly escalates to conflict between exes, set aside a short period of time to talk. Don't make it too long all at once (5-10 minutes is usually good).

Shared Parenting and Visitation There are some common co-parenting plans related to visitation that are outlined below (and my "cautionary tale" comments in parentheses based on feedback from clients/children I have):

  • The alternating weeks schedule: Your children spend 1 week with you and the next week with the other parent. (One teen said her parents never stocked her favorite snacks and forgot to include her when they ordered takeout because they regularly forgot that she was with them that week. Another child said she barely got comfortable with one parent before she had to pack and move.)

  • 2 weeks schedule: Your children spend 2 weeks with you and then 2 weeks with the other parent. (One preteen said she had enough time to settle at either homes, but missed the other parent and was glad when they called or showed up at a sporting event or practice).

  • The 3-4-4-3 schedule: Your children spend 3 days with you, 4 days with the other parent, 4 days with you and then 3 days with the other parent.

  • The 2-2-5-5 schedule: Your children spend 2 days with each parent and then 5 days with each parent. (One advantage of the 2-2-5-5 schedule is having your children consistent days of the week, that is, you will always have Mondays and Tuesdays or Wednesdays and Thursdays, for example, which allow you to schedule particular lessons or events for consistent days that they are with you. The disadvantage is a relatively short time period between transition, so it may be more practical with younger children unless your teens don’t mind the shuttling around part very much. )

  • The 2-2-3 schedule: Your children spend 2 days with you, 2 days with the other parent and 3 days with the first parent. Then, the next week it switches. (I have heard from some adult clients that this schedule requires maximum organization and flexibility.)

  • The alternating every 2 days schedule: Your children switch between the parents every 2 days. (This seems to be understood and adaptable to young children.) All of the schedules relate to moving the kids from one household to another, and choosing this means you both create a space that is homelike and kid-friendly, even if that means moving some items to another space or doubling up, if you have the means. A less common but possible option is called “Nesting.” This requires the co-parents to move in and out of the household instead of the children. It requires that you and your co-parent have a particularly high level of regard, respect and trust for each other, even if you live in separate bedrooms of the house. Some co-parents even manage to share one apartment or other dwelling outside of the family home where they live when not in the family home. It isn’t generally a long-term solution and some experts recommend ending the “Nesting” exercise if either parent decides to date. If you think nesting can work for you and your co-parent, it can be very good for the kids to allow them to stay in one place, at least for a period of time for their adjustment to the new reality. In addition to the normal schedule, you should also consider how holidays, vacations, and other days off from school will work. Often, co-parents alternate holidays and days off from school annually or, and this is the important part, in the way that best works for them and their children. The key, again, is a plan that is workable and keeps conflict low. Turning Routines into Rituals It’s important to show up to your kids’ extracurricular activities and stay in touch during times they are with their co-parent on video chat, text or instant message to find out how school went and to connect about the daily details. While how much time you get to spend with your children may not be under your control depending on work schedule, etc., the general rule is: the more time the better. If your kids are school age or older, they probably spend a lot of time interacting with technology. Finding cool ways to do some things offline can be important for everyone. For example, there are still places you can get to where there is no Wi-Fi. Consider a hike or a roadtrip to the countryside where the phrase “…we don’t get any reception” is actually true. During a separation, we know making the time to sit down and eat a meal together with your children can be tough sometimes; however, studies show that eating with your children can help strengthen relationships and foster better communication. You can take this one step further by getting the kids in on the meal prep. Another option is a game or movie night. Even if you don't see your children as often, it can be something you do regularly. With more than one child, take turns on who gets to pick the game or movie, but implement some rules to keep everything age-appropriate. For preteens and teens, strong friendships are key to their success as they learn to depend less on parents and more on strong social support. You can make your house friend-friendly by keeping the fridge stocked with grab-and-go snacks and keeping some age-appropriate movies and console games around, but you'll also want to take the time to really get to know your children's friends and their parents. Knowing the parents of your children’s friends makes setting up play-dates and impromptu sleepovers easier. Something to watch related to the experience of divorce for teens. Getting on the Same Page Developing a co-parenting or parallel parenting model... This positive parenting class is taught online via Cope Family Center in Napa. This particular class focuses on families transitioning from living together to living separately. I am also sending the following links as they may inform you on co-parenting during your separation. The first link is about making divorce less traumatic for kids. This second link is a webinar about keys to helping kids cope with divorce. This link is an online class that provides general info on the Love and Logic style of parenting. I recommend starting here, even though it is more general and across ages. I have taught this parenting curriculum in the past. I find it can de-escalate coparenting confusion and conflict, if I can get both parents to subscribe to a parenting framework that is neither his or hers, and one that has explicit expectations both can agree upon. None of this general information will blow your mind, but it's in the details and the follow through that parents and co-parents have an opportunity to recapture the joy of empathetic parenting while their children learn through natural consequences.

In the Gifts of Imperfect Parenting, Brené Brown says it well. We can't give what we don't have. Here is a sample. Hey moms and dads, contact me for a "Self-Care Assessment" and "Self-Care Tips" If school-age kids have grown up in a nurturing environment, it will be only natural for them to have a fear of being abandoned during a divorce. Younger children -- 5- to 8-year-olds, for instance -- will not understand the concept of divorce and may feel as if their parents are divorcing them. They may worry about losing their father (if they're living with their mom) and fantasize that their parents will get back together. In fact, they often believe they can "rescue" their parents' marriage. Kids from 8 to 12 may blame one parent for the separation and align themselves with the "good" parent against the "bad." They may accuse their parents of being mean or selfish and express their anger in various ways: Some kids may fight with classmates or lash out against the world, while others may become anxious, withdrawn, or depressed. Children may experience upset stomachs or headaches due to stress, or may make up symptoms in order to stay home from school or avoid activities. How to ease the transition: Children and teens can feel extreme loss and rejection during a divorce, but parents can rebuild their child's sense of security and self-esteem. Start by having each parent spend quality time with the child, urging them to open up about their feelings. Reassure them that neither parent will abandon them, and reiterate that the divorce is not their fault. (Likewise, parents should not blame one another for the split, but explain that it was a mutual decision.) It's also important to maintain a regular visitation schedule as kids thrive on predictability -- particularly during times of turmoil. -Excerpt from Parents Since school, friendships, and extracurricular activities are of increasing importance to school-aged kids, encourage your child to get involved in events and pastimes they enjoy, and encourage mentorship opportunities... to reach out to others and process emotions, and not withdraw from or take their feelings out on the world.

  • Check out these co-parenting resources, here and here.

  • Look into school-based services in Napa through Mentis.

  • Familiarize yourself with local community-based support services for youth.

  • Contact me for a copy of these worksheets to foster open communication at home, "My Changing Family" and "Three Good Things"

  • Watch movies together that help children and teens process divorce, here and here.

Finally, see my other blog posts on "Mutuality mindset in parenting" and "Playing House" for more helpful info.


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