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Co-parenting: getting the balance right

Your relationship with your former partner might have ended, but you’re both still parents to your child. It’s usually in your child’s best interests if your co-parenting arrangements keep you both involved in your child’s life.

Co-parenting basics

It’s not easy to create new parenting arrangements when a relationship breaks down, especially if there are unresolved issues and strong feelings.

For example, you and your former partner might both want as much time as possible with your child, or your former partner might not want to see your child. You might see equal time as a fair solution – but this might not be possible, and it might not be the best option for your child.

There are practical issues to sort through too, like where you both live. Children generally do better when their parents live near each other, but this isn’t an option for all separated families.

Whatever your situation, you and your former partner need to make clear decisions about how you’ll parent your child now and in future. It’ll be easier if you can both keep open minds and try to step into your child’s shoes as you work out your co-parenting arrangements. In meeting your child’s needs and your own needs, you might have to make some compromises along the way.

Developing a co-parenting plan

A co-parenting plan is a useful way to set out the details of your new relationship. To create one, you and your former partner need to discuss your rights and responsibilities with regard to your child, and set up a way to work out disputes.

You might be able to sort this out together. If you can’t, you can get help from a family dispute resolution practitioner, mediator or relationship counsellor.

A shared parenting plan should address:

  • a contact or visitation schedule
  • education
  • finances
  • children’s medical needs or concerns
  • holidays and special events
  • decision-making guidelines.

The plan should include back-up arrangements in case your child needs to stay home from child care or school. That might mean talking to your former partner about how they can help out. You might be able to discuss this in person, on the phone or via email.

Once your co-parenting plan is in place and working, you need to agree on what happens if one of you needs to change the plan or has a change in circumstances in the future.

Video

Blended families: shared parenting

6:14

In this video, parents from blended families talk about shared parenting care arrangements, sometimes called co-parenting arrangements. Some families go through mediation, others use the Family Court, and sometimes there’s no formal arrangement. These parents say it helps to be flexible and plan ahead if you need to change your arrangements. They also offer tips on staying connected to children when they aren’t at home. 

I was so relieved we had set up a schedule for contact. But there were times when I had to go to my elderly parents interstate unexpectedly, and there were weddings and special events that meant we needed to change things. We ended up realising that it had to be flexible.
– Philly, 30, separated for one year and mother of two children

Co-parenting successfully: tips

Here are some tips for co-parenting successfully with your former partner.

Aim to be flexible
It benefits everyone to be a little bit flexible. For example, if your former partner is sometimes late for pick-ups, it might help to be ready with alternative plans. Try to keep in mind that getting upset about a change your former partner makes might make it tricky the next time you need to change things.

Your plans will also need to adapt as your child grows up and his needs and circumstances change – for example, when he starts school or takes up a new sport.

Try to accept different parenting styles
Your former partner’s parenting style might change without you around. It might take some getting used to, especially if your former partner has different values or beliefs.

One way to deal with this is to work out whether you don’t like your former partner’s style because of your preferences or because of serious essential requirements. For example:

  • Preference: ‘I don’t like our daughter eating so many lollies at her other parent’s place’.
  • Essential requirement: ‘Our child must have an insulin injection every day’.

If you don’t like something because of your preferences, you might be able to let it slide. Then you can concentrate on things that affect your child’s health and safety.

As long as your child is safe and secure, different parenting approaches and styles can help your child learn that different rules apply in different situations.

Help your child feel connected to her other parent
If it’s not upsetting for you, you could keep a framed photo of your family that includes your former partner.

You could also try to be positive about what your child is doing when he’s at his other parent’s house – for example, ‘Wow, that looks like a great cubby house. What a fun weekend you’ve had!’

Encourage your child to send messages or emails to her other parent when she’s with you. Even if your child’s other parent lives far away, it’s good for your child to send and receive regular emails, phone calls, text messages and letters.

Keep your former partner up to date
Your child will benefit when his other parent knows what’s going on for him. You and your former partner could keep each other up to date by using a shared online calendar that lists your child’s weekly schedule, plus any special events.

Contact your child’s school to make sure your former partner gets duplicates of school records and newsletters.

Plan ahead for tasks, activities and events
You might want your former partner to be involved in or take responsibility for tasks like child and family health visits or school outings. If you’re on good terms you could plan to go to activities like parent-teacher interviews or school concerts together. If you’re not able to go together, you’ll need to plan who is going to go to what event, or how you’ll handle it if you’re both there.

Give your former partner some time to learn the ropes
If you did most of the caring for your children before your separation, your former partner might take a little time to learn about the practical side of caring for children. It can be tempting to criticise, but pointing out the positives is much better for everyone.

Be prepared for some negative feelings
When your child is with her other parent, you might feel a sense of loss, loneliness and disappointment. It can help if you try to look at the positive side – for example, time apart from your child can give you a chance to rest, relax and pursue relationships, hobbies or interests.

Planning ahead can help you cope when your child is away. You could arrange to do some exercise, see friends for a meal, visit family or see a movie.

If possible, agree in advance on the kind of contact you’ll have with your child while he’s with his other parent. For example, you might have brief phone calls, emails or text messages. Try to put on a happy face for your child – this will help with the transition.

My kids were perfectly happy at my place and I would read a story and tuck them in, then their mum would ring and before you know it they would be crying. It was so unproductive and more about her missing them than being concerned about the kids. We eventually agreed that calls were OK up until 6 pm.
– Jeff, 40, separated father of three children

Dealing with special celebrations when you’re co-parenting

Sometimes the biggest days of the year – for example, special religious festivals or holidays – are the hardest times to work out parenting plans that suit everyone. Being alone on a significant day, without your child, is difficult for many separated parents.

Some parents split special days in half. For others, it works better to alternate parenting on special days every year. You can also hold celebrations before or after the special day. If you can, hold on to some traditions that you previously shared, like opening presents in bed in the morning or sharing a special dessert.

It can also help to talk with your child in advance about what the arrangements will be for her birthday and other special days.

Try to share information with your former partner about the larger gifts you might buy for a special occasion, to avoid doubling up.

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Last updated or reviewed
01-02-2016

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Raising Children Network is supported by the Australian Government. Member organisations are the Parenting Research Centre and the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute with The Royal Children’s Hospital Centre for Community Child Health.

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