Co-parenting Basics

The number-one support call received by Attachment Parenting International (API) is parents seeking resources while going through the physical separation and legal side of divorce.

lisa fiertag 2About the Author

Lisa Feiertag, API Leader, lives in the USA with her two children, whom she co-parents with their father. She serves as an API Leader Applicant Liaison for Attachment Parenting International. Read her personal co-parenting story.

API supports relationships that are nurtured for life. We are about promoting parenting practices that create strong, healthy emotional bonds between children and their parents through API’s Eight
Principles of Parenting, which offer parents wisdom to help establish the connection that is needed to offer respect to all children regardless of their age or circumstance.

“Co-parenting” is the term used to describe the situation when children are parented by two individuals who are no longer in a marital or romantic relationship with one another. When children are a part of the divorce equation, parents quickly find out that co-parenting is critical for the kids’ health and well-being.

At first, co-parenting may seem like an easy solution for two people who are constantly arguing, but often it is quickly determined to be a hardship in and of itself. Co-parenting can become even more of a challenge when one or both of the adults practice Attachment Parenting (AP).

One of the resources offered to parents who seek out API support can be found at This co-parenting worksheet comes highly recommended by such parent educators as Ruth Nemzoff, EdD, LCSW, at Storris, Connecticut, USA: “I do not exaggerate when I say that giving that document to my clients, when they are pondering separation, has sometimes resulted in figuring out how to stay together. It captures in exquisite detail what it takes to really co-parent in ways that are based on the best interests of the child!”

This document introduces the many challenges of co-parenting and leads the reader to question how one or both parents can successfully co-parent as an AP family.

Determining Peaceful Custody Arrangements

One of the first tasks parents will need to arrange is the custody schedule:

  • Will parents divide days and nights equally?
  • How will holiday, birthday and vacation schedules be handled?
  • Who will provide childcare for children who are not school age or during times children are out of school?
  • How will the transitions take place?
  • Where do the children go when they are sick and childcare or school is not an option?

It is important for parents to remember that the children are the top priority when negotiating the daily tasks of life. This job becomes a major adjustment when two people are struggling to define a new relationship after separation or divorce. It is the children’s needs that are required to come first, and the parent(s) must keep their own feelings toward their spouse/partner or the new reality in check as they navigate schedules and calendars.

Being open and flexible with one another is extremely important. Any finalized plan may need to be re-assessed at the different developmental stages to determine what is best for each of the children. Parents can be creative with the schedule, such as introducing concepts like one-on-one days with each child and being together on major holidays and birthdays during the first year.

An AP family can be confident that they have the resources to determine what works best for their individual family. Couples can remember that they can work together to set the schedule
instead of relying on a predetermined, court-appointed custody plan.

For younger children, it is recommended that they do not move in between homes, but instead have a primary residence with a consistent caregiver and to limit the amount of shuffling as much as possible.

With older children, parents may find that it is less about the location of the home—the place itself—and more about the person that the children are securely attached to: the parent. Thus, going in between homes is less traumatic as long as the child has time to securely attach to the parent and sufficient transition time at the new location.

In the beginning, the agreed-upon nightly schedule may not happen until the child is comfortable with the new situation, and it is wise for the parents to honor this need of the child while remembering that this is not a permanent phase. As children grow into adolescence, parents may honor their voice and allow them to be a part of the decision process of where and when they are with each parent.

Children will need some amount of consistency and allowances for transitions. If the child is accustomed to a stay-at-home parent, care must be taken to help the child adjust if this reality will be altered. Younger children may withdraw from social friends and outings in order to be with the parent, while teenagers may need to spend more time with peers. Parents need to be on hand and available to be with the child when needed for emotional and physical support.

Read the author’s personal story: “A Parent Story: What Co-Parenting Looks Like for Us” by Lisa Feiertag

Deciding Upon Medical Care

After custody is determined, the questions about medical care need to be discussed:

  • Who will be the primary liaison with the doctors?
  • Who will schedule routine appointments?
  • How will medical expenses be divided?
  • Who will provide insurance coverage for the children?
  • Will the children remain with current physicians, eye doctors and dentists?
  • How will larger bills, such as emergency care or orthodontics, be divided?
  • What is the time frame for a parent who handles emergency visits to inform the other parent?

It may be easiest to maintain the established relationships with doctors who had cared for the children before the parents’ separation. If this is not the case, parents will need to work together to decide how they will select future doctors.

Children can develop attachments to their medical providers, but the most important factor is to have a primary parent attend the appointments to provide the comfort the child needs. Children may prefer to remain consistent in having the parent who previously attended all appointments continue to do so. If this was the role of a stay-at-home parent, attention may be needed to make it possible for this parent to continue in this role.

The couple may need to brainstorm ways for doctor visits and payments to be divided up in a manner that is best for each person.

Educational Issues

As parents are negotiating living arrangements, careful thought must also be given to any changes that may happen in terms of schooling. Many AP families are involved in alternative schooling that may need to change for a variety of reasons after divorce. Co-parenting will involve determining ways to make this transition smooth or, if possible, to continue with the educational route that was determined before divorce.

Some issues to consider are:

  • Will the child remain at the current school?
  • What form of transportation will be needed to attend school?
  • How will parents divide up the responsibilities of
    extracurricular activities and school volunteer opportunities?
  • Who will be the primary contact for the school system?
  • How will information about the children be obtained from the school?
  • Who will attend parent-teacher conferences?
  • What about post-high-school education?
  • Will notices from school go home to one parent or both?

Depending on the age of the child, educational issues could become a very involved conversation between parents as they navigate what would be best for the newly structured family.

Ideally, for school-age children, keeping them in their known classroom environment or homeschooling scenario might be best. Children form attachments with teachers and classmates, so keeping them in the same school will help to soften the transitions that are happening at home. This will allow a consistent adult figure to remain with the child, as the child may struggle with issues such as abandonment. Often the school counselor will facilitate groups on separation and divorce, which may be beneficial to a child so that she can feel as if she is not alone in experiencing the emotions that arise based on her new reality.

Parents will need to discuss who will be the primary contact for the school and how they will share information with one another. If issues develop at school, parents will need to determine how to work together to find positive solutions with school staff and within the two separate homes. Consistency and flexibility may prove to be what helps them to find ideal solutions in school, just as it would be for the home environment.

For preschool-age children, and older children as needed, transportation to and from school may need to be addressed, as primary residence and work-related schedules for one or both parents can change. Transportation to and from school could be a factor in determining custody schedules.

When determining how parents will attend extracurricular activities, volunteer opportunities and parent-teacher conferences, couples will need to decide upon what is most comfortable for all involved. If parents are in a working relationship where each person is civil and able to communicate effectively, then overlapping responsibilities may not be as much of an issue than if the couple is in disrepair and unable to work together. If the latter is true, then the parents may decide that the person responsible for these activities is the one who has custody on the given day. Teachers are more than willing to work with parents to hold two separate conferences if needed and provide information to each separate household.

Looking at what is best for the child may be exactly what is easiest and necessary, even if parents need to put their own feelings of discomfort on hold to be in the same conference or extracurricular activity.

Other Areas of Compromise

Parents will have many issues to discuss and compromise on throughout the child’s developmental growth years and into adulthood:

  • Will the child attend a certain religious organization and follow in those life-cycle events?
  • Will there be changes as the child grows?
  • How will the parents work out travel during holidays, school breaks and vacation times? When and how will parents inform the other of the travel? How will parents work out travel between states and outside the country?
  • When extended family visits, how will this be incorporated into the custody schedule?
  • What happens if one parent passes away or is involved in a major medical life issue?
  • Will the extended family be granted visitation if a parent dies?
  • How and when will new romantic partnerships be introduced to the children?
  • At what point do you allow the child to decide for himself what house to live in?

These are questions that all parents, regardless of their parenting approach, will have to answer at some point in the co-parenting relationship.

After all of the technical questions of co-parenting are addressed, one is left to ponder how parents can stay securely attached to their children when they are no longer with them on a daily basis.

This may be especially hard in families where one parent was with the children as a stay-at-home parent. Some may decide to delay divorce because of the obstacles in finding employment for both parents and childcare for the children. The stay-at-home parent’s world is changed, not only from losing a partner whom he or she believed would last a lifetime, but also with the reality that shared custody of the children involves forced separation from them.

Divorce impacts each person in a family unit, and care must be taken to help each individual through the transition, along with the unit as a whole or the newly revised units.

Get more co-parenting insights with “A Parent Story: It’s Not About You…It’s About Them” by Katie C

Emotional Support

The primary parent—often the mother but sometimes the father—may find that a child holds all of his emotional discomfort with the separation when he is with the secondary parent. As a result, when the child transitions into the home of the primary parent, he may unleash all of the feelings that were held until he is back in a familiar environment. Therefore, it may be wise to remain as flexible as possible during transitions and leave time for the  emotions to come out before moving into a new activity.

Both parents will need to remember that this space may be just as needed for them. Parents will find that time without the child is very quiet, and when the child returns to the house, it becomes loud and chaotic. Thus, this transitional time is beneficial for all, and secure attachment will continue to develop and grow stronger as each person is allowed the time needed to adjust and heal.

Remaining flexible also allows for any mishaps in timing when one parent is delayed in meeting the other person. Having extra time diminishes any anger from unmet expectations of being somewhere by a certain hour.

Children’s reactions to divorce may be very different from how adults respond and can be drastically diverse for each child. Parents may benefit in gaining an understanding of the developmental stages of childhood, focusing specifically on the emotional, social, spiritual and physical growth expectations within each stage.

It is also helpful to understand how children grieve, even though they still have both parents, because reactions to divorce can be similar to the changes that happen when a parent has died. Divorce is a life-altering experience for all family members, and each person will grieve the loss of the security and structure of having one solid home full of love and support for each person.

Emotions will come up for each parent, and it is OK to express those feelings in front of the children. When parents are able to show their emotions, children will see that they are not alone in how they feel. They will be able to cry or get angry and express themselves, which will alleviate the chance of any of the feelings becoming stuck—of kids holding on to the emotions for fear of releasing them or feeling alone because no one else seems emotional.

Children need to know that what they are feeling is normal. If children feel any lack of concern from a parent, they may stop their outward expression of emotion, fearing that the parent believes the feelings are not important. Children might also worry about causing more pain to the parent.

Other adults may have shared with children the importance of taking more responsibility than is age appropriate. Statements such as “You are the new man of the house” or “As the oldest daughter, you should take on more household chores” may come from well-intentioned adults but may contribute to the stoic stance that might facilitate repression of feelings.

Regardless of the source, it is vital that parents offer children the time to express their feelings without judgment or control and to be vulnerable in front of the children as needed. Children model and learn from their parents. It is also important to realize that children may not show emotions of loss until a year or longer after the separation.

Each parent must be willing to honor what feelings arise within and express emotions in a manner that is respectful when children are present. Often children will heal within your embrace, so it is vital that you are clear on your own emotions, reservations, concerns, agendas, etc. When parents offer permission for the child to express the feelings that come up, they are strengthening the child’s attachment to both parents and are supporting the child’s self-image.

Parents may need to help children understand that they can love each parent and form bonds with both of them. Children are a product of each parent, and they may feel as if something might be wrong with them as a result of the separation/divorce. This is not a time to ask children to reject the other parent, and it is another reminder of the parent’s need to remain aware of their own issues that come up. Parents do not want to project their own insecurities onto the children. Children of all ages can and will pick up on any negative feelings that one parent may have for the other.

Effective communication between parents who are separating or divorcing is an integral part to their remaining securely attached to their children. When parents are together during activities, events or transitional periods, being compassionate toward one another is important for children to witness. Children love and support each parent and want to know that they can continue to have these feelings without reservation. When parents are able to be in each other’s presence without discomfort, a child can know that it is safe to express their own feelings and communicate any issue that arises.

Along these lines, it is wise for parents to maintain an ability to speak with one another and to avoid placing the child in the middle. If children are placed in the middle, they may begin to resent this as they grow older and will not be able to distinguish if they are communicating with each parent because of their own desire or for the sake of keeping the information flowing. It is wise for parents to be responsible to one another no matter how painful or awkward the situation may become. It is advised that parents find time away from the children to have conversations if it is tense while the children are present.

Seek Out Parent Support

Embracing friends and family during this time of transition will be helpful to the parent who is struggling to adjust to the new reality.

There are many different resources available to parents and children who are experiencing divorce:

  • Communities typically offer support groups for divorced individuals to come together and be in the company of those who have been through a similar situation.
  • Local agencies can provide legal assistance and help with food and housing costs.
  • Mediation services are available to parents who need assistance when communicating with one another.
  • Libraries have a wealth of resources for parents to educate themselves on a variety of issues and find help to answer career needs such as how to prepare a resume or practice for an interview.
  • School systems have resources and groups for children.
  • Local nonprofits may provide after-school activities and outings for students.

API is committed to providing parents with resources for all issues that may arise within the child’s developmental life stages. Information can be provided to parents as they determine the best course of action for their children within the legal system. API can suggest professionals who may be willing to act as expert witnesses, and provide printable information for a parent to share with his or her lawyer.

However, API cannot guarantee any outcome in an individual case or predict the future and how the divorce may impact children involved. The reality is that divorce is complicated, emotional and messy even when the best of intentions are present for each parent.

While there is some amount of relief and freedom with the act of divorce, when children are involved, there are many challenges to consider with co-parenting. Many issues may not come to resolution in the exact manner that any parent may desire.

Each parent must realize that there has to be a high level of integrity, and compromising with one another is extremely important. Attorneys may fight for their client but may not have the capacity to truly understand what it means for a couple to work out co-parenting issues, especially when one or both parents are nurturing the children in an AP manner.

With that said, there is hope. Children are resilient, and when in securely attached relationships with parents, they will be able to remain emotionally healthy and stable when their needs are being met, whether or not they are living in an intact family or in two different households.

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2 thoughts on “Co-parenting Basics”

  1. This is a very interest blog. I wonder if you can give me your take on our situation?
    My partner and I got together because I was pregnant, we moved in saying ‘Lets give it a go!’ That’s was six years ago. At first it was exciting and passionate. Then our son was given a diagnosis of ASD last year, and it has been very stressful. My partner and I snap at eachother continually and there is no romance between us anymore. He sleeps in one room with our son and I sleep in another with our two year old daughter.
    I think we would be better to have a rational agreement of co-parenting so that we don’t feel emotional pressure from each other, and can find happiness with some body else who is a more suitable match. It feels like this would be an easy transition to make, but we communicate so minimally that I want to get it right when I propose the idea.
    Do you have any insight or suggestions for me/us?

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