Why is co-parenting so difficult? (and how therapy can help)

co-parenting challenges

If you and your partner have decided to go separate ways, the task of raising a child together, while apart, might seem challenging. Yet, it’s a reality for many — about 50% of children in the United States experience divorce from their parents. While women receive custody in 83% of divorce cases, in Michigan, joint custody is granted in 40% of cases. This means that many families around you might be dealing with co-parenting.

The good news is that with effort and the right approach, co-parenting can become a rewarding experience. When parents collaborate and maintain a positive relationship, their children are more likely to thrive. Besides, studies show that collaboration between parents is directly reflected in the degree of parenting burnout (Zhang & Zhao, 2024). This can be effectively achieved with the help of professional therapists.

In this article, we’ll explore the nuances of co-parenting and discuss how therapy can be a valuable tool for healthier communication between co-parents.

What is Co-Parenting?

Co-parenting is when parents who are separated or divorced continue to share the responsibilities of raising their child or children. It’s an agreement where both parents are committed to making decisions together for their child’s well-being, regardless of their personal feelings toward each other.

Instead of taking each other to court in order to gain custody, in this case, parents continue to communicate with each other and agree to establish a cooperative and respectful relationship. For example, this might mean that a child (or children) spends equal time with each parent, or they might have a more child-centered approach where they arrange schedules to best meet the child’s needs, interests, and activities.

But it’s not easy to regularly communicate with someone who was once your romantic partner. That’s why a lot of co-parents choose to seek therapy — that way they learn how to discuss the best ways to support their child’s development together without sacrificing their own needs and emotions.

Types of Co-Parenting

Individuals who agree on co-parenting after separation or divorce often find that their experiences and strategies can vary greatly. Based on their needs and the nature of their relationship, they typically choose one of the following types of co-parenting:

1.   Conflicted Co-Parenting

This type of co-parenting is characterized by ongoing disagreements and a high level of conflict between the parents, which negatively affects the well-being of the children. In these situations, communication is minimal and highly structured, and sometimes parents even communicate through third parties to avoid direct confrontation.

Studies suggest that disagreement and conflict over child-rearing may increase a child’s risk of experiencing behavioral and emotional problems (Karberg & Cabrera, 2020).

2.   Parallel Parenting

Separated couples who don’t like each other but care for their child’s well-being often choose parallel parenting. This type of co-parenting looks more like a professional than a personal relationship. It means that parents rarely communicate and live their own lives. However, they arrange meetings to share information about their children’s plans or needs and make decisions about specific issues that affect their children’s lives.

3.   Cooperative Co-Parenting

The most effective co-parenting type for individuals who are able to maintain a friendly or respectful relationship post-separation is a cooperative or collaborative type. Parents who choose this type work closely together to make decisions, communicate regularly, share information about their child, and try to be fully present. This co-parenting style positively affects a child’s emotional well-being and as studies show, it can even lead to high academic performance and self-esteem in children (Lamela & Figueiredo, 2016).

While this type sounds perfect, it’s no less challenging than other co-parenting styles as it requires a significant amount of effort, compromise, and ongoing communication between ex-partners.

What Makes Co-Parenting So Challenging?

It’s not easy to set aside your past feelings of hurt or anger associated with your partner and focus on the well-being of your child. While this is what most parents desire, in reality, co-parenting brings a wide range of challenges.

One of the primary obstacles is maintaining effective communication. In general, effective communication is the foundation of successful parenting. For co-parents, this means being able to discuss and negotiate parenting strategies, child-related decisions, and schedules without letting personal conflicts interfere. However, old resentments and differing viewpoints can make these conversations difficult and lead to misunderstandings.

Another significant challenge is aligning parenting styles and values. One of the most common reasons why people separate is recognizing that their fundamental beliefs and approaches to life don’t align. This can become even more pronounced when trying to co-parent, as decisions that were once sources of conflict within the relationship continue to emerge. For instance, opposite views on discipline, education, and even dietary preferences can lead to disputes that can affect the child’s sense of stability and security.

Then there are the logistical challenges of co-parenting, such as coordinating schedules and managing financial contributions towards the child’s needs. If parents have unequal financial resources or different views on spending, this can lead to tension. Disagreements may arise over what constitutes a necessity versus a luxury, how much should be spent on extracurricular activities, or even the basics like clothing and school supplies.

If co-parents fail to find mutually acceptable solutions regarding these challenges, chances are that the tension will negatively affect the child’s mental health and psychological well-being.

How Co-parenting Challenges Affect Children

When parents find it challenging or are unable to align their parenting styles and effectively manage co-parenting, it’s not just their relationship that faces the consequences — their child’s well-being can also be compromised.

Here’s how co-parenting conflicts can affect children:

  • Emotional and behavioral issues – Children exposed to high levels of parental conflict may develop anxiety, depression, and behavior problems. Studies show that conflict between family members significantly affects adolescents’ emotional adjustment (Chung et al., 2009).
  • Social relationships – Difficulty in forming or maintaining friendships can arise due to the stress and instability at home. In general, children who feel tension among their parents are likely to experience social withdrawal and peer-related difficulties. This can be explained by the fact that family conflict is significantly connected with social adjustment (Rhoades & Wood, 2014).
  • Academic performance – Persistent co-parenting conflicts can distract children from their studies and lead to lower academic achievement. Research indicates that more than 90% of respondents noted that conflict between their parents affects their academic performance (Karanja, 2018).

How Therapy Can Help With Co-parenting Challenges

Empirical research consistently shows that counseling is an effective tool for improving the quality of relationships among family members (e.g., Handari et al., 2022; Varghese et al., 2020). The same applies to counseling for co-parents — a specialized form of therapy that aims to help separated or divorced parents learn how to handle their shared parenting responsibilities effectively. The main focus of this type of therapy is to help co-parents develop specific skills for effective communication, resolving conflicts, and establishing a cooperative parenting style that prioritizes the well-being of the child.

Therapists can offer specific support to co-parents through:

  • Improving communication skills – Therapists work with co-parents to develop healthier communication patterns. During therapy, parents can learn how to express needs and concerns constructively and listen actively to each other.
  • Conflict resolution techniques – Therapists help co-parents learn how to manage disagreements constructively without escalating conflicts.
  • Setting boundaries – Another integral part of counseling is to teach parents how to establish and maintain healthy boundaries that respect each parent’s space while ensuring both are involved in their child’s life.
  • Planning and cooperation – Therapists can assist in creating detailed parenting plans that cover daily routines, financial responsibilities, and how decisions about the child’s upbringing are made.
  • Emotional support – Finally, counseling provides a space for each parent to address and work through feelings of anger, resentment, or grief that may impact their ability to co-parent effectively.

Counseling for Co-Parenting Issues in Michigan

Even if you understand the benefits of effective co-parenting, handling all the challenges it brings on your own might be tough. Today, many families face the complexities of co-parenting in Michigan and that’s why it has become crucial to have the right support from professional counselors.

At Health for Life Counseling, we offer specialized counseling for co-parents. Our licensed therapists are equipped with the tools and strategies to help you and your partner find common ground, improve communication, and address any emotional hurdles that may arise during the co-parenting process.

So, whenever you notice you require support, feel free to reach out to us at Grand Rapids, MI, and Ada, MI, or get help online. Note that we accept a wide range of health insurance options, including Golden Rule, Optum, Cigna, Cofinity, and more. You can find the full list of insurance options we provide on this page.

Learn more about the Trauma-Informed Counseling Center of Grand Rapids

Learn more about Counseling and Therapy services at Health for Life Counseling Grand Rapids

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