Five ways to refine your co-parental communication

man and woman pointing at each other and yelling
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Growing up, my family had my half-sisters every other weekend, but the co-parenting relationship never took a break. I witnessed many different conversations between co-parents on many different topics like schooling, child support, drama, and even discipline. While the conversations were often filled with conflict, there was also supportive and healthy communication. From a very young age, I learned that communicating one’s needs, wants, and concerns with those around you is essential to promote individual and family well-being.  Despite the uniqueness of my family structure, one thing remains true for all families: communication is key.

While communication and co-parenting go hand-in-hand, it is not always simple. Communicating with a fellow co-parent can often be difficult, but it is essential when parenting a child together. Effective communication helps co-parents stay on the same page, provide the best parenting for their children, and increases children’s well-being (Finzi-Dottan & Cohen, 2014). However, conflict often accompanies co-parenting relationships and can sometimes feel inevitable. Unfortunately, this conflict can impact children’s well-being, so it’s important to learn how to successfully communicate despite previous issues (Ganong et al., 2012).

The ability to work together in parenting activities and responsibilities is at the heart of healthy co-parenting relationships (Schrodt & Shimkowski, 2017). Some co-parenting relationships require more effort than others to make it work, and that is okay. Some co-parents are better friends than partners, so communication is easier after separation. For others, previous issues can create havoc on a supportive co-parenting relationship. Every co-parenting relationship is unique and has their own challenges. For those co-parents who struggle with communication, here are five tips to refine your co-parental communication:

1. Use “I” Statements

Co-parenting can be frustrating, especially communicating calmly and effectively. One co-parent may feel blamed and become offended during a conversation, causing either parent to shut down or blow up. Using “I” Statements is one potential solution to avoid this issue. This form of statement is designed to help communicate thoughts and feelings without blaming. For example, instead of saying “You are always late picking up Ava from school. You are letting her down.”, try saying “I’m worried about Ava feeling let down when she is not picked up from school on time. Do you have any ideas about how we can fix this issue and make her feel better?” “I” statements are usually more effective than commanding or judgmental statements. While, “I” Statements can be a hard concept to grasp at first, over time it can become a very useful communication tool (Brosi, Cox, & Barth, 2019).

2. Set Boundaries

Setting boundaries within a co-parenting relationship might sound easier than it is to do, but it is well worth the effort. Boundaries can include how often you talk to your co-parent, the time of day you will respond, and even the topics discussed. The amount and strictness of boundaries is unique to every co-parenting relationship. However, if conflict is common, create topic boundaries like your previous relationship, new relationship, and anything controversial. It is okay to set boundaries and maintain privacy within your personal life, it is actually healthy for your mental well-being and healing (Beckmeyer, Markham, & Troilo, 2019).

3. Be Consistent

Whether the communication is through a phone call, email, or text message, communication does need to happen on a regular basis between co-parents. You do not have to talk every day, but you need to talk more than once a month. Be consistent in communicating with your co-parent about your children and schedule changes. This will help reduce miscommunication and help the co-parenting team stay on the same page. Find a consistent time that works best for both co-parents to check-in and discuss important matters (Schrodt & Shimkowski, 2017).

4. Practice Active-Listening

Active listening is a good way to improve your communication with your co-parent. It is very easy to listen to respond or start formulating your response while they are still talking, but this can be detrimental to the effectiveness of co-parental communication. To practice active listening give your full attention to your co-parent, focus on what they are saying, make eye contact and stop other things you are doing, and reflect or repeat back what they are saying and what they may be feeling to make sure you understand. It can be tempting to brush off our co-parents’ issues, especially if you struggle to get along or disagree. But you would hope your co-parent would be listening to your perspective in order to make headway on the issue rather than just trying to debate too (Chastain, 2013).

5. Take a Breath (or two)

Often during arguments with a co-parent, one may start to get overwhelmed, frustrated, and even angry. However, it is important to not react with those same feelings as reactive responses can damage working relationships and even create more conflict. If you are faced with a situation that is very heated, it is okay to step back and take a deep breath (or two) before responding. Your best responses and interactions will not be reactive. Think of the situation as if you were arguing with a co-worker and be professional in your reactions and responses.

References:

Brosi, M., Cox, R., & Barth, K. (2019, August). Co-parenting: Using “I” messages. Oklahoma State University Extension. Retrieved March 30, 2022, from https://extension.okstate.edu/fact-sheets/co-parenting-using-i-messages.html

Beckmeyer, J. J., Markham, M. S., & Troilo, J. (2019). Postdivorce co-parenting relationships and parent–youth relationships: Are repartnership and parent–youth contact moderators? Journal of Family Issues, 40(5), 613–636. https://doi.org/10.1177/0192513X18821395

Chastain, A. (2013). Use active listening skills to effectively deal with conflict. Michigan State University Extension. Retrieved March 30, 2022, from https://www.canr.msu.edu/news/use_active_listening_skills_to_effectively_deal_with_conflict

Finzi-Dottan, R., & Cohen, O. (2014). Predictors of parental communication and cooperation among divorcing spouses. Journal of Child & Family Studies, 23(1), 39–51. https://doi-org.proxy1.library.eiu.edu/10.1007/s10826-012-9684-z

Ganong, L. H., Coleman, M., Feistman, R., Jamison, T., & Markham, M. S. (2012). Communication technology and postdivorce co-parenting. Family Relations, 61(3), 397–409. https://onlinelibrary-wiley-com.proxy1.library.eiu.edu/doi/full/10.1111/j.1741-3729.2012.00706.x

Schrodt, P., & Shimkowski, J. R. (2017). Family communication patterns and perceptions of co-parental communication. Communication Reports, 30(1), 39–50. https://doi-org.proxy1.library.eiu.edu/10.1080/08934215.2015.1111400

Author: Kayli Worthey, Human Services Programming Administration Graduate, Child and Family Life Center, Eastern Illinois University