Strategies for Successful Co-Parenting

How to Nurture Children Who Thrive

Dad coming home to his kids

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Co-parenting after a divorce is never easy. But, if you and your former partner learn how to co-parent your children amicably, you will give your kids the confidence and stability they need to be successful in life.

Unless your family has experienced domestic violence, emotional abuse, or addiction, it is generally best for kids to have relationships with both parents. Ideally, these relationships involve low levels of conflict and high levels of communication and collaboration—even if one of you decides to “blend” your family with another one.

Of course, it's normal to worry that a former partner will not cope well with a new relationship and cause inter-family stress and pain. But if you—and all the adults in your children's life—are respectful and make raising healthy, emotionally secure children a priority, you can foster safe and healthy relationships among all households.

A Closer Look at Co-Parenting Relationships

There are two types of co-parenting relationships. These include high-functioning/secure relationships and low-functioning/sabotaging relationships. A high-functioning co-parenting relationship often results in children who are emotionally resilient, adaptive, and willing to take appropriate risks.

Children in high-functioning situations have adults in their lives who are willing to show up for them when they need it. They also have more access to resources like time and help with schoolwork. When this is the case, children typically develop secure attachment styles because they feel loved and safe.

Meanwhile, a low-functioning co-parenting relationship could result in children who are fragile, emotionally anxious, avoidant, or have a chaotic attachment style. These children may experience emotional wounds, be prone to addiction, have weakened immune systems, and experience difficulties connecting to future romantic partners.

To evaluate your co-parenting relationship, you can use a version of the Co-Parenting Relationship Scale to determine whether your relationship is high-functioning or low-functioning.

The Co-Parenting Relationship Scale

The Co-Parenting Relationship Scale is based on research conducted by Mark Feinberg in 2003. He suggested that there is a direct relationship between the quality of co-parenting relationships and parenting quality. What's more, additional research has shown that parent relationships—even after divorce—have a direct relationship on the health and well-being of children.

Since Feinberg's observations in 2003, social scientists have adapted his co-parenting relationship scale to apply to divorced parents as well. For instance, in 2018, the Journal of Child and Family Studies published a study in which researchers developed and tested the Multidimensional Co-Parenting Scale for Dissolved Relationships.

Literature reviews were used to develop six constructs including support, cohesion, triangulation, undermining, disparagement, and overt conflict. Here is an overview of each of the scale's constructs and how to score your relationship.

Multidimensional Co-Parenting Scale Constructs

The first construct evaluated in the Multidimensional Co-Parenting Scale is support, or mutual support as it is sometimes referred. This section of the scale is designed to measure how much parents support one another during the childrearing process. In other words, the scale evaluates how much aid, support, and cooperation exists between you and your former partner. Read through the questions regarding support to determine how much support is in your co-parenting relationship.

Support

Rank each of these statements on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being never and 5 being always.

  • I am willing to make schedule changes if my former partner needs.
  • I am a resource for my former partner in raising our child.
  • My former partner is a resource to me in raising our child.
  • We support each other during difficult parenting decisions.
  • My former partner is willing to make schedule changes if I need.
  • I can rely on my former partner to support my parenting needs.
  • We ask each other for advice/help in childrearing decisions.
  • My former partner can rely on me to support their parenting needs.

Cohesion, which is the second construct measured by the co-parenting scale, refers to the amount of togetherness or consistency displayed in the co-parenting relationship. Consequently, this portion of the scale measures how much agreement exists across households. When there is a lot of rigidity or lack of agreement, some dysfunction may exist in the co-parenting relationship. Take a look at the statements in this section to determine the level of cohesiveness in your co-parenting relationship.

Cohesion

Rank each of these statements on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being never and 5 being always.

  • We have similar goals and expectations for our child.
  • We agree on general standards for our child's behavior.
  • We have similar rules for our child.
  • We disagree on our child's curfews, sleep schedules, and routines.*
  • I disagree with the way my former partner raises our child.*
  • My former partner disagrees with the way I raise our child.*
  • We have similar methods of discipline for our child.
  • We agree on what is best for our child and what our child needs.

*An asterisk indicates reverse scoring of the item with a 1 being always and a 5 being never.

Triangulation, which occurs when parents use their children as messengers or ask them to take sides in disagreements, is the third construct measured. The challenge with triangulation is that it crosses boundaries and puts children in roles they should never be expected to fill while circumventing direct communication among the adults. Review the statements in this section to determine if you or your former partner use triangulation instead of direct communication.

Triangulation

Rank each of these statements on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being never and 5 being always.

  • When we argue, our child takes sides.
  • Rather than expressing frustrations directly, my former partner shares them with our child.
  • I send messages to my former partner through our child.
  • My former partner sends messages to me through our child.
  • I ask our child about my former partner's personal life.
  • My former partner asks our child about my personal life.
  • Rather than expressing frustrations directly, I share them with our child.
  • Our child joins in or takes sides during our disagreements.

The Multidimensional Co-Parenting Scale also measures undermining, which is a covert—and sometimes abusive—way of invalidating the other parent. Many times, undermining manifests in a relationship when one parent refuses to acknowledge or support the other parent's thoughts, disciplinary actions, or suggestions regarding the child's care.

Additionally, when parents undermine each other, they also tend to speak poorly about one another and discredit their thoughts, their rules, and their parenting styles. The following section will help you determine if undermining is present in your co-parenting relationship.

Undermining

Rank each of these statements on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being never and 5 being always.

  • I respect my former partner's parenting decisions even when I disagree.*
  • My former partner respects my parenting decisions even when they disagree.*
  • I question or disregard my former partner's rules and/or discipline for our child.
  • My former partner questions my rules and/or discipline for our child.
  • I do not trust my former partner's ability to make parenting decisions.
  • My former partner does not trust my ability to make parenting decisions.
  • My former partner tries to show our child they are better than me.
  • I try to show our child that I am better than my former partner.

*An asterisk indicates reverse scoring of the item with a 1 being always and a 5 being never.

Disparagement is the fifth construct measured by the co-parenting scale and addresses how parents communicate with and treat one another. Similar to undermining, disparagement reflects a co-parenting relationship that is unhealthy and lacking cohesiveness. Engaging in name-calling and making negative or sarcastic remarks about the other parent are often reflected in this section. Review the following statements to determine if you or your former partner use disparagement when you are co-parenting.

Disparagement

Rank each of these statements on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being never and 5 being always.

  • I am careful not to talk bad about or insult my former partner in front of our child.*
  • My former partner is careful not to talk bad about or insult me in front of our child.*
  • My former partner is sarcastic or makes jokes about my parenting.
  • I am sarcastic or make jokes about my former partner's parenting.
  • We express contempt or dislike for one another.
  • My former partner criticizes or belittles me.
  • I criticize or belittle my former partner.
  • We say hurtful or mean things about one another in front of our child.

*An asterisk indicates reverse scoring of the item with a 1 being always and a 5 being never.

The final construct measured is overt conflict. This section measures the direct, openly aggressive, and negative exchanges between parents. Read through the statements in this section to determine how you and your former partner handle conflict while co-parenting.

Overt Conflict

Rank each of these statements on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being never and 5 being always.

  • Our child is aware that we argue over parenting issues.
  • We yell at each other in front of our child.
  • Conversations between us are tense or sarcastic.
  • Disagreements with my former partner become hostile or aggressive.
  • Interactions with my former partner are uncomfortable and/or unpleasant.
  • During disagreements, my former partner yells or screams at me.
  • During disagreements, I yell or scream at my former partner.
  • I can discuss parenting concerns with my former partner without yelling or screaming.*

*An asterisk indicates reverse scoring of the item with a 1 being always and a 5 being never.

Once you have assigned a score to each statement in each section, add them all together. The lowest score possible is 48 while the highest score possible is 240. The lower the score, the higher functioning the relationship. Meanwhile, higher scores indicate that the former partners have an unhealthy co-parenting relationship.

Benefits of Healthy Co-Parenting Relationships

Although it is not always easy, a healthy, respectful co-parenting relationship is entirely possible with intention and patience. This means that all of the adults involved in your child’s life communicate calmly and respectfully.

They also pay support on time, honor pick-up and drop-off times, return items like clothing, toys, and books, and don't use the kids as conduits for information. They also collaborate on scheduling conflicts and speak positively about the other adults in the child's life.

Another hallmark of healthy co-parenting relationships is that each parent views childrearing as a team effort. For instance, payments for extracurricular activities or school functions are split as equitably as possible. What's more, both parents are mindful of not taking advantage of one another.

High-functioning relationships also allow kids to transition from one house to another without drama. They also feel safe having a relationship with both parents. Children should never be exposed to an adult’s negative feelings about the divorce or their former partner. They only need to know they are loved and safe.

Furthermore, the biological parents should express appreciation for the step-parents' help and support. When all these attributes are present, children grow up trusting that the adults in their lives will put their emotional well-being and safety ahead of parental anger, jealousy, or vindictiveness.

By creating a collaborative co-parenting environment, your children are more likely to be emotionally healthy and resilient. They thrive when they know they have a safe, loving haven at both homes where they are seen, heard, and feel a sense of belonging.

Dangers of Negative Co-Parenting Relationships

Conversely, if you or your former partner don't work as a team and actively sabotage one another, your children will suffer. For instance, if you argue with your ex in front of your kids or make sarcastic or mean remarks behind their back, you are causing your kids emotional distress.

Likewise, negative co-parenting relationships are emotionally damaging to your children with long-term effects. Children need to feel that they are safe to have a relationship with both parents. If one parent demands loyalty over another parent, the children are put in an inappropriate and difficult situation.

Remember, your child is one half of each parent. When one parent demands that children disavow the other parent, the children struggle with hating or disavowing half of themselves. This experience can cause deep and conflicting emotional wounds.

Getting Help

Consequently, if you and your former partner have a high score on the co-parenting scale above, it's time to seek help from a family therapist to help you resolve your co-parenting issues. Talk to your former partner about your concerns and ask how you both can improve communication and make things easier on your children.

Keep the focus on what is best for the kids and how they are impacted by the negativity rather than dwelling on how your former partner treats you or makes you feel. Ideally, you can come to an agreement on how to create a safe and loving environment for the kids.

If you still are experiencing conflict after every effort to work collaboratively has been exhausted, or if your former partner refuses to participate in therapy, you may need to create some boundaries to protect you and your children. For instance, you can designate public locations, like the school or the library, as pick-up and drop-off locations to reduce the amount of conflict experienced in your home.

You also can limit communication to texting or emails and only discuss things that pertain to the children like scheduling, activities, and schoolwork. There are some excellent apps that make this easier.

And if your former partner is vindictive toward your new partner, it's important that you limit their interactions with one another. For instance, be sure you handle all communication regarding the children. You also can consider blocking social media, emails, and phone numbers on your new partner's behalf.

A Word From Verywell

Remember, you cannot control your former partner. You only have control over your actions. So, unless your children are being mistreated, abused, or neglected, you may need to ignore your former partner's bad behavior. Focus on creating a safe and emotionally supportive space for your children that is free of negativity. When your children are grown, they will understand that you were there for them.

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Article Sources
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