Creating Co Parenting Boundaries To Make Your Life Easier (and Your Kids Happier)

Written by Dr Lucy Russell DClinPsyc CPsychol AFBPsS
Dr Lucy Russell Clinical Psychologist Founder of They Are The Future
Author: Dr Lucy Russell, Clinical Psychologist

As a child clinical psychologist, I often work with families to help them navigate the complex terrain of co-parenting.

It’s no secret that raising children is one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences in life.

However, when it comes to co-parenting, things can quickly become complicated and stressful.

The good news is that there are tools and strategies that can help you establish healthy boundaries and communication with your co-parent.

In this article, I will share some tips and insights to help you establish co-parenting boundaries that work for your family.

So, whether you’re going through a divorce, separation, or just trying to co-parent with an ex, keep reading for some practical advice.

The Challenges of Co Parenting

Co-parenting can be challenging for even the most amicable of ex-partners.

The journey of parenting doesn’t end just because a relationship does, and navigating shared responsibility and parallel parenting can be difficult.

When there are different parenting styles and beliefs involved, it can become even more complicated especially if there is high conflict, or one or both of you has a new partner.

a mother and father with little boy at parent consultation co-parenting

Co-parenting takes effort and commitment, and it can be so tough to manage the big emotions that will inevitably arise.

But it is possible to establish a healthy and functional co-parenting relationship for the benefit of your children.

The Importance of Boundaries in Co Parenting

Setting and respecting boundaries is essential in co-parenting because it helps to establish clear expectations, rules and responsibilities for each parent.

It reduces the likelihood of future conflicts and misunderstandings.

When boundaries are established and followed consistently, it can help to create a more stable and secure environment for the children, as well as improve the communication and overall relationship between co-parents.

Modelling a healthy relationship after a break-up is certainly not easy, but firm boundaries are the best way to get there.

Ultimately, boundaries allow co-parents to focus on what’s important – the well-being of our children.

co parents drawing up written agreement with little girl in between

What Actually Are Boundaries in Co Parenting?

Boundaries in co-parenting are a bit like traffic lights.

They help everyone know where they stand and what’s expected of them. They can be the difference between a smooth ride and a car crash.

But just like traffic lights, they only work if everyone follows them.

So, think of boundaries as a set of guidelines that you and your co-parent agree on to help you navigate your parenting journey together.

They might include things like who is responsible for drop-offs and pick-ups, how you communicate with each other, and what decisions you make jointly.

Of course, boundaries are not just for a biological parent. They are necessary for new partners, who will inevitably come into the mix with their own set of questions, values and beliefs about how parenting is to be done.

What Different Types of Boundaries Should Co Parents set?

When it comes to co-parenting, setting boundaries is essential to create a healthy and positive environment for everyone involved.

There are different types of boundaries including time, communication and parenting styles.

Time boundaries involve determining when each parent will have the child or children.

It’s important to establish a consistent schedule and stick to it as much as possible to avoid confusion and minimize stress.

a mother at a computer smiling at tween daughter

Communication boundaries involve deciding how often and by what means the parents will communicate with each other about their child’s well-being.

It’s important to establish clear and respectful guidelines to avoid miscommunication and potential conflict.

Parenting style boundaries involve agreeing on how to raise the child or children.

Each parent may have different approaches, so it’s essential to find common ground and work together to create a consistent and cohesive parenting plan.

This is the most complex type of boundary, especially if you have a former spouse with a very different parenting style or a new partner who you don’t know well.

Remember, setting boundaries isn’t about controlling each other or the situation, but rather creating a supportive and cooperative co-parenting relationship.

It’s horrible feeling that your child is not being parented as you would like in the “new family” setup that your former partner has created.

If this is the case for you, you’re allowed to feel everything you feel. Your personal feelings are always valid.

But the best you can do for your child or children is try to build a strong co-parenting relationship so that you can make reasonable requests if you have concerns.

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The Benefits of Co Parenting Boundaries

Setting boundaries in coparenting can make life easier for parents in so many ways!

First and foremost, it can help reduce conflict and misunderstandings. Think of it as putting up road signs that guide you and your co-parent towards a smoother journey.

Boundaries can also clarify expectations and roles, making it easier to divvy up responsibilities and avoid stepping on each other’s toes.

Plus, setting boundaries can even save you time and energy that might otherwise be spent arguing or trying to read each other’s minds.

And who doesn’t want more time and energy to spend on the fun stuff, like making silly faces with your kids or binge-watching your favourite show?

Setting boundaries in co-parenting not only makes life easier for you as a parent, but it also improves the happiness of children.

Boundaries provide structure and stability for kids, allowing them to feel safe and secure.

Imagine if we let children eat chocolate cake for breakfast, watch TV until midnight, and skip school whenever they wanted. Chaos!

Setting boundaries gives children a clear understanding of what is expected of them and what they can expect from their parents.

A happy child equals a happy parent, and a happy parent equals a happy life!

What Should Co Parenting Boundaries Look Like?

Always write down your boundaries.

If something is in writing, we are much more likely to stick to it.

We are clearer in our heads about the boundary, and we can go back and check the agreement if we are unsure.

Here are some examples:

The Smiths

  • Time boundaries: Mum Eva has the kids on weekdays and Dad John has them on weekends. This is a custody schedule directed by court order.
  • Communication boundaries: They communicate through text and email only, and avoid phone calls or in-person discussions unless absolutely necessary.
  • Parenting style boundaries: They agree on certain parenting principles such as no corporal punishment. They try to maintain consistency in rules and routines between their two households. They used the services of a mediator to develop consistent ground rules, which help provide consistency for all family members.

The Garcias

  • Time boundaries: They have a flexible schedule, but always plan out their weeks 3 months in advance to avoid conflicts.
  • Communication boundaries: They talk to each other regularly about their children’s schedules and activities, but avoid discussing anything about personal life or getting into arguments.
  • Parenting style boundaries: They have slightly different parenting styles, but they respect each other’s approach. They use text message to work together to find a middle ground that works for both of them.
a dad kneeling down with little boy in front of steps

The Johnsons

  • Time boundaries: They have a set schedule with specific days and times for each parent to have the kids.
  • Communication boundaries: They use a shared online calendar to keep track of their children’s activities and appointments. They only discuss changes or conflicts in scheduling through the calendar.
  • Parenting style boundaries: They have very different parenting styles, so they have agreed to have separate rules and routines in their respective households. They also discuss major decisions or events in their child’s life together beforehand.

How Can You Set Boundaries if They Were Nonexistent Before or They Have Slipped?

I understand that communication with your co-parent can sometimes be a challenge, and setting boundaries may seem daunting.

However, by starting small and being clear and consistent in your messaging, you can create a more productive and successful co-parenting relationship.

I recommend you adopt the mentality of starting afresh.

Ask your ex-partner if you can re-think the boundaries so that you can cover all important information and maintain a healthy co-parenting relationship.

Remember to focus on the needs of your child, and try to find common ground where possible.

It may take time and effort, but with persistence and patience, you can establish healthy boundaries and build a more harmonious co-parenting dynamic.

How Can You Set Co Parenting Boundaries if the Relationship is Acrimonious?

Setting Coparenting boundaries can be especially challenging when the relationship between co-parents is tense or acrimonious.

This might be high-conflict situations or in cases of parental alienation.

However, it’s still possible to establish boundaries in these situations.

You may need to use a mediator or a family therapist to help facilitate the process, or communicate via written correspondence rather than face-to-face.

Obviously, it’s important to keep the focus on the needs and well-being of the children, rather than getting caught up in personal conflicts.

Nobody wants their co-parenting strategy to be decided by the courts, but you must remember that if this happens it’s not your fault.

Narcissistic or Toxic Co-Parents

It’s much more difficult if you feel you have a toxic ex or perhaps they have narcissistic traits / narcissistic personality disorder.

A narcissistic ex will struggle to consider the child’s best interest, making the situation about them.

As a child of a narcissistic parent (and another brilliant parent) I can tell you that just maintaining your own boundaries as much as you can, can be highly effective and protective for the children.

Even if effective co-parenting and open communication isn’t possible, you can be a warm, consistent and safe parent and keep your own clear boundaries.

In situations like this you will need to take extra care of your emotional health as well as your child’s.

Try to reach out for support from family and friends as much as possible to validate your feelings and parenting choices.

Practical Tips for Setting Boundaries

“I” Statements

Using “I” statements instead of “you” statements when negotiating with a coparent can help to reduce defensiveness and conflict.

“You” statements can come across as blaming or accusing, which can cause the other person to become defensive or resistant to what is being said.

“I” statements, on the other hand, are more neutral and express how you feel or what you need in a situation.

By using “I” statements, you can express your thoughts and feelings without attacking or blaming the other person, which can help to promote cooperation and understanding.

Additionally, “I” statements can help to keep the focus on the issue at hand rather than devolving into a personal attack or argument.

two separated parents co parenting young child

Wait Until You Are Calm

Waiting until you are in a calm and positive state of mind before negotiating boundaries with a co-parent is important for several reasons.

Firstly, it helps you approach the conversation from a rational and logical perspective, rather than an emotional one.

When emotions are high, it can be difficult to communicate effectively and make decisions that are in the best interests of your child.

Secondly, negotiating boundaries when you are calm and positive can lead to a more collaborative and cooperative approach to co-parenting.

It allows both parents to be open to compromise and find solutions that work for everyone involved.

Finally, it sets a positive tone for future co-parenting interactions and can help build a foundation of mutual respect and understanding.

Be Specific

Being specific about your needs when negotiating boundaries with a co parent is important because it clarifies your expectations and avoids misunderstandings.

Never assume that they understand what you are thinking or feeling.

When you are clear about what you need, your coparent will have a better understanding of how to support you and your child.

This will also help prevent any confusion or disagreements in the future, as both of you will have a clear understanding of what is expected of each other.

What to Do When Circumstances Change for You or Your Co Parent

Life is unpredictable, and circumstances can change at any time, whether it’s a new job, a move to a different city, or a global pandemic.

When it comes to co parenting, these changes can require renegotiating boundaries to ensure that both parents’ and children’s needs and schedules are still being met.

It’s important to approach these changes with an open mind and a willingness to compromise. Communication is key, so be sure to have a conversation with your coparent to discuss any necessary adjustments.

And remember, it’s okay if things don’t go perfectly.

As long as you both are committed to working together and making it work for your family, you’ll be able to navigate any changes that come your way.

Here are some examples of situations in which you might need to renegotiate your boundaries with a coparent:

  1. Your child’s needs change. For example, they develop a medical condition that requires more attention and care.
  2. A co-parent’s schedule changes. Maybe they start a new job or take on new responsibilities at work.
  3. Your child’s behavior changes, e.g. they start having trouble in school.
  4. New romantic relationships start. Perhaps one of you starts dating someone new or gets remarried.
  5. Your child gets older and their needs change. For instance they start high school and need more independence.
  6. One co-parent moves away.
  7. You or your co-parent experience a major life change such as illness, injury or having to care for a sick family member.

In all of these situations, it may be necessary to renegotiate your boundaries with your co-parent to ensure that your child’s needs are being met and that both parents are able to effectively co-parent.

It’s really important to be on the ball with this and renegotiate in good time so that you don’t run into problems.

close up on a dad and little boy holding hands

How Do You Know When You Need the Help of a Mediator as a Coparent?

It can be difficult to know when to bring in a mediator to help with any co-parenting challenges.

Here are some signs that it might be time for you to seek outside help:

  • Communication has completely broken down and your attempts to resolve issues have been unsuccessful.
  • One or both parents feel bullied or intimidated by the other.
  • Conflicts are causing distress to the children.
  • The same issues keep coming up and there seems to be no progress.
  • One or both parents are unable to put aside their personal differences for the sake of the children.
  • Legal action is being considered or has been taken.

If any of these sound familiar, it may be time to consider bringing in a neutral third-party mediator to help facilitate communication and problem-solving.

How to Find a Mediator

In the UK, you can find a mediator through the Family Mediation Council.

The Council has a search function on its website where parents can find a local mediator.

Another option is to contact a family law solicitor who can refer you to a mediator. You can also get advice on this subject through the Citizens’ Advice Bureau.

In the USA, you can find a mediator through local court systems or through professional organizations such as the Academy of Professional Family Mediators or the Association for Conflict Resolution.

Some private mediators may also advertise their services online or in directories.

Summary

Establishing healthy boundaries in co-parenting is crucial for creating a stable and supportive environment for children.

Setting clear expectations and guidelines for time, communication, and parenting styles can help reduce conflicts and misunderstandings between co-parents.

It’s important to remember that setting boundaries isn’t about control or power, but rather about working together to prioritize the well-being of the children involved.

With patience, persistence, and a focus on the needs of the children, co-parents can usually establish productive and positive relationships that make your lives easier and your kids happier.

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Dr Lucy Russell is a UK clinical psychologist who works with children and families. Her work involves both therapeutic support and autism assessments. She is the Clinical Director of Everlief Child Psychology, and also worked in the National Health Service for many years. In 2019 Lucy launched They Are The Future, a support website for parents of school-aged children.

Through TATF Lucy is passionate about giving practical, manageable strategies to parents and children who may otherwise struggle to find the support they need.

Lucy is a mum to two teenage children. She lives in Buckinghamshire with her husband, children, rescue dog and three rescue cats. She enjoys caravanning and outdoor living, singing and musical theatre.


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