5 Things Divorced Parents Can Do to Co-Parent Better, According to Experts and a Teen Who Is Living It

In this week's 'Teen Talk' column, a teen and an expert weigh in on how parents can strategize their co-parenting experience in a way that's best for the kids.

Illustration of a car driving from dad's house to mom's house
Photo: Illustration by Eric Jeon

Since my parents have been separated for as long as I can remember, I'm used to the circumstances. I travel between two homes and when I was younger I would have to take an extra bag of clothes or supplies to school, which bothered me as no one understood my situation. As I got older I got used to the idea of catching the bus from one parent's house to go to school and leaving school with the other parent. It's an adjustment that grows easier over time until it becomes unnoticeable. My family works hard to be flexible and keep my lifestyle as stable as possible. Here's what has worked for my family and what experts say parents can do better to co-parent with their kids' best interest in mind.

1. Keep Open Communication

A Teen's Take: When I was younger I remember arguments my parents would have over the phone or even in person. From my point of view as a child, it always seemed like the reason behind their fight was so minuscule. Although I wasn't old enough to understand it then, I now realize that it all comes down to communication or lack thereof. Even now that I am 15 years old, I find myself put in the middle of situations that are a result of poor parental communication. For example, I'm sometimes told one thing from one parent and another from the other parent, which puts me in the middle of a predicament that I have no control over. I've also felt trapped when my parents voice their opinions about a decision my other parent made to me instead of communicating with each other. I'm at an age where I can try to encourage them to talk to each other directly, but there are still some problems that I have no say over and can only hope they communicate better.

An Expert's Take: Don't use your kid as a messenger because that can put unnecessary pressure on the teen, and it's likely to cause miscommunication, says Parents advisor Eileen Kennedy-Moore, Ph.D., a child psychologist and author of Kid Confidence: Help Your Child Make Friends, Build Resilience, and Develop Real Self-Esteem. "Remember that game telephone, where one whispers to another, who whispers to another, who whispers to another? Pretty soon the message gets completely garbled," she says. "Also, what if the teen accidentally forgets to pass along the message? Or, what if the second parent has a question ('What did he mean by that?' 'Why does she want that?') that the teen can't answer? Parents need to communicate directly with each other, not through the teen."

2. Use a Calendar App and Set Reminders

A Teen's Take: I still experience moments where one of my parents may not fully communicate if they're running late for a pick-up or did not realize it was "their day." Mistakes happen in scheduling, but after a while, these small issues add up to form what is portrayed as a lack of consideration from the other's perspective. In situations like this where the parents and child are really expected to make adjustments for the sake of successful co-parenting, every detail counts. Before having the responsibilities and technology that I do as a teen, my parents for the most part would regulate my whereabouts according to when pick-up and drop-offs were good for them. The older I got, the fuller my schedule became and I had to take the responsibility of working out my schedule with my parents and letting them know my whereabouts so we can work out things like transportation.

An Expert's Take: "If everyone knows what to expect, it's easier to make plans, and it's less likely that there will be mistakes that leave the teen feeling like lost luggage that someone forgot to pick up," says Dr. Kennedy-Moore. "The teen needs access to the calendar app and reminders, as well as the parents."

3. Make Both Homes Safe Places

A Teen's Take: COVID-19 has become a sensitive issue to try and make adjustments around and when it comes to co-parenting, my parents have not always seen eye to eye on what is safe or manageable. In the earlier stages of the pandemic, one of my parents was initially opposed to me going between homes as often as I was. They eventually reached a level of compromise, but this experience showed me how important it is that each home feel safe for me no matter the circumstances. One parent cannot help but worry when they have no clue and control once the child is in a different household, but agreeing on what precautions should be taken and letting the child know so that they feel comfortable can keep both the child and parents involved feeling safe and comfortable in even the toughest situations.

An Expert's Take: "No two people are ever going to parent the same way, but for the kids' sake, it's best if they can come to an agreement on the big issues related to safety," says Dr. Kennedy-Moore. "Kids count on their parents to keep them safe. If teens believe one or both parents aren't concerned about their safety, they feel truly terrified."

If co-parents have different opinions, she suggests having a conversation that includes the teen, where all involved acknowledge these differences but work to find a compromise. "Sometimes, divorced or separated parents fall into wanting to be the 'nice' parent, perhaps to make up for the other parent, whom they consider the 'mean' parent. This never works. It's also horribly confusing for kids. And safety has nothing to do with 'niceness.'"

4. Take Turns Fairly

A Teen's Take: Parents have different schedules and family needs so trying to make sure that the children are getting an equal or fair amount of time with one another can be challenging. I personally have never gone a month without switching households, yet I have known other people to spend a summer or a few months on end before switching. Regardless of how much time is spent with each parent, I think it's important to maintain a fair amount of stays between each household to allow the parents to grow a bond with their children and implement their teachings for their child's best interest. Allowing each parent to have fair parenting experience ties in with flexibility and cooperation from both parents. I feel like my parents have both done well in this area by giving each other a few days out of the week or alternating weeks like I have been this summer.

An Expert's Take: This is a good time to remember that parents choose to get divorced, not children. Dr. Kennedy-Moore says that in addition to being fair about how your child spends her time, it's important to never speak badly about the ex to your child. "It's tempting to want to vent to the kid about the terrible things the ex did, spelling out how annoying, and inconsiderate, or even dumb the ex is... Don't do this!," she says. "It's a terrible burden to put on a kid. Keep in mind that your child is half from the other parent. If you say bad things about the other parent, you are condemning half of your child. If you hold your ex in contempt, you're communicating to your child that they are half worthless."

5. Consider Monthly Family Meetings

A Teen's Take: Each parent may have their own agenda of plans and schedule changes, but meetings about upcoming events could always improve organization and ensure everyone is on the same page. It is a task in itself to keep up with the child's schedule and as a parent fitting it into your own, but factoring in the other parent's schedule to ensure all rotations move smoothly takes an extra layer of effort. It could be stressful but it doesn't have to be with family meetings to keep things in order.

An Expert's Take: Keep these meetings civil, Dr. Kennedy-Moore says. "Doing this well is a great model for kids of grown-ups behaving like grown-ups." She also suggests that if you are struggling through your co-parenting experience, consider seeing a mental health professional or joining a support group.

Every now and then I do wonder how things would be different if my parents were still together. But these thoughts always end with me realizing that I wouldn't change my circumstances for anything. It clearly has its challenges, but those challenges don't take away from a beautiful family and all that it has to offer.

Arden Thompson is a 15-year-old rising high school Sophomore enrolled in her school's science and tech program.

Read more Teen Talk columns here.

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