The term ‘co-parenting’ refers to the relationship between parents and how they manage to navigate parenthood together, such as their level of communication, shared values, boundaries, structure, consequences used with children and so on.
Co-parenting can be used to describe any parenting relationship, be it those where parents are together in a romantic rapport and those who are separated. Research highlights that the type of co-parenting adopted impacts on family dynamics and the children’s development.
The co-parenting relationship is said to influence the children’s socio-emotional adjustment, mental health, internalising and externalising behaviours. This article aims to emphasise the importance of developing a collaborative co-parenting relationship and offers some basic suggestions on how this can be facilitated.
Reflecting on one’s own childhood
It is common for parents to have different opinions about how to parent in the best possible way. This divergence of opinion may be brought about by the parents’ own upbringing experiences in their family of origin. Some parents may wish to follow blindly how they were parented by repeating the same approach with their own children.
On the other hand, some parents may reflect on the positive and negative approaches they experienced as children and they may learn how to be different as parents by thinking about what they needed most as children. Parents’ ability to reflect on their own upbringing and learn from it is pivotal both for their own well-being and for the benefit of their children.
In supportive sessions with professionals, parents may be encouraged to reflect about their upbringing and what they wish to change, as well as carry forward from it in their own current family. Such reflections are best started as early as possible, beginning from when the couple is transitioning to parenthood.
“The best security blanket a child can have is parents who respect each other”Jane Blaustone
Educating yourself and discussing with your partner about the various parenting styles is important. Research suggests that children and adolescents fare better in their development and their relationships when a positive parenting approach is adopted by both parents.
Positive parenting underlines the importance of developing a secure relationship and connection with the children, involving being attuned to their feelings, empathising, supporting them in their endeavours, while also providing a sense of structure, boundaries and natural or logical consequences. Positive parenting is linked with better self-esteem, enhanced relationships and well-being.
Moving from ‘being there’ to ‘being with’
From infancy to adolescence, parents may take up different parental roles. In Malta, despite that gender roles are changing, it may still be more common to see mothers take on more parental involvement when compared to fathers. There may be various reasons for this, including gate-keeping and fathers feeling not well-equipped enough.
The father’s role in child development is fundamental. Studies show that when fathers are more involved, children are more likely to be securely attached, develop healthier peer relationships and have good academic achievement. Such positive outcomes may continue to encourage parents to work together for their children’s best interest.
The term ‘gate-keeping’ refers to when one parent, generally the parent who takes on more responsibility at home, intentionally or unconsciously, would not encourage the other to be involved in child rearing practices.
For instance, some mothers may fear that their partners may not be as capable as them to soothe their infants and may thus withhold opportunities for father-baby one-to-one time as they may think that it would be too much responsibility on the father. The father, on the other end, may feel not capable enough and may trust more in the mother’s role.
Research suggests how important it is for partners to praise each other’s parenting attempts and to build on them constructively (Cowan & Cowan, 2019). Children feel safer when parents show a more united front. As parents it is key to give constructive feedback to each other and not undermine the other in the process of parenting.
Mothers and fathers need to encourage one another to have one-to-one time and special bonding opportunities with their infants, children and adolescents. Through communication, support, reflection and consistency, our parental skills will further develop. In turn, this would continue to benefit the co-parenting relationship, parent-child relationship, couple relationship and child development.
Discuss constructively, even if separated
The infants’, children’s and adolescents’ experiences of how their parents handle conflict may impact on their well-being. As co-parents, we have the responsibility to be respectful to each other for the benefit of the co-parenting relationship and, ultimately, the child.
Parents are encouraged to find various ways of communicating with each other about their children’s ongoing development and experiences.
Some parents who are separated opt for video calls, e-mails and having a shared calendar. Clear communication is key as no parent can mind read. It is crucial to keep in mind that you will always be your children’s parents even if your couple relationship has ended.
“It is in the children’s best interest that parents highlight each other’s strengths”
Hence, it may be helpful to ask yourself: “How will this benefit my child? How can I support my child to have a better relationship with his father/mother?”.
It is in the children’s best interest that parents highlight each other’s strengths and do not use their children as ‘messengers’. Co-parents are encouraged to express gratitude and say “thank you” even in front of their children to model positive relationships.
When the co-parenting relationship is a respectful one, children learn positive relationship skills that will continue to help them in their own future relationships.
Charlene Aquilina is a clinical psychologist and family therapist.