What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think about navigating conflict with your child’s other parent? We often envision heated discussion, character attacks and that special mix of exasperation and apprehension that comes when we see paragraphs-long text messages on our phone from our co-parent.
Mamas, it doesn’t have to be this way. Conflict is simply two different perspectives existing relevant to the same issue, which is inevitable in co-parenting—and probably a large component of why you’re not still together.
When we accept that we are going to have differences of perspective with our co-parent, we are better able to show up to these conflicts with the intention of creating agreements that best reflect everyone’s needs—without being triggered into emotional reactivity.
I know this stuff isn’t easy. My own process of navigating conflict with my daughter’s father has been exhausting and infuriating. I’ve had to stand up for my own time and my emotional boundaries. I’ve had to work hard not to roll my eyes or take a condescending approach. And together we’ve had to move through disagreements about our daughter’s diet, schedule, screen time, and activities to create greater alignment and consistency, despite different parenting styles (and as of this writing, we’re still working on it).
As co-parents, we’ve gotten this far using a set of tools that helps shift dialogue from conflict to collaboration. These tools won’t apply to every co-parenting situation, as sometimes it’s the case that our children’s other parent simply isn’t able to refrain from abusive behavior, in which case a parallel parenting approach may be more appropriate.
Here are 10 strategies for getting past conflict with your co-parent.
1. Schedule check-ins.
Have regular parenting check-ins that occur either in person or over the phone, without your children present. This creates an opportunity to discuss what’s working and what’s not in your co-parenting agreements, to share observations and any concerns about your children, and to hash out any big shared decisions. Meeting regularly keeps tension from building up around differences, which when left to simmer eventually tends to come out as aggression.
2. Practice reflective listening.
Reflective listening, where each person listens and repeats back what they hear their co-parent saying (“What I’m hearing is… Am I understanding?”) can be a powerful tool. When we reflect on our understanding of our co-parent’s communication and invite them to let us know whether we’ve understood them correctly, our other parent feels heard. This means they should ideally have less of a need to resort to aggressive communication to get their point across, and it also creates more space for us to process and respond. Another bonus of reflective listening is that it tends to amplify the truly ridiculous or unreasonable requests we can sometimes field from our co-parents, which can (sometimes) help them to recognize this for themselves.
3. Prioritize appropriately.
Focus on creating agreements based on the needs and values of all parties. Attempt to find common ground by identifying your child’s needs first. Then express your own needs, and invite your co-parent to share theirs.
4. Acknowledge what you value in your co-parent.
A little recognition can go a long way toward transforming your co-parenting relationship to one of mutual positive regard. Sometimes this requires digging deep, but there is usually something we can find to appreciate about them or their relationship with our children.
5. Avoid “always” and “never.”
Tempting as these words are to use in the heat of the moment, most of the time it isn’t objectively true that anyone “always” or “never” does anything. Worse, these words tend to derail the conversation, with one side defending themselves and running through all of the exceptions to “always” and “never.” Even if the rare cases where an essentializing statement is accurate, it’s a better strategy to stick to what’s behind your frustration instead, keeping the conversation focused on creating solutions and agreements.
6. Refrain from character attacks.
Belittling, shaming and other unhelpful forms of communication are the quickest way to inflame conflict. This type of communication also degrades our children in that they are, on at least a cellular level, reflective of the other parent we are shaming and attacking. Keep it professional.
7. Know when to take a break.
If despite your best attempts you find a discussion escalating to an emotionally charged place where you’re no longer hearing each other or solving anything, pause the discussion.
8. Don’t text when triggered.
Seriously, put the phone down. If you’re bothered by your co-parent’s behavior or parenting, take some time before approaching them about it. Instead, vent to a friend or your journal and release your anger in a healthy physical way. If you find yourself on the receiving end of reactive text messages, don’t get hooked in to responding on the same level. Set a boundary to keep texting to logistics when things are tough, or block when your co-parent fails to respect this boundary.
9. Get help when you need it.
Recognize when you need professional help and explore mediation or co-parenting counseling
10. Visualize your goals in the relationship.
Pick a symbol that reminds you of your intentions for communicating with your co-parent and make it their photo icon on your phone. Mine is a wizard to remind me of the literal sorcery needed to have effective dialogue with my daughter’s father. Keep it silly though—not derogatory—so that you’re in your integrity if your child sees it.
Remember mamas, while we can’t control our coparent’s behavior, we do have the power to take care of our side of the street and communicate with the intention of effective collaboration. Even if your co-parent isn’t ready to meet you there, unhooking from cycles of unhelpful communication can reduce the emotional charge in how you experience their behavior. May your co-parenting journey be a peaceful one, in whatever form it takes.
Sarah Lou Warren is a psychotherapist in private practice and certified maternal mental health specialist. She writes about single motherhood, maternal mental health, and conscious parenting at (please link to https://www.sarahlouwarren.com) She lives on the Big Island of Hawaii with her daughter and pit mix.