We’ve Just Separated; Now What?” Series, Part I: What is Co-Parenting?

January 4th


Divorced Parents

Are you stepping into 2024 as a newly minted co-parent? You’re not alone: statistically, the first Monday after New Year’s Day is the most popular day for divorce filings. Unfortunately, no one hands you a manual on navigating this major life transition, and diving into the unknown can feel overwhelming. That’s what KohParenting is here for! We’re starting the year with a series for co-parenting newbies, veterans, or anyone looking to enhance their knowledge of foundational topics. This week, we’ll define co-parenting: what it is, what it isn’t, and how to do it right.


  • Two main styles of separated or divorced parents include co-parenting and parallel parenting.
  • Co-parenting means that both parenting partners try to care for their child jointly; they collaborate and work together to make decisions regarding parenting.
  • Parallel parenting means that parenting partners operate from two separate realms; they each make independent decisions with limited collaboration or communication!
  • Research into both styles shows that co-parenting can lead to happier, healthier children and parenting partners and mitigate the potential negative impacts of parental separation or divorce

Defining Co-Parenting:

The internet, social media, and self-help industry teem with information for parents. Many terms get bandied about to describe the different relationship dynamics between those who have separated or divorced. After all, every family is unique, and there’s no “one size fits all” for parenting agreements! But to make sense of it all, let’s talk about two main classifications: co-parenting and parallel parenting.

Co-parenting is defined as any situation in which parental figures jointly care for their child. Technically, this definition includes romantically linked, cohabitating, or married couples. However, this word is typically applied to divorced or separated partners: two separate entities coming together to share child-rearing responsibilities.

It would be easy to assume that two parenting partners automatically become “co-parents” since they both have a connection (biological or otherwise) to the child. But co-parenting encompasses so much more and requires conscious decision-making and ongoing effort from the separated or divorced parents.  This synergy can be difficult to achieve; sometimes parents resist or avoid it altogether.

Parallel parenting describes an alternate scenario in which each partner cares for their child separately, with minimal contact or collaboration. This may describe scenarios in which both parents share custody but conduct their custody time entirely independently, with little communication or interaction with each other.

These two types of parenting make for distinct experiences for the child. In co-parenting families, children ideally see their family as integrated, with both parents working together and establishing some sort of consistency or rhythm in their respective households. Their co-parents may not always agree or do things in the same way, but they project the message that they’re on the same team. In parallel parenting families, children may feel like they live in two separate worlds, worlds that don’t come together.

Misconceptions about Parallel and Co-Parenting:

By definition, parallel and co-parenting may seem to represent two mutually exclusive extremes. But in the real world, things aren’t so black and white, and a more realistic way to view them would be as two ends of a continuum. Parenting partners could fall anywhere in between the two or oscillate back and forth depending on the situation. Read on as we clarify other common misconceptions:

parallel parenting
Co-parenting is the “right” way to parent, and parallel parenting is “wrong.”
First of all, let’s reiterate: there is NEVER one “right” way to parent; parenting isn’t prescriptive, and no one approach works for everyone. You and your ex must choose what’s best for your family.

Ample research does suggest that co-parenting can be an effective way to ease the transition after a separation or divorce and can lead to greater satisfaction for parents and children. Kids from co-parenting families often have fewer mental health or behavioral issues and may be able to maintain closer relationships with each parent. Parents’ ability to work together with minimal conflict seem to promote optimal development in children. Overall: a win-win.

However, that doesn’t mean that co-parenting is the only viable option. Some co-parents may not be able to agree on how they want to care for their child or work together peacefully. Parallel parenting may be the best option for those families with a history of conflict, particularly if that conflict has led to violence or unsafe situations. In this case, both parties focus on what they do during their parenting time with their child, maintaining a sense of autonomy even though they know they cannot control what happens during the other parent’s custody time.

You’re co-parenting or you’re not; it’s all or nothing.
There’s no exact recipe for co-parenting, and it’s not a black-or-white dynamic. Think of it instead as a continuum that parents may travel along over time. Your collaboration with your parenting partner may vary at different moments in your journey or in different domains of your life. Let’s say you and your ex are newly separated, and you aspire to work together as much as possible to care for your child but aren’t ready to do so yet. For example, you may be comfortable attending all your child’s school or sporting events together but wouldn’t dream of celebrating holidays together. Your comfort level and effectiveness as co-parents can evolve over time.
You must be great friends with your ex to co-parent.
Have you read the headlines and seen pictures of infamous divorced celebrities smiling from ear to ear while vacationing together with their children? Or perhaps you’ve heard stories of “bestie” exes who are just as close as ever, even after their romance ends? Those scenarios do happen, but they’re not the norm. They’re also not a prerequisite for co-parenting! If you reimagine your co-parent as a business partner or teammate, do you still feel like you need to be friends to work well together? Probably not! You just need to respect each other, communicate effectively, and be clear about your goals.
Co-parenting will resolve all your disagreements, forever.
Ah… wouldn’t it be lovely if co-parenting were the solution to all your problems with your ex? Unfortunately, this likely won’t be the case. You and your parenting partner will face countless decisions as you raise your child, and it would be virtually impossible to agree on everything. Furthermore, times change, situations change, and people change… so what’s best for your family at one moment may not be what’s best forever. You’ll need to adjust aspects of your parenting agreement or dynamic as your child grows and develops. However, co-parenting provides you with a solid foundation to renegotiate these matters. The more effort you put into your collaboration, the more quickly you’ll be able to resolve issues that arise in the future.

The 5 Pillars of Co-Parenting:

Co-parenting is a choice and requires intentional habits from both parenting partners. There’s no “correct” way to do it; finding what works best for your family can take time and practice. However, through years of working with co-parents across the globe, we have pieced out some common traits that set some apart from the rest. Here’s Koh-Parenting’s list of the 5 foundational qualities of healthy co-parenting:

They put the child first.
Effective co-parents place their child’s best interest above all else, and this principle guides them in all they do. They put aside their differences and keep their child’s well-being top-of-mind.
They change their perspective on their relationship.
They view their co-parenting relationship with their ex as distinct from their formerly romantic relationship. They understand that this relationship is new and different and will require adjustments in how they interact and treat each other. They purposefully renegotiate their boundaries.
They establish healthy patterns of communication.
They respect each other, and this comes through in their tone, word choice, and body language. They update each other on what’s going on with their child and promptly share important information (i.e., schedule changes and upcoming events). They also check in regularly about what’s working and what isn’t and brainstorm solutions collaboratively. Furthermore, they focus their communication on their child, avoid unrelated or triggering topics, and refrain from badmouthing each other.
They take care of themselves.
They understand that their physical, mental, and emotional health impacts their co-parenting and do everything possible to attend to their own needs. They prioritize healthy habits, nurture their identities as people (not only as parents), and cultivate social connections and hobbies. They also seek support when they’re struggling.
They commit and keep showing up.
Healthy co-parents accept the ups and downs of their journey and give themselves and each other grace. They commit to staying the course, even when the going gets tough, because they have faith that by adhering to the principles we’ve mentioned above, they can achieve their goals.

Co-Parenting as a Learning Process

At KohParenting, our mission is to demystify co-parenting and help parenting partners attain the co-parenting relationship of their dreams. We hope this post clarifies what co-parenting is and isn’t, whether you’re just getting started on your journey or have been at it for a while. Co-parenting is a process, and it’s never too late to learn! We’d love to know: what does co-parenting mean to you? What have been the biggest surprises about co-parenting? Tell us in the comments below!

Join our community where you can stay informed on what's happening in the world of co-parenting and learn more about what we do.

Kohparenting upcoming segments

Stay tuned for upcoming segments of our series, “We’ve Just Separated: Now What?” in which we’ll break down foundational topics in co-parenting. In Part II, we’ll dive deeper into the new dynamics of the co-parenting relationship: how it’s different from the romantic relationship, and how parenting partners can separate the present from the past.

By Anne Shyamanthi-Nicholas

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