Successful Co-Parenting Requires a Shift in Thinking


Three major shifts in language are important for successful co-parenting.  By sticking with the old language, conflict remains alive, parents continue to criticize their co-parent, and children are hurt by the words their parents are using. Changing our language will help change our thinking, and ultimately, our behavior. 

Have you ever known someone who told a lie so many times they sincerely started believing it was the truth? Or a child who was told over and over they were worthless and would never amount to anything until they finally started believing it. That same principle applies here.

Words have meaning and communicate things about our relationships and our identity, particularly when those words are repeated. New research on the brain suggests that using more positive words in our everyday conversations can change our attitudes and outlook on life as well as the people around us. Making small changes in the words we use can have big impacts on our children. In fact, your choice of words can help your children to have a more positive experience during the divorce. Below are a few small changes that we recommend.

Shift from say “ex” to “co-parent” 
The use of “ex” refers to the divorce and the past while the term “co” refers to together. When we refer to our past spouse as “ex,” we continue to point to what use to be, which reminds us of the brokenness and continues to keep the pain in the present. Shifting to “co-parent” emphasizes the person you divorced is still the child’s parent. This reminds both you and your child of a positive relationship that needs to be appreciated and nurtured.

In a similar fashion, some parents shift into using the other parent’s first name instead of “your dad” or “your mom.” This denies the other person is still the child’s parent. Instead of using the first name of your co-parent, use your “mom/dad” to support the parent-child relationship when talking to your child. For example, instead of saying “You’re going to John’s house this weekend,” say “You’re going to your dad’s house this weekend.”  To your child “John” is still “dad” and therefore it’s important to continue to support that relationship.

Shift from “visitation” to “parenting time”
The term “visitation” tends to deny the belonging — if someone just visits then he doesn’t really belong. A child doesn’t want to feel that they are just visiting their parent. A child wants to feel a sense of belonging and support from their parents, no matter how long their time together lasts. By using the term “parenting time,” the focus shifts to the process of parenting and to building the relationship between parent and child. This helps the child feel their time with their parent is more secure and less temporary.

Shift from “I win” to “win-win”
Some parents go through a divorce as if it were a war.

Parents have to think about the win-win outcome. Some parents engage in a win-lose process where they only care about winning and making the other parent suffer or lose. Other parents engage in a lose-win situation in which they are willing to sacrifice themselves as a parent simply to keep the peace. However, one parent can’t win, unless their co-parent is winning, too. Both parents must win, because ultimately, if the child is missing out on a relationship with either parent, then the child won’t win. The child loves and needs both parents; the child cannot win if one parent is losing. When possible and appropriate, both parents should have a relationship with the child because it’s in the best interest of the child. When this is not possible, the parent who is present must allow the child to talk about their other parent to help them maintain a positive memory and preserve a “win-win” situation.

To move towards this new way of thinking, parents must change their current pattern of behavior.  Moving toward a win-win relationship requires a disruption in your old habits. Shifting to win-win thinking provides your child with a more positive outlook on the divorce and helps provide them with a solid foundation for a successful future. When your child looks back on their life, how do you want them to remember his or her childhood? As parents, you must keep your child in mind and remember to think “win-win.”

Need more help?

Co-Parenting is hard. We’re here to help! Learn more about the Co-Parenting for Resilience Program, part of the Extension mission of Oklahoma State University’s College of Human Sciences.


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