How to co-parent with an ex when your parenting styles are vastly different

Image:: Shutterstock
Image:: Shutterstock 

Parenting is a tough enough gig when you're on the same page as your partner – nobody is getting it right and all of our kids will end up in therapy blaming us for something. But when you've separated and your ex has a vastly different parenting style, you're like the analogy of Ginger Rogers doing everything Fred Astaire did – but backwards and in heels. 

Everything is harder to the Nth degree. 

It can be as simple as different bedtimes or attitudes to screen time, or it can get complex such as following different religions.

Brisbane family lawyer Jennifer Franklin says it's important to embrace the different styles rather than resisting them.

"Children have two parents for a reason!" she says. 

"The different styles and approaches can enhance a child's life and experience of the world and themselves. For example, dads will often stretch kids physically, engaging in rougher play and sports. Some mums don't do those things and perhaps engage in activities which build emotional and social capital.

"That doesn't mean one is right and one is wrong - both approaches teach kids important life lessons."

Franklin says it's important to respect one another as parents, and that it can also help build resilience and tolerance in your children.

"It won't kill a kid to eat McDonalds more often than you would like. What will hurt a child is when parents create conflict around issues that are not critical, and the child is aware of the conflict. 

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"Of course, it is difficult when the differences are about critical issues and this is where counselling, mediation or post-separation parenting courses can assist."

Franklin says she's seen cases where parents end up in court rather than finding a way to agree on smaller issues, and it was always to the detriment of the child. One such case was over whether the child could catch a bus to school.

"This is a perfect example of how parents see things differently," she said. 

The judge ruled that the child could catch a bus, but Franklin says, "It was the conflict that was detrimental to the child, not the bus!"  

The key here is learning to let go of control over every detail of your child's life – something that can be tough, especially for those who have been the main carer before separation, and used to making most of the decisions.

Psychologist Cath Corcoran says there can certainly be challenges for a child being brought up with differing parenting styles.

"The major problem that can arise is in behaviour difficulties as a result of being parented with varying rules that are in place between parents and households," she says. 

"This can cause confusion, distress, frustration and apathy – which can ultimately impair parent-child relationships."

But Corcoran says the differences can also be an opportunity for growth.

"Children are very resilient and therefore it encourages adaptability and looking at the world in a different way, understanding that not everyone sees each situation from the same perspective and that their parents or family environment are an example of that," she says.

For those that find themselves using conflicting parenting styles, Corcoran suggests being confident in your own choices, and finding a way to communicate effectively with your co-parent.

"Compassion and understanding are also important from both parents," she says. 

"Understanding where each is coming from with their perspective and removing any personal agendas that drive the parenting but rather always keeping their child and their best interest as the priority."

For those that need outside help in negotiating these relationships, Corcoran suggests Relationships Australia, Parent Line, or a counsellor can help. 

Jennifer Franklin says it's also important to maintain your sense of perspective as you navigate the co-parenting wilderness. 

"It's so hard!" she says. "Don't sweat the small stuff, and remember to choose your battles." 

"I see way too many parents getting so caught up in the battle that they lose sight of the fact their kids are watching how they behave and the attitudes they portray.  

It can be difficult when it really is an important issue, but being mature enough to discern the important from the white noise is critical."