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Divorced Parents Can Co-Parent Peacefully

Divorced parents should constantly evaluate themselves and ask if their behavior is helping or hurting their children.
By Ron L. Deal

My wife is an elementary school assistant principal. Her job requires that she be aware of the family circumstances for the children in her care. She works with a lot of children who come from divorce situations. It boils her blood when parents implicitly ask their children to “choose” between homes and, therefore, put children in a no-win tug-of-war. Parents living in separate homes make their children pawns in their battles when they:

  • badmouth the other parent or household;
  • comment on or compare living conditions;
  • invade the other home's time with the kids with constant text messages, phone calls, or showing up at private family activities;
  • cast blame on the other household for financial pressures or emotional pain;
  • ask for the child's time when it takes time away from the other parent;
  • coax the child into not visiting his/her other parent until child support payments are made or custody time is renegotiated;
  • make children feel guilty for enjoying the people in the other home;
  • refuse to listen to their happy stories of life in the other home.

Children living between homes are very susceptible to the emotional clashes of their parents. When you act in any of these ways toward your children, you are teaching them to take their emotions underground and train them to play the game of “keep everyone happy by making them think I love them most.”

Children who internalize this tug-of-war become depressed, discouraged, self-destructive, and unmotivated. Children who externalize their pain become angry, oppositional, have behavior problems, and in extreme situations, may turn violent. For the sake of the children, parents should do everything they can to co-parent peacefully.

Healthy co-parenting

The alternative to asking children to choose sides is practicing healthy co-parenting. Co-parenting is the term used to describe the relationship between divorced parents as they seek to raise their children from two different homes. Friend and co-parenting expert Tammy Daughtry has created a checklist called “Indicators of Healthy Co-Parenting.”

I'll discuss just a few of them here, but I highly recommend that you review the entire list in Tammy's book Co-Parenting Works! Helping Your Children Thrive After Divorce. Are any of these statements true in your situation?

The transition between our homes is smooth and positive. Transitions always produce some anxiety, but in general, is it comfortable for your kids? Or do you feel like Cindy, who said, “I try to have a good attitude, but I can't help but come unglued if my ex-husband looks at me wrong.”

Therein lies part of the problem. Cindy makes the transition about her instead of about her children. She's on edge; she's ruminating on the past even before seeing her ex, and she's taking his expressions personally. I'm glad that Cindy is aware of her vulnerability, but she has to go beyond that. I wish she would focus on making the transition smoother for her children.

We enjoy being at our children's functions and are there to enhance our children's happiness. Greg and Beth are divorced and each is remarried. But that doesn't stop them from attending their son's high school basketball games. They don't sit near each other, but each cheers at the top of their lungs and is decent to the other as they walk in and out of the gym. And for this reason their son, Reagan, enjoys having his parents watch him play.

I do not get upset when our child seeks out the other parent after a game or event. After his games, Reagan seeks out a hug from both his mom and dad. He can do that because he's learned that neither of them will “punish” him for engaging the other, no matter whose visitation turn it is. Knowing they are okay with it frees him to be himself and find support from both parents.

When we are both present at the same event, we do not use the opportunity to discuss family business. Reagan's parents also know that to keep the event safe for everyone, they should not discuss parenting matters. They've learned from experience that face-to-face negotiation is challenging and that Reagan gets caught in the cross fire; therefore, they put conversations on hold until they can speak on the phone. Learning these kinds of dos and don'ts is a much needed discipline for healthy co-parenting.

We take care of responsibilities as adults and do not put pressure on the children to do our jobs. When one parent isn't responsible for contributing to the child's medical care, or doesn't pay a bill on time, or doesn't arrange school lunches for the month, the child suffers. Plus, the responsible parent often has to pick up the pieces for the other parent. This makes having a positive attitude about them difficult.

I tell parents that even if they don't agree with a parenting plan or court-ordered responsibility, they should fulfill it anyway because if they don't, the person who suffers most is their child. If you are the parent that always drops the ball, step up to the plate and start pulling your weight.

Christian co-parents should constantly evaluate themselves and ask if their behavior is helping or hurting their children and if they are showing them Christ in how they co-parent. At a bare minimum, kids should be kids, not prisoners of war. At a maximum, healthy co-parenting is an opportunity to raise godly children who seek first the kingdom of God.

Copyright © 2017 Ron Deal. All rights reserved.

Meet the Author: Ron L. Deal

Ron Deal

Ron Deal is a marriage and family author, conference speaker, and therapist. He is founder and president of Smart Stepfamilies™ and director of FamilyLife Blended™, the ministry initiative of FamilyLife® to stepfamilies (for more visit and 

Ron is author of The Smart Stepfamily: Seven Steps to a Healthy Family (and DVD series), The Smart Stepdad, Dating and the Single Parent, The Smart Stepmom (with Laura Petherbridge), and The Smart Stepfamily Marriage: Keys to Success in the Blended Family (with Dr. David Olson). A highly sought-after, recognized expert in marriage and blended families, Ron is a member of the Stepfamily Expert Council for the National Stepfamily Resource Center, and is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Licensed Professional Counselor with over 25 years experience in local church ministry and family ministry consulting. He is a featured expert on the video curriculum Single and Parenting (2011, Church Initiative) and his material is widely distributed by a variety of family education initiatives

Ron served as a member of the Couple Checkup Research Team (headed by Dr. David Olson, PREPARE-ENRICH) which conducted the two largest studies of marital strength ever accomplished. They surveyed over 100,000 marriages and remarriages (over 200,000 people) and examined the qualitative differences between highly satisfied marriages and low-quality marriages. The results of their groundbreaking research for couples are published in the books The Couple Checkup (Olson, Larson, & Olson-Sigg, 2008) and The Smart Stepfamily Marriage (Deal & Olson, 2015), and are featured in Ron’s newest seminar for dating, engaged, married, and remarried couples, the Couple Checkup Conference.

Ron is a popular conference speaker and has appeared in dozens of national radio and TV broadcasts both in the U.S. and Canada. His daily 60-second radio feature, FamilyLife Blended, is heard by thousands each week around the country and online. He has appeared on Fox News, MSNBC, ABC’s Nightline, WGN-News, The Mike Huckabee Show, FamilyLife Today, Focus on the Family, HomeWord with Jim Burns, Celebration, and The 700 Club, and his work has been referenced online (e.g.,,, in magazines (e.g., Essence), and in newspapers throughout the world (e.g., USA Today, New York Daily News, Chicago Tribune, Atlanta Journal, and Minnesota Star Tribune). The May 2012 issue of Ladies' Home Journal featured Ron's therapy work with a blended family couple in their popular feature column “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” Ron has written feature family articles addressing a variety of family matters for a variety of publications and online magazines including Focus on the Family magazine, ParentLife, The Family Room, Gospel Today, Christianity Today, and HomeLife magazine. On a regular basis Ron trains therapists, marriage educators, and ministry professionals at conferences around the country and has spoken at the National Stepfamily Conference, and the Utah and Arkansas Governors' conferences on the family.

Ron and his wife, Nan, have three boys. Their middle son, Connor, died unexpectedly in February 2009 at the age of 12. In his memory, the Deal's have partnered with Touch a Life Foundation to rescue and rehabilitate children in Ghana, West Africa, from trafficking. They would be honored if you would help them sing Connor's song. Visit Connor's Song to learn more about this ministry and to hear Connor sing.

In addition to FamilyLife sponsored events Ron is available to present his Couple Checkup Conference or Building A Successful Stepfamily conference in your church or community. Learn more here.



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