How to Co-Parent with a Jerk or Worse
Are you co-parenting with a jerk or worse? We hear that a lot. In fact, we hear a lot of adjectives to describe an ex or your co-parent. After 30+ years of combined work with co-parents and families, we acknowledge co-parenting is difficult and co-parenting with a jerk is sometimes unbearable.
Most days it feels totally impossible and you think, “how the HEL% am I expected to co-parent alongside this person, everything is SO difficult?” We hear you and we also hear a lot of the labels out there for really difficult co-parents. Narcissist, borderline, psychopath, a*% hole, bi%#*. These labels show up a lot and we get why parents use them. AND, that person is your child’s other parent. Your child’s relationship with them (no matter how flawed in your perspective or experiences) is YOUR CHILD’S relationship and that is sacred ground.
Labeling an ex-spouse, partner or current co-parent is not necessarily helpful for you either. When we label people it can reduce someone to one word instead of seeing them as a whole person or even seeing what the problem really is. (No matter how awful they may be) No human is summed up in one word. Labels leave us void of empathy or the ability to be objective and problem solve about the behaviors that show up that are so difficult to deal with.
If your child hears you label their other parent something negative, then what? Remember, kids, know they are half of each of you and a product of your parenting. When you put down their other parent or label them – does your kid think they are labeled too? Let’s focus on what’s helpful, instead of focusing on labels…even if they are valid.
Step 1: instead of labeling the person – identify the behaviors that don’t work for you.
INSTEAD OF: the person is a _________ (insert blank),
TRY: I feel ___________ and __________when these behaviors _______ and ________ show up. They don’t work for me because ___________________.
We are shaped by the thoughts, emotions, behaviors, and sensations in our lives. A label is a simple way to describe someone, but it doesn’t tell the whole story about WHY and WHAT is so challenging about their co-parenting behaviors. We can’t problem solve a label – but we CAN problem solve a behavior most of the time.
Step 2: identify any strengths
Next, try to identify any possible strengths of this person- ANYTHING is a starting point. This can feel impossible sometimes. Maybe something drew you to them in the first place and that strength can be used to build on? (are they structured, flexible, are they protective of your kids, are they a hard-worker, can they see the big picture, or super detailed?)
If the focus is always on them (annoying) can they still get tasks done? Who cares if their motivation is to get outside praise or attention from others….did they get it done for your kids? We had one parent who was sick and tired of their kid’s school praising their co-parent for always “saving the day” with their kid’s school plays and setting everything up. Their co-parent loved the attention and got written up in the local paper as a “hero” for kids. The parent we worked with had a very different experience from their co-parent – they were self-focused, difficult, hurtful, and vindictive, among other things. But the point was…things were getting done for their kids, so they switched their focus to that and set boundaries around the other.
Step 3: when it’s really tough, use tools
Your co-parent may not be nice to you. We see this often. If it feels impossible to have a civil co-parenting relationship then focus on keeping communication strictly businesslike and use BIFF as a form of communication always. High conflict is hard for everyone, especially kids. Focus on what you can control, stay out of the noise, and don’t get sucked into negative communication patterns. This means you need to take care of yourself and have a plan for how you will self-regulate when you get nasty emails or texts. See step 4.
Step 4: use mantras
Let’s say you have tried ALL of that and more? What else can you do? Having a few different mantras can help you get through some really hard times. We have included a few mantras below as examples of ones that have helped clients we work with. Use the one that fits, change the word that doesn’t work for you and your situation. Ask yourself if any of the following are mantras you can use when you find yourself labeling your co-parent.
In order to find a mantra that fits it may be really critical to shift the way you look at your co-parent. Instead of just looking at your co-parent from your lens, look at your co-parent as your child’s other parent…through your child’s lens.
Examples of Mantras
- They are a good enough parent and trying their best with what they have.
- I’m grateful they love our kid. they just show it in really different ways than I had hoped.
- I will respond with calm, clear, concise information when I am CALM.
- My co-parents’ behaviors are difficult for me, I am doing the best I can to work with the co-parent I have.
You can do this, here are your steps:
- Focus on the behaviors, not the labels
- Identify ANY strengths you can benefit from.
- Use BIFF as a communication tool
- Use a MANTRA
Have more questions about co-parenting and how to improve it for your kids?
You can read our blog all about how to talk to your kids about your ex when you’re frustrated with your ex but you don’t want to put your kid in the middle.
Get set up for success when it comes to navigating this ongoing relationship with your co-parent. If you want more help on how to get on the same page with them and how to be more confident that your kid isn’t in the middle, our online co-parenting course Parenting From Two Homes will help you.