Managing different childcare styles when co-parenting

If a couple were unable to resolve differences about parenting when together, it is not surprising that childcare frequently creates conflict after separation. In this article, I offer pointers on how such conflict might be managed. The guidance contains case studies, which are fictionalised composites.


When things work well

Shortly after they divorced, Robert and Anne, faced a decision when their oldest daughter, Emily, had to move from primary to secondary school. They narrowed the choice down to a co-educational and an all-girls school. Robert had been to a boys school. He felt it caused him to be awkward with women when he was younger. He wanted a more rounded experience for his daughter. Anne was strongly in favour of the all-girls school. She said she ‘did not want to sacrifice Emily’s grades to civilise boys’. 

Despite research and discussion, they were unable to resolve their impasse. Eventually, Emily, who was mature and intelligent, was asked her preference. Because she was a fledgeling violinist, she concluded she would like to go to the all-girls school which had a strong music department. Robert accepted her decision. Anne said if Emily were unhappy at the girls' school as she grew older, she could move. 

Many good practice points emerge from this case study. The couple were able to listen and ‘hear’ each other, calmly and without arguing. They recognised the influence of their own experience, but as far as possible based their arguments on facts. They both accepted that the other had a legitimate voice and they would not seek to impose a decision. They gave themselves time to reflect. Both showed open-mindedness and flexibility. Most importantly, the decision-making process was approached by both parents seeking what was best for Emily.

However, while the case study provides behaviour that many couples might aspire to, they are likely to say it is hard to achieve. Reasons and possible responses are summarised below.

Learning to recognise default responses allows individuals to be more open-minded and respond more flexibly in the best interests of a child.

Areas of potential conflict

One reason why co-parenting is hard is that decisions about children cover many areas on which views may differ. An overarching issue relates to how children are ‘shared’, attending school and sporting events and participating in special occasions such as birthdays.

A common source of rows relates to discipline with one partner being relatively strict and the other being more lenient, for example about screen time, bedtime routines, homework, or money. Rows about health and safety occur when a parent with a heightened sense of risk feels that their partner is placing a child in danger. The ‘accused’ feels that their partner is being oversensitive and angry that they are criticised as neglectful. 

Different parenting styles

A useful exercise for separating couples is to reflect on their parenting styles. Strict parenting involves adhering to set rules with little flexibility. It might result in well-behaved children, but they may feel unloved and struggle to make independent decisions.

At the other end of the spectrum, an ‘anything goes’ approach might promote independence, but children might not respond when parents need to say no. An approach that focuses mainly on the parent-child relationship, reflects the belief that when both are aligned there will be no issues with behaviour. While children may feel loved they can become over-attached to their parents. 

A major challenge faced by parents is striking a balance between nurturing and directing – encouraging children to be free-thinking and independent while at the same time instructing them in important skills and experience that will allow them choices in adult life. Developing social and relationship skills requires both nurture via modelling and direction by imposing rules. Thinking about where your parenting actions generally sit on the control/nurture spectrum is a useful exercise. How much time do you spend ‘telling’ versus ‘showing’?

Illustration of couples counsellingThe advantages of a parenting plan

Drawing up a parenting plan while going through divorce provides the opportunity for both parties to agree on how they co-parent. An online user-friendly parent plan template has been designed by Cafcass (Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service). It gives helpful prompts to reach decisions. A parenting plan is flexible and can be updated to reflect changes as children grow up. It is possible to complete them without assistance. However, when emotions are raw, it can be useful to involve a mediator

Different belief systems

Defining ‘what is best’ for a child is often a matter of opinion. Opinions are not based only on facts but on personal experience which creates beliefs. Having our beliefs challenged can feel like an assault on our identity. Having our views about our child’s welfare challenged can make us feel like our worth as a parent is being queried or, more extremely, that our love for our children is being questioned.

If such a challenge comes from an ‘ex’ to whom we already feel some hostility or resentment then it is easy to understand why strong feelings might be provoked. When there are significant differences in beliefs it can be helpful to combine parent-planning mediation with couples counselling.

Andreas and Alice

Andreas and Alice were unsure if their marriage was sustainable, and they sought counselling. They had two sons and a daughter. Many of their rows related to discipline, with Andreas saying Amy was too lax and Amy feeling he was too strict, particularly with their sons.  

Neither Andreas’ nor Amy’s father figured prominently in homelife. Andreas’ mother had been a fierce disciplinarian and would beat him for minor misdemeanours. At eighteen he left home to go to university, taking holiday jobs to pay his fees. He came to place a high value on self-sufficiency. He felt it important that his sons ‘could stand on their own feet’. Amy’s mother had swung between being affectionate and emotionally unavailable. Amy wanted her children to have the loving environment she had yearned for.

Couples counselling allowed Andreas and Amy to recognise how their rows reflected their own experiences. Their ability to communicate was complicated by their ‘attachment profiles’, with Andreas’ childhood resulting in a tendency to be emotionally disengaged, while Amy wanted to ‘talk things through and feel understood’. They eventually decided to separate but understanding how their parenting views were shaped and their attachment styles made them less critical of each other and to co-parent constructively.

Going it all alone

After her divorce from Grant, Sally felt a heavier weight of responsibility for her children. Grant became uncommunicative and whereas previously Sally might have talked decisions over with him, she now felt alone. She often felt guilty as a working mother, worrying that she was not giving her children sufficient time, despite always being home for bedtime and spending weekends doing things together.

Individual counselling helped Sally realise that her parenting was more than ‘good enough’ and that her children were happy and well-adjusted. Fortunately, Sally had a good network of friends with whom she could discuss practical issues. Over time she became more confident about her own decision-making and able to recognise herself as the excellent parent she was.

Illustration of two women frowningSeparation counselling

Divorce brings many life changes which require adjustments. This can provoke feelings such as rejection, grief, anger, fear depression, anxiety, shame, and loneliness. The choice of a partner is not random, but based on, largely unconscious, desires to repair what was lacking in an earlier relationship or to repeat a positive experience. However, over time, fantasised ideations will result in disappointment.

In an enduring relationship, partners accommodate more realistic expectations. However, for some individuals, when adjustment is interrupted by divorce it provokes a high level of anxiety, which results in conflict. 

In these circumstances, separation counselling, usually with the ‘abandoned’ partner, aims to help to manage emotional responses. A key aim is to help individuals distinguish parental and couple roles and between children’s needs and adult needs, separating their conflict as a couple and their responsibilities as a parent.

Key lessons

Our views on parenting are shaped by personal experience and beliefs. Hearing them challenged by someone with divergent views can seem like an assault on our identity and prompt hostile responses. Learning to recognise default responses allows individuals to be more open-minded and respond more flexibly in the best interests of a child.

Parenting plans can provide a helpful framework to achieve a cooperative approach to co-parenting. Combining mediation and couple counselling can be helpful in agreeing them. A useful starting point involves reflecting on individual parenting philosophies and styles. 

Separation involves changes at many levels. Coming to terms with and accepting change is a prerequisite for effective co-parenting. Children’s best interests are paramount, and co-parents need to separate conflict as a couple from responsibilities as adults. 

Drawing on counselling and friends can help transition after divorce. Separation counselling can provide insight on how beliefs and values have been shaped and, potentially, to modify them. For some individuals, separation results in acute anxiety because they struggle to cope with mourning the loss of an idealised fantasy of family life. The intra-psychic conflict in an individual is expressed in ongoing couple conflict, with feuds about children being a battleground. In these cases, separation counselling can help restore individual identity and autonomy and prevent children from becoming casualties.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Written by Brian Appleby, MA (Relationship Therapy), MA (Econ), MLitt (Econ), MBACP
London W1G & W4

Brian practices in Harley Street and Chiswick, providing individual and couple counselling. He trained with Relate and has an MA with Distinction in Relationship Therapy. Before becoming a therapist he worked in change management in international corporations. He believes the client-therapist relationship is fundamental to successful outcomes.

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