Things to Consider

Michael Scott is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, and a child custody mediator. He has been a therapist since 1982 and maintains a private practice in Santa Cruz, CA. Since 1985, Michael has served as a child custody mediator for The County of Santa Cruz Superior Court. He is an educator offering workshops both nationally and internationally on marriage, divorce, parenting, education, personal and professional development, conflict resolution, and the developmental needs of children.

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The following information is not intended to take
the place of legal advice, mediation, psychotherapy, or counseling. Its purpose is educational and informational only.
If you need such advice or counseling, please seek an appropriate, qualified professional.
To review the full text and complete version of the article summary that appears below (© Michael Scott, 2002) go to: where it was published online in November 2002.


A successful divorce is one in which the parents divorce each other but do not require the child to divorce one of the parents, either as a result of parental conflict or by one parent not being available to the child. Co-parenting can be a viable option when it is implemented by parents who want it to work because they understand that the child's needs supersede their own self interest, and it can be successful and rewarding for both the child and the parents.


Children, who go through separation, and/or divorce, experience abandonment. Younger children do not have the intellectual resources, or older children the emotional resources to understand this as anything other than, "I am being left by my parent!" A central reason that divorce is so difficult for children is the fact that they have little life experience to understand why their parents would separate and what happens when a parent, or when both parents, leaves the family home. Often, children are afraid to ask what will happen. For more information about divorce and its impact, click on the following link to Divorce: Things to Consider.



What school will the child attend? What religion will the child practice? A parent with Sole legal custody has authority to make all major decisions about the child. Parents with Joint legal custody share the authority to make major decisions about their child.


Physical custody designates the amount of time a child shares with each parent. A parent with Sole physical custody has responsibility for the child the significant majority of the time. Parents with Joint physical custody share responsibility for the child's time within a more equitable schedule.


This is generally considered to be the time that the child shares with the non-custodial parent. Rather than viewing the separated family arrangements in traditional legal terms, it is more valid, psychologically speaking, for physical custody to be conceptualized from the point of view of the child. We know that, with rare exceptions, it is in the child's best interest to have regular and continuing contact with both parents. This is to say the child's rights have to supersede the parent's rights. It is the child's right to have access to both parents. It is the parent's obligation and responsibility to be available and to care for the child.


This term contains the more normalized concepts of a child sharing time with or living with each parent at different times. In a written parenting plan, sentences begin with, "The child will share time with (or, live with) each parent according to the following schedule:" rather than, "The Father/Mother has visitation on alternate weekends." Even if the child sees one parent only once a year for a few days, the child is still sharing time and living with that parent during that time period. The time sharing plan should take into consideration what that child has become accustomed to, regarding the parenting style and arrangement during the time of the intact relationship. If a child is to be with one parent significantly more of the time than with the other parent (for example, when the two parents live a considerable distance from one another), we suggest replacing the traditional term of "custodial parent" with the less emotionally charged concept of "the child's primary residence" and "the child's secondary residence." Of course, if the child shares time fairly equitably between the parents, then there is no need to designate either parent's residence with such title. For information about negotiating a parenting plan, click on the following link: Mediation: Things to Consider.


Technically, co-parenting exists with any parenting arrangement, regardless of its formal designation. In whatever way each parent is involved in raising the child, the parents co-parent. Most effective co-parenting arrangements contain the following characteristic dynamics between the parents: cooperation, communication, compromise, and consistency.


While meaningful co-parenting can only be carried out by parents in a working, functional, parental relationship, parallel parenting is more characteristic of parents in a dysfunctional relationship dynamic. Parallel parenting manifests when there is an insufficient degree of cooperation, communication, compromise, or consistency to carry out co-parenting. Children in parallel parenting arrangements often experience heightened anxiety during phone calls from the other parent and during transfers between parents. Minimizing verbal and physical contact between the parents can help.


Ahrons and Rodgers (Divorced Families, 1987) have conceptualized five categories of post-divorce spousal relationships: Perfect Pals, Cooperative Colleagues, Angry Associates, Fiery Foes, and Dissolved Duos. The first two are appropriately referred to as functional co-parenting. The next two are dysfunctional relationships that can manage "parallel parenting" at best. Although many still refer to this as co-parenting, we use the more apt term, "parallel parenting," to describe these dynamics. The last category, Dissolved Duos, sadly for the children, consists of 100% solo parenting. Perfect Pals tend to like each other and remain friends. Cooperative Colleagues will most likely respect one another and work as if they were business partners. Angry Associates will more than likely have many years of arguing and use the child as a pawn in their power struggle. Fiery Foes will spend much time with on going court battles never really understanding the devastating impact upon the child, nor themselves. Dissolved Dues will have one parent completely abandoning the relationship with the child.


Most parents want to co-parent successfully and strive to conduct themselves in ways that would include them in the first two post-divorce relationship categories. However, things get in the way.


Just as with death, when a relationship ends there is a grieving process. It is just that unresolved issues from the prior relationship often interfere with the new relationship. Ghosts of the previous relationship frequently intrude, unconsciously, into the dynamics of a new relationship and often contribute to its problems. The grieving process has many theoretical models. One stage-theory that is very useful was developed by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross (On Death and Dying, 1969). The first stage is the stage of denial - the disbelief that this is actually happening. The second stage is the stage of anger. The third stage, involves remorse or bargaining. The fourth stage is the phase of depression. Finally the last stage, acceptance, is one which involves moving on in life


It is often the case that one parent is at a more functional level than is the other with regard to co-parenting. If this is the situation, then it is more effective for the parent who is at the more functional level to remain rational and empathic toward the other parent. If the more functional parent is drawn to a lower level of functionality, there will be more chaos and disruption, not only for that parent, but, more importantly, for the child. The higher functioning parent would be better off learning effective negotiating skills for dealing with an individual who prefers to be in a competitive rather than collaborative negotiating arena.


The emotional process of divorce for one partner is not generally on the same timeline as it is for the other partner. Typically, one of the partners becomes aware of being unhappy in the relationship. That individual may request the other to attend marital counseling in hopes of getting the other partner to change and make the relationship "right." The person attempting to seek professional help is already well into the process of emotional detachment. Generally the other partner does not experience the difficulty in the same manner. It is this disparity in perception, experience, and time frame that creates turmoil between the couple. When the partner that has been grieving the relationship finally announces that it over, the person being left begins the grieving process.



For co-parenting to be effective, both parents need to consider the needs of the child above their own needs. It is like a map that gives directions on how the two of you agree to parent your child. A parenting plan should be built on a foundation of the developmental needs of the child. It is often useful to seek sound professional advice about the needs of children at different ages in devising a parenting plan. For example, how adaptable is your child? Also the child's sense of time is an important factor in considering the duration a child can cope with separation from a parent. As children get older, they can handle increased time away from each parent. The day to day parenting plan should take into consideration the reality of the child. Gradual shifts from what is familiar to the child to what is possible are best for children. The child is then not forced to sacrifice his or her needs, rather the parents more appropriately would be making sacrifices for their child. Also, specified time should be set aside to discuss the children. Young children are concrete thinkers. It helps a child to adjust if there is a picture of the other parent in the room where the child sleeps. That way, the memory of the other parent can be sustained in the child's mind for a longer time between transfers. Open phone access of the child with each parent is helpful, as long as neither parent is stressing the child. It is most useful to not request to speak to the other parent when you call to speak to the child. Arguments that can ensue when you ask to speak to the other parent are experienced by the child as "my parents are arguing over me." Of course, it is most helpful to teach the child how to call the other parent, without the need of parental assistance. If possible, arrange to transfer the child at school or at childcare. One parent drops off; the other picks up. This tends to reduce the child's separation anxiety that results from leaving one parent to go directly with the other. Being a co-parent requires a great deal of skill. The ability to let your former partner parent the child his or her own way is a skill. For information about negotiating a parenting plan, click on the following link: Mediation: Things to Consider.


There are four stages in the evolution of a relationship from a beginning romance and/or marriage towards a divorce and co-parenting relationship. The first is the stage of "intimacy." The second stage may best be termed "negative intensity." The third is the stage of "building a structured agreement" for how to continue raising the children in the context of separation or divorce. The last is the stage of "emotional disengagement." Unfortunately, many divorcing parents try to move directly from stage two to stage four without going through stage three. A parenting plan is a map. It is a map of how the two parents will continue to raise their child. Developing understanding and empathy for the other parent are essential in using the map effectively. If both individuals are willing, divorce counseling aimed at learning communication skills can be very helpful for untangling the old emotional hooks and learning effective ways to co-parent, for your child's sake.


Imagine that you are attending your child's twenty-fifth birthday, or wedding. Will your child be able to look at the two of you on this day of celebration and say the following?: "I would like to honor my Mom and Dad for their love of me. They were able to navigate through a difficult situation and protect me from the storm. I love you both for showing me how to be a human being. Or, will your child look out and not see one or either of you there, because of your unresolved anger towards each other? A child has the right to love both parents. Give your child that as a gift. It will be profoundly appreciated and everlasting."

© Michael Scott, 2002. The full and complete version of the above article summary was published in November 2002 online at:



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Last updated 04/02/2022