My children’s father abandoned them soon after our divorce. This made me very angry for a long time. I was angry that he would hurt my kids like that. I was angry that he would leave me to do all the parenting by myself. I was angry that he was able to just walk away with basically no consequences.
Having talked to many other single parents over the years, however, I’ve come to realize that in some ways, my kids and I are very lucky. By walking away, my ex saved us from some very difficult co-parenting challenges.
From those conversations with other single parents, I’ve compiled this list of 11 common co-parenting challenges along with suggestions (from those same parents) on how you can handle them to keep frustration at a minimum.
As always, this is not legal advice and you should always talk to your lawyer to ensure you remain in compliance with court orders and the laws of your state.
Being on the same page with child discipline
Many single parents have found that it’s difficult to get on the same page with their ex about child discipline. This covers a range from having vastly different rules at each house to refusing to carry over a grounding or other punishment from one house to the other. In some cases, some parents mentioned that their ex would deliberately tell the child they didn’t agree with a punishment or rule.
What can you do about this? The simple fact is you can’t make the rules in your ex’s home. So there’s not a whole lot you can do. Katie*, a mom of three, has found the best solution she can.
“My kids get that they have different rules at Dad’s house. They also know that he won’t enforce a punishment I’ve given, so they know that it starts back up when they come home. So, if I ground them for a week, and they go to Dad’s that weekend, they know they might get to do whatever they want that weekend, but they’re still grounded for two more days when they get back to my house,” she says.
If your ex is telling your child they disagree with punishments you give, you may want to talk with your lawyer to find out if there’s anything you can do about that.
Lack of respect
Lack of respect is often behind many of the other challenges in this list, but it can also be a challenge in itself. Lack of respect might include ignoring communications from you, not letting you talk to the kids while they’re with the ex, asking intrusive questions about your life, or calling you while you’re on dates or at work repeatedly and despite your requests to stop.
They might also talk to you condescendingly, tell your kids they don’t need to listen to you, and otherwise try to undermine you both as a person and a parent.
What can you do about this? Depending on the specific ways in which they show their lack of respect, there may not be much you can do. Of course, you can always insist they treat you with respect, but you have little ability to force that.
One single dad started documenting everything his ex did that showed her lack of respect for him.
“If we didn’t have kids, I could’ve gone to the police and pressed harassment or stalking charges. She thought since we had kids, she’d be off the hook. I documented every call. Saved every voicemail. Showed it all to my lawyer. Told him how she wouldn’t let me talk to the kids when they were with her. He said I should use it to try for custody. I did, and it worked. The judge laid into her over a voicemail where she said my daughter told her she didn’t know if I was having sex with the woman I was dating,” he says.
Dismissive of concerns
You mention being worried about your child’s health, grades, attitude, or something else. Your ex just waves a hand and tut-tuts you, blowing it off. But they don’t just do this once. They do it all the time.
Sometimes you feel like your child could be dying in front of your ex and they would blow it off.
It doesn’t matter what concern you bring up, they completely ignore it. But if someone else brings up the same concern, suddenly your ex is all ears.
What can you do about this? Alicia struggled with this for years before finding two solutions. First was realizing that since he refused to take her seriously, she should just stop trying to get him to listen. Instead, she handled concerns herself. She made the decisions and acted on them and didn’t worry about what her ex might think.
“For bigger concerns, like when our son needed surgery, I realized I had someone else who could talk to him: his mom. She and I still had a pretty decent relationship because she would call and talk to the kids and stuff. So I started mentioning the bigger concerns to her and she would pass them along to him for me,” Alicia says. “I don’t know if she actually realized what we were doing or if she was just being a caring grandmother by passing the info along. And honestly, I don’t care. It got the job done. He knew what was happening and got involved and I didn’t have to deal with him trying to dismiss me as being overprotective or melodramatic.”
Trying to control
Your ex trying to control can take a lot of forms. It might be that they try to control the rules you make in your home. It could be that they try to control you in terms of attempting to stop you from dating or get you fired from a job. They might take direct actions that let you clearly see what they’re trying to do or they might try to use the kids to get the control they want.
This can be particularly frustrating because to some degree, they do have some control. You’re co-parenting together which means both of you have some control when it comes to the kids. So when they try to control, it might be a bit difficult to decide if they’re being a slightly unreasonable co-parent or truly trying to control you, your home, or your life.
What can you do about this? Keith thinks the best solution is to simply ignore your ex and avoid involving them in your personal life if you don’t have to.
“My ex would always try to control what was going on in my house,” he says. “I just had to remember that he had no say. His attempts to control us were worthless if I didn’t give in and let him do it. So I just didn’t. And I didn’t tell him things like when I started dating again or when I met my new partner. In fact, my ex knew nothing about Eric until we decided to move in together. I told my ex then because it did relate to the kids. But before that, it was none of his business so it was easier to not tell him. Then he couldn’t try to control what I did.”
No trust regarding the kids
At the other end of spectrum from being dismissive of your concerns is not trusting you with the kids. Questioning your every decision, looking for problems where there aren’t any, and blowing minor issues up into mountainous problems. When they don’t trust you with the kids, you can end up with a combo of other issues, such as trying to control you and not respecting you.
What can you do about this? Not a lot, unfortunately. If you have a good relationship with your ex, you might be able to talk about it. You might be able to persuade them to trust you as they once did or suggest that maybe they have an anxiety disorder and should talk to a therapist. But in most cases, you just have to live with it.
Jade says, “My ex constantly accuses me of ignoring health or school problems with the kids. He doesn’t seem to get that not everything is a big deal or that some stuff, the kids need to handle it themselves. I used to try to work with him. But eventually I just realized nothing I say or do is going to change anything. He’s decided that he can’t trust me with the kids and he’s not going to change his mind. So I just ignore him now. I let him say his piece and then I move the conversation on to more meaningful things.”
Lack of financial support
Whether you come to a voluntary agreement between the two of you or have a court order based on state guidelines and a judge’s ruling, child support is a pretty big deal for most single parents. And when that support doesn’t come through, it can really put the pinch on you.
Even if you can take care of the kids without financial support, being forced to bear the financial burden alone is frustrating.
What can you do about this? This is actually one of the few areas where there are options open to you. If you have a voluntary agreement, you can go to court to get a legally binding one. If you have a court order, you can file to have your ex held in contempt for failure to pay. You can also request an income deduction order to have the support taken directly from their paycheck before they get paid, if it’s not already in place.
In my personal experience, even with these options available, it is important to consider when to give in. You need to be able to recognize when you should stop fighting for something your ex clearly has no intention of giving. After 10 years of non-payment, taking my ex to court at least a dozen different times, it was only after I gave up and stopped trying to get him to live up to his financial responsibility that he finally started paying child support consistently.
Lack of empathy for the kids
How many times have you or your kids told your ex something was bothering the kids only to be met with, “They should just get over it.” It doesn’t matter if it’s their feelings about the divorce, a nightmare, being bullied at school, or something else, your ex just doesn’t have any empathy for what they’re going through and how they feel.
This can be particularly frustrating if you have also been at the mercy of their lack of empathy. It can make you want to lash out and insist they try to understand where your kids are coming from.
What can you do about this? As rude and insensitive as your ex’s behavior might be, there’s not a whole lot you can do about it. You can certainly try talking to them in case they don’t realize what they’re doing. But unless this goes beyond lacking empathy and turns into abuse, there’s not a lot you can do about it other than just be there for the kids.
“I just let my daughter know she can always talk to me,” Amber says. “She knows her dad will brush off anything she says, so she doesn’t even try to talk to him anymore. But when she did, she would often come to me in tears because of his responses. I just held her and loved her and told her it wasn’t her fault. I never told her it was because her dad was a jerk, or that he’d been raised by parents who did the same thing to him. I just told her it wasn’t her fault because that was all she really needed to know.”
Abandoning the kids
This is not really a co-parenting problem because they literally just walk away. No visits, no phone calls, no birthday cards or Christmas presents. You may or may not get child support. You might not even know how to find your ex in an emergency. They just walk away and don’t see the kids.
In some ways, this isn’t a bad thing. If you and your ex can’t get along, it allows you to make the decisions for the kids without arguing over everything. And if they aren’t reliable, the kids may do better without their parent coming in and out whenever they feel like it.
What can you do about this? There’s nothing you can do. You can’t force someone to be a parent if they don’t want to be. And while you could go back to court to attempt to enforce a visitation schedule, a judge can only do so much.
In my opinion as a mother whose ex abandoned the kids, the best thing to do here is accept what’s happened. I found that once I accepted that my ex wouldn’t be a parent to them, it was a lot easier to shoulder the parenting load by myself. It also made it easier to see that my children were actually better off without him.
Parenting only when it’s convenient
Along the same lines as abandonment is the parent who only comes around and acts like a parent when it’s convenient. It might be because they’re trying to impress a new partner or maybe it’s when they’re between relationships. It could be that their own parents are in town so they want to look good. Parenting when convenient is exactly what it sounds like. If it’s not convenient for them, they just won’t do it.
What can you do about this? Again, there’s not a lot you can do. If they’re inconsistent enough, you might be able to document it and get a judge to take away their visitation. The one thing you shouldn’t do? Try to stop them from seeing the kids yourself.
“It was infuriating to me,” Kim says. “He would just come and go whenever he felt like it. I was the one helping with homework, cleaning up 2 a.m. puke, and doling out punishments when they misbehaved. And then he’d swoop in and take them for something fun and they’d act like he was Dad of the Year or something. Or he’d come in and give them a lecture and they’d listen to him but when I did it, I got backtalk and rolled eyes. But when I told him he needed to just quit coming around, he took me back to court and the judge lectured me about interfering in their relationship. She didn’t care that their father wasn’t coming around consistently. He was coming around at all and that was all that mattered to her. It wasn’t until I started documenting, hired a lawyer and got our judge changed that I was able to do something about it.”
Lying to the kids
There are lots of lies they might tell. They might lie and say they’re coming to see the kids. They might lie to the kids about why you split up. They might lie and say you said or did things that you didn’t. The possible lies are nearly endless.
It’s hard to understand why a parent would do this to their child. Yet some do.
What can you do about this? Depending on the lie, there are several options open to you. If they are lying about you and/or your relationship, you can talk to a lawyer about legal options. You may be able to get a judge to order them to stop or face legal consequences. If your children are still small, and they’re being told details about your relationship that aren’t age appropriate, you may also be able to go back to court.
If they’re telling other lies, the best thing to do is either show them the truth or ignore the lies. Showing them the truth would be best in instances where your ex is lying about something that’s easily provable — such as a lie about you. But if they’re lying about coming to see the kids or something along those lines?
“Just ignore the lie. Distract the kids from it,” says Jamie, a mom of four. “My ex was constantly lying to my kids. He was going to see them, call them, take them on a trip. He had presents for them. Always lies. And the kids, being kids and loving him, always bought it. But now they’re adults and they’ve all told me they saw through him pretty quickly. When they were small, they believed him. But they all say there came a day where they knew he was a liar. And now they don’t have a relationship with him because of it. But they’ve also told me they appreciate that I didn’t try to tell them the truth myself.”
Some exes don’t limit their lying to the kids. Some will lie about you to anyone who will listen, including your own family, friends, and co-workers. And while some people know you and will ignore your ex, others will gobble down any lie and start spreading it to others.
This is particularly irritating because it can cost you relationships, jobs, and a whole lot more, depending on what lies are told and who believes them.
What can you do about this? There’s a lot you can do about this. The most obvious is telling others the truth. But you can also talk to a lawyer about a lawsuit. If you have proof of the lies, you may be able to sue for libel or slander, depending on how the lies were told and the damage done by those lies.
“My ex told several lies that cost me a good-paying job and a nice apartment in a good neighborhood, so I hired a lawyer and sued her,” says Shawn. “And I won. She’d been trying to use me being unemployed and homeless to take my visitation away. After I won, I took that back to family court and showed it to the judge. It was enough to convince the judge to give me custody and she only got supervised visitation to make sure she didn’t fill the kids heads with lies.”
Co-parenting can be full of challenges
Co-parenting can be a very challenging thing. And sometimes you’ll have to go with the flow and tolerate things that aren’t ideal just to keep the peace for your kids. But other times, you’ll need to figure out what your options are to ensure your kids don’t suffer the negative consequences.
What other co-parenting challenges have you faced? How did you handle them?
(Some names were changed for privacy.)
Wendy Miller is a freelance relationship writer & meditation teacher. After years of settling for abusive and otherwise toxic relationships, she got fed up. Using meditation and other tools, she got to work on healing herself, setting boundaries, and only engaging in relationships (romantic and otherwise) that bring her joy. She wants to help other single parents find the love they seek, including and going beyond romantic love. She lives in Florida with her two sons, where she homeschools while solo parenting, while surrounded by what feels like a zooful of animals.
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