By Annette Holloway, PsyD

Many families are faced with questions about how to best raise children when the adults don’t live together any more. This is particularly difficult when you are feeling angry, hurt or betrayed by the other parent.

You might know in your mind that it’s best for the children if the parents can cooperate about parenting issues, but how do you actually do that when the littlest thing the other person says sets your teeth on edge? And what do you do if you feel that the other parent isn’t treating your child well?

Here are some general guidelines and helpful resources to get you started, if you feel this applies to you.

What you can do

Keep the children out of the middle.

This basic principle covers many situations and can also be a touchstone to consider whenever you are about to do something that involves the kids and the other parent. Keeping kids out of the middle means not using them to carry messages of any kind to the other parent, not bad mouthing the other parent in front of the kids and not using them to find out what the other parent is up to in his or her private life. It’s important to remember that a person can be a good parent even if he or she wasn’t so great at being a spouse. By keeping the kids out of the middle, you avoid asking them to choose between two parents whom they love. Children want to be loyal to each parent; they are in a very painful position if being loyal to one means being disloyal to the other.

Take care of your needs with the help of people other than your children.

You do need to vent about what the other parent said or did, to de-stress after juggling your complicated schedule and to take care of your finances. You need to learn (or add to your) good self-care techniques, and develop a support network or strengthen the one you already have.

But you need to do these activities and learn these skills without leaning on your children for help. They need you to help them manage the changes that are happening in their lives, and over which they have no control.

Children of divorce whose parents can be neutral with each other and who maintain households with totally separate routines and rules usually do just as well as children whose divorced parents cooperate well and interact easily. You don’t need to co-parent by meeting frequently face to face, creating similar schedules and meal routines, and doing things together; some couples can manage to do this but many can’t.

The good news is that co-parenting separately, with different styles and conventions in a “parallel play” style can create just as good outcomes for the children as being more coordinated.

How you can do it

Talk with people who can empathize with you – understanding, nonjudgmental friends, a therapist, a spiritual or religious leader – or write in a journal. Find ways to lower your stress level: exercise, seek beauty, look at interesting things, be in nature, pet an animal, or do something nice for someone else.

Inform yourself about co-parenting by reading a book (“Mom’s House, Dad’s House” by Isolina Ricci or “Parenting after Divorce” by Philip M. Stahl) or taking a class. Two local groups that offer classes specifically about co-parenting are Family Service Agency of Marin (FSA) and APPLE Family Works (492-0720), both in San Rafael.

At FSA, Parenting Apart is a 6-class series that helps parents better understand their children’s experience of divorce, learn skills that promote the healthy development of their children and help manage conflict with the other parent. The class focuses on positive actions parents can take for the benefit of their children (for more information call 491-5723).

Talk to your children about what is happening and ask how they feel about it. Children need to be told explicitly that the separation or divorce did not occur because of anything that they said or did. They also need an age-appropriate explanation about why their parents don’t live together (“We tried to make things work but we couldn’t be happy together, so we separated, but we both still love you” might be appropriate for a preschooler.) These kind of discussions need to occur on an ongoing basis, as their understanding of the world and of people grows.

As a parent, you know your child better than anyone. If you feel like they need extra support to help them adjust to belonging to two households, find appropriate help. Clinics like FSA and APPLE Family Works offer a variety of services at a sliding scale if your insurance doesn’t cover what you need.

Whether you and your child are going through a high-conflict or low-conflict divorce, there are steps you can take to help them do well in the long-term. Your sense of confidence about being a “good enough” parent and your intent to help them negotiate the new status quo will help both of you get through a difficult time more easily.

To contact Dr. Annette Holloway (PSY 25056) call 415/843-1453, or email


Lamb, M. E., & Kelly, J. B. (2009). Improving the quality of parent-child contact in separating families with infants and young children: Empirical research foundations. In R. M. Galazter-Levy, J. Kraus, & J. Galatzer-Levy (Eds.), The scientific basis of child custody decisions (2nd ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Pruett, M., & Barker, R. (2010). Effectively intervening with divorcing parents and their children: What works and how it works. In M. S. Schulz, M. Pruett, P. K. Kerig, R. D. Parke (Eds.), Strengthening couple relationships for optimal child development: Lessons from research and intervention. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Ricci, I. (1997).  Mom’s house, Dad’s house: A complete guide for parents who are separated, divorced, or remarried (rev. ed.). New York: Fireside for Simon & Schuster.

Stahl, P. M. (2007). Parenting after divorce: Resolving conflicts and meeting your children’s needs (2nd ed.). Atascadero, CA: Impact.

Whiteside, M. F. (1998), The parental alliance following divorce: An overview. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 24, 3–24.

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Blog Disclaimer:

The opinions expressed by the authors are their own and do not reflect the opinions of the Marin County Psychological Association. The information posted on this blog is not intended as, and is not, a substitute for professional mental health services.