Co-parenting rules aren’t black and white—it’s all about those shades of gray. Learn how to navigate the tough territory of team parenting.

By Kacee Bree Jensen
Photo by Getty Images

When I got married, I was committing to two people: my husband and his son. I instantly became a mom that day, and bonus, I didn’t have to go through pregnancy or delivery. When asked if it was hard to become a stepmom my answer is always “not at all,” because I felt like it was meant to be. I cringe at the expression “like the red-headed stepchild”—usually a negative reference—because my stepchild is my child.  (Bring on all the stepmom milestones.) And, FYI, red hair is fantastic.  

5 Truths About Co-Parenting (and Co-Parenting Boundaries)

Being Mom #2 Is Challenging

I am honored to be Mom #2, though it is not without challenges. It is a role I don't take lightly, and it is one that comes with many emotions that few understand. As a stepmom, I feel pressure to fulfill many roles. I often feel stuck in the middle; I want to be sensitive to the feelings of his biological parents, and to be aware of when to step in and when to stay out of it.

Forget the Myth of a Cookie-Cutter Family

Navigating a split family dynamic can be hard. (Just check out this tough situation where a daughter is ruffling feathers by confiding more in her stepmom than her mom.) And it takes practice and dedication to make it work in the long run. After all, you’re entering into a lifetime relationship with the other biological parent/ex-partner. Look at that person as extended family—someone you have to learn to communicate with, or you are in for a rocky road. Remember, there are weddings, holidays, and grandkids to come. We are better off figuring out how to work together for the benefit of our kids and ourselves.

Many factors come into play in the split home/blended family dynamic: step-parents, step-grandparents, the step-sibling, the half-siblings, the custody agreement, finances, schedules, family vacations, school responsibilities, family core values, household rules and so on.

Related: Holiday Traditions in Blended Families

Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff

My stepson is almost 18 now. Our parenting plan has changed throughout the years, based on when we had him full time, weekends, or school vacations. We had to learn to be flexible. Parenting in a co-parenting dynamic means not getting hung up on the details. There are way too many things to be offended over, and it’s not worth losing your peace of mind over the insignificant things. (Although respect is a non-negotiable—and that goes both ways.) No matter what, we tried to do our best to put our son’s best interest first. We, of course, have emotions that we could easily put on him, but we know that that would not be beneficial for his emotional health. Part of raising kids is guarding their hearts and allowing them to have relationships with all of the family in their lives.

Remember It’s Not About Your Crew Only

It is easy to focus on your core family and forget all of the feelings of the people involved. But one of my best tips for co-parenting is that when we understand people and their emotions better, we are more likely to be a better team when it comes to raising our kids. Now that my stepson is back in Washington, and the positions are reversed. It’s painful when you don’t get to see your child often. 

Kids who grow up in a split home are likely to get away with more. They can use going between houses and the different rules to their advantage. When the parents and step-parents are all on the same page with discipline and standards, the child feels more secure and stable in their foundation. I realize this is next to impossible, but if we can do it, the child will be much better off.  

Related: The One Crucial Reason I Adjust My Parenting Style with Each Child

Stay in Touch

When making family decisions, it is essential to include the stepchild in the thought process. It’s easy for them to feel like they aren’t part of the family or there is favoritism in blended families. I try to check in with my stepson every now and then. This often means an uncomfortable conversation where I ask him questions that may put feelings out there that he may not want to discuss. I may not like the answers, but I want to make sure he is feeling good about where he stands in the family.

It’s hard to think that one of our kids has an entirely different life that we don’t know or entirely understand. For my son, we say he has the city life and the country life. Not every kid gets to experience both and choose their own path. There is a lot of good to have multiplied love in your life. My oldest son (from love) and I have a special bond that I believe will last. I meant it with all my heart that day when I committed to be in his life. I thank God for him, his kindness, his generosity his love for his siblings, and I am grateful he is in our family of six. (Can you relate to these 10 facts about raising multiple teens at the same time?)

Top 4 Co-Parenting Rules

Here are four guidelines we follow that help the co-parenting dynamic from my perspective as a stepmom:

  1. Keep the child the focus. Don't make it about you.
  2. Stay united on core-parenting values with all parents and co-parents.
  3. Don't speak poorly of the other parent(s) around the child.
  4. Keep the decisions and communication between the parents and not through the kids. Putting kids in the middle divides them and can do emotional damage.   

All of these co-parenting tips for divorced parents are easier said than done. We haven't been perfect by any means, but these best tips for co-parenting keep us working to be better for his sake. (Score advice to handle even more tough family topics.) We try to think before reacting and deciding. We visualize 10 steps down the road, and ask ourselves “will this impact the child and our relationships within the family dynamic?” For example, when we had my stepson full time in California, and his mom was in Washington, she would take him on vacation for Spring Break. My frustration was that he was missing valuable track meets and sports practices that would disrupt his everyday life. I had to take a minute and think about what it would be like to have him two states away from me and only see him during school breaks. I started to empathize with her, and my mind and heart changed.