Judge’s Corner

Co-Parenting: A View from the Bench by Judge Angélica D. Zayas


Judge Angélica D. Zayas

What Is Co-Parenting? Co-parenting can be described or defined in many ways. In the context of the Family Court, co-parenting can best be described as a parenting relationship where both parents assume joint responsibility for raising their child even though they are longer, or perhaps never were, together as a couple.1

Even where parents are living together in a healthy committed relationship, parenting a child can sometimes be difficult. This is so for many reasons. Balancing work, home, and other family obligations can be complicated. Individual childhood and/or life experiences may influence a parent’s parenting style or choices and lead to disagreements on parenting issues. Parenting a child where the parents are no longer, or perhaps never were, in a committed relationship can often be even more difficult. This is especially true where the separation was not amicable or where domestic violence was present.

A key component to effective co-parenting is the ability of the parents to put aside their personal differences to create and follow a parenting plan that is in the child’s best interest. Successful co-parenting depends on the parents’ ability to communicate with each other effectively and respectfully, to assume mutual responsibility for the care of the child, and to demonstrate flexibility when necessary to overcome unexpected issues.

1 Legally, the concept of parenting children post-separation significantly changed following a major overhaul of Chapter 61, Florida Statutes, which included the implementation of parenting plans and replaced “custody” with “parenting and time-sharing.” See Laws 2008, c. 2008-61, § 8, eff. Oct. 1, 2008. See also Elisha D. Roy, The End of Custody in Florida: Finally Parents Are Just Parents, 82 NOV Fla. B.J. 49.

Why does it matter? Effective co-parenting can help mitigate the social and emotional consequences of divorce or separation for the child by providing the child a safe environment to process the separation and successfully move forward. For example, by providing the child with consistent schedules, expectations, and communications, the co-parents help the child feel more secure and safe. This stability and sense of security will allow the child to better adapt to the separation as well as other changes or daily challenges. Children of divorce or separation are often at risk of becoming a “parentified child” by assuming responsibility for a parent’s feelings, social life, or other adult responsibilities in the home. Often a parentified child will absorb the emotional impact of a separation by acting as a messenger between the parents to minimize the conflict between the parents. Children who sense that the parents can effectively communicate and manage the trauma of the separation are less likely to assume adult responsibilities in the home. Effective co-parenting provides the child with an example of communication and cooperation that allows the child to form a healthy relationship with both parents. This example of communication and cooperation also provides a framework for the child’s relationships with others. By watching the parents communicate despite the separation, and the differences that led to the separation, the child learns effective and healthy conflict resolution. By eliminating the child’s need to manage the parent’s relationship with each other, effective co-parenting also reduces the child’s sense of being torn between the parents.

What can parents do better? Successful co-parenting takes patience, flexibility, communication, and respect for the other parent’s place in the child’s life. Successful co-parents must be committed to working together to ensure their child’s emotional, social, and physical well-being, despite their own personal differences or disagreements. Successful co-parents must also understand how their words and actions affect their child, directly and indirectly. Knowing that their words and actions will impact their child, successful co-parents will communicate well with each other on child related issues and will encourage the child to have a healthy relationship with the other parent. Successful co-parents will never speak disparagingly about the other parent or the other parent’s home in front of the child or allow others to speak disparagingly about the other parent in the child’s presence. Successful co-parents respect the parenting plan and time-sharing schedule established by the parenting plan, but also demonstrate flexibility when circumstances require modification. In other words, successful co-parents treat each other as they wish to be treated and work cooperatively to ensure that their child is raised in an emotionally healthy environment that enables the child to not only adapt to the separation, but also gives the child the stability and security necessary to meet the challenges of daily life.

How can the Court help? Separation and change can be difficult for parents and children. Even in the most amicable separations, there can be some unresolved issues and emotions. Parents may not always realize how these unresolved issues are affecting their behaviors or their ability to parent their child in an emotionally healthy way. Notwithstanding a child common, some parents view the end of their relationship with the other parent as the end of all communication with the other parent. The parent who refuses to communicate in any way with the other parent once the personal relationship between the parents has ended clearly does not understand the lasting damage this behavior will have on the child. In both cases, a referral to Family Court Services for co-parenting counseling or parenting coordination may help the family move forward in a more healthy and productive way. A referral for individual counseling, or even family counseling, may also help the parents gain insight and help them develop a healthy co-parenting relationship for the sake of their child.