Cooperative Parenting After Divorce or Separation

In her excellent article, ‘Language Matters: time to reframe our national vocabulary for family breakdown’ [2021] Fam Law 1015 Helen Adam shines a spotlight on the term ‘co-parenting’ suggesting that it’s confusing for many parents and ends up being interpreted as a 50:50 division of time. Helen Adam prefers the term ‘cooperative parenting’ because, she says, “it says what it is on the tin: children need their parents to cooperate with each other, where safe to do so.

Last week I attended an excellent webinar organised by 174 Family Law and Voices in the Middle which focused on the child-parent relationship in the context of family separation.  As part of the discussion a cooperative approach was suggested to help build trust and lower the anxiety of the other parent during a child’s stay.  This ranged from hosting video calls, sending regular texts to ‘check-in’ and arranging for another family member to make a visit and confirm that the child has settled ok.

If these suggestions are viewed through the lens of ‘co-parenting’ then they could perhaps feel like an affront to a parent’s perceived right to have their 50% uninterrupted share of the child’s time. However, through the lens of ‘cooperation’ these small steps have the potential to make a real difference to the experience of separating families and a chance to build a foundation for a future of working cooperatively together.

Cooperation requires an understanding of the other person. Just as the family law profession has sought to assimilate learning on child development from the psychotherapeutic arena, there is also much to assimilate from the scientific arena too.  As Caitlin Moran says in her recent book: ‘No one really talks about the chemical elements of parenting – but when you think about it, it is what underpins everything.

A brief example highlighting this point is when the parents of young infants separate.  In this situation both parents are likely to be uniquely sleep deprived, and science now tells us that not only is a mother’s body full of incredibly powerful hormones for months after the birth, her brain also undergoes neurological changes that prepare her for motherhood.  These include increases in regions that control empathy and social interaction and importantly anxiety.  Interestingly, a study of the brain during nightmares experienced by mothers (a relatively common phenomenon experienced by new mothers) showed that the areas that lit up were the part of the brain that deals with vigilance and protectiveness. Add to this the extreme stress caused by the breakdown of a relationship and we have a potent cocktail.

In cooperative parenting the position of the other parent requires understanding. If the mother or father’s anxiety can be acknowledged as being founded in a complex range of psychological and even chemical reasons and not just a desire to undermine or interrupt the other’s relationship with the child, then perhaps, in turn, a different, more cooperative approach can be adopted in response.

There are numerous positives that become available in cooperation. In the most practical sense, a reassured parent may be more able to rest, ready to take up the reins when the child returns. A reassured parent is more able to help the child navigate the transition between households in a calm and positive way. Eliminating the language of anxiety hopefully allows space for a stance that communicates positive regard of the other parent to the child, even pre-language. Of course, longer term this type of cooperative relationship builds trust and a foundation for the future of this lifelong relationship, which sees a child from infancy to their first day at school to their wedding day and beyond.

At FLiP we know that when parents separate it can be hard to maintain a cooperative parenting relationship. That is why we have in-house counsellors who can offer therapeutic support to our clients, and lawyers who understand and appreciate the unique challenges that separating parents face.

If you’d like to learn more about how we can help you through your divorce or separation whilst maintaining a cooperative parenting relationship, please contact FLiP at E: or T: 020 7420 5000. Learn more about our approach to child arrangements and parenting on divorce or separation here.