How to Set Family Boundaries to Co-Parent More Effectively

The do's & don'ts of establishing balanced co-parenting expectations.
By:
Chelsea Williams
August 11, 2021
S

ometimes, life as a single parent can be all about survival. It can feel like you don’t have a choice but to stay in day-to-day household management mode. When that’s the case, focusing on family boundaries probably isn’t at the top of your list.

I know that was true for me for quite a few years, especially when my kids were younger. I went from task to task without stopping to think about whether I was protecting my space, time, and emotional health. Not to mention that of my children and their other parent.

Also, boundaries can feel like a vague topic — like something other people with easier family setups can achieve. But if you learn how to make them concrete, they can transform your co-parenting circumstances. You may have even set some boundaries already without necessarily realizing it.

In this article, I’ll talk about:

  • The real, tangible stuff you can do to pinpoint the boundaries you need in your life as a busy co-parent
  • What it means to hold those in place when you’re interacting with the other people in your family system
  • Why good boundaries are so necessary for your children’s well-being


Decide What Healthy Boundaries Look Like to You

family boundaries: woman writing in her notebook

Before you can engage in setting boundaries with another person, you have to know what those look like for you individually. A good way to start diving into the boundary setting process is to identify the areas of your life where you feel some discomfort or anxiety, especially when other people are involved.

What are those places you dread going? Who are the people you avoid?

Journaling on these questions is one helpful way to start digging in. Get really honest with yourself about them. Try to name the feeling that comes up when you imagine yourself in those scenarios. It helps to be granular with the words you’re using, so reach for a descriptive word beyond the typical “fine” or “bad.”

Once you’ve thought of the word for that uncomfortable feeling, you’re more easily able to figure out why it comes up. Many times, it’s our intuition telling us something’s not right: We’re not listening to our gut.

The answer could be to heal the deeper source of the emotion, or it could be to draw a line with the person or environment that’s triggering it (or both!).

Here are some examples of setting healthy boundaries in your everyday life as a single parent:

  • Asking that your mother-in-law contact you first before stopping by to see the kids
  • Telling your children you’re taking some time to yourself and that they can knock on your door only if it’s an emergency
  • Saying no to your friend who asks if you can watch their kids on a school night
  • Refusing to buy the expensive toy your child has been begging for if you can’t afford it


If reading any of the above examples makes you feel awkward, I want you to remember one important thing: Having good boundaries does not make you selfish!

Putting others first (even your kids) has its limits, and you have to pay attention to know where those limits are. The tipping point is generally when you start to feel your intuition telling you something’s off.

The boundaries you choose to prioritize may be unrelated to the above examples, but don’t diminish your own needs by thinking the ones you come up with aren’t important.

If you skip the step of identifying what you need, you’ll find it much more difficult to understand how they apply to the more complex area of family relationships.

Ask the Right Questions to Decide on Boundaries

family boundaries: mom and little girl hanging out

After you’ve thought about any absent or unhealthy boundaries you may have had until now, you’ll want to move on to considering how to remedy the ones that are related to your co-parenting life. Even if you have a pretty smooth family dynamic after divorce, I highly recommend getting into the habit of directly evaluating what each person needs periodically.

You can do this on your own or in conversation with your co-parent. Of course, this communication will look different in every family. Here are some possible questions to consider, either with your co-parent or separately:

  • If it isn’t already determined by a court agreement, how will you communicate about everyday details? Will you use email, text, an app, or phone calls?
  • By what means will you inform each other of an emergency?
  • Are your children comfortable having you both in a room at once? What level of interaction are you each comfortable having with one another when you’re both attending an event for your child?
  • If your kids have their own phones, can they call the other parent whenever they’d like? Do you want them to be in a private space (away from you) to do so?
  • When you meet for exchanges, do you speak to the other parent face-to-face? Are you welcome in one another’s homes, or even at the door?
  • How much do you want to interact with your former spouse’s new partner (if they have one), and vice versa?


There may be lots of other questions that apply to your situation, but these are a start. Also, any of these answers can change over time. If something doesn’t work and you identify a boundary violation, don’t be afraid to say so and restart the conversation as many times as necessary over the years.

This includes watching and adjusting your own behavior.

I used to think I needed to speak my mind about any little thing that happened when my son was at his other home. I would send emails to my co-parent, thinking I was defending my child. I had to get honest with myself about the fact that I felt guilty about the effect the divorce was having on my son and what I interpreted as struggles he was facing as a result of my choices. In the end, I realized I wasn’t respecting the boundaries of his other household.

It can be hard to look at what you might need to adjust yourself, rather than just thinking of boundaries as a barrier you put up. Remember that boundaries go both ways, so you’ll want to answer those questions from your perspective as well as thinking about or asking your co-parent for their answers.

Agree on Family Boundaries With Your Co-Parent

family boundaries: couple talking seriously

The answers to the questions above will help you move on to the next step: establishing the family boundaries that matter to both of you.

Ultimately, the goal should be to come to a mutual agreement, but that may not happen right away. You may have to have this conversation in chunks over time.

Just like other aspects of divorce, there aren’t any perfect rules for how to set healthy boundaries. However, there are strategies that can make this period of time easier.

Let’s talk about some general boundaries that could apply in a co-parenting situation — and what you might not want to do.

Don’t:

Go to your children when you’re upset about something their other parent has said or done. This is called enmeshment, and it can be quite confusing for kids of any age. Avoid making them feel they have to take sides.

Do:

Think about how you’d like to be approached before confronting your co-parent. It can take some time to get used to how to address anything you aren’t happy about after divorce. Ideally, you’ll allow a period of time for things to calm down immediately following your split before getting into the details of family boundaries in a new context.

If you do need to talk about something difficult, try not to make assumptions about the other parent’s words or actions — especially if they’re based on something your child has said.

For example, if your child comes home concerned about not seeing you as much in the summer and claims the other parent was talking about a new schedule, comfort your child in a neutral way first. When you have a chance to speak with the other parent, use open-ended questions such as “Have you had any conversations with [our child] about the upcoming schedule change?” Using non-accusatory questions, you open the door for positive communication.

Don’t:

Discuss details of your co-parenting plan with friends or mutual acquaintances. For example, it’s best not to tell a friend who also knows your co-parent how much child support you get or pay. These kinds of conversations can lead to unnecessary misunderstanding and compromise the clear boundaries you’re aiming to maintain.

Do:

Inform your co-parent about any awkward conversations that may be coming their way. If you speak with a relative, caregiver, or mutual friend who intends to talk to your co-parent about something regarding your child, give them a heads-up. This way, they won’t feel bombarded and you’ll indicate to them that you’re putting your co-parenting relationship first.

Let’s say your child’s preschool teacher is concerned about the other parent’s consistent late drop-offs and complains to you about it. You could email or text your co-parent and say something like, “Mrs. Parker mentioned you might be having trouble getting [our child] to school on time. Maybe you could talk to her about it. Let me know if I can help in any way.”

Think of this as maintaining a united front on behalf of your child.

Don’t:

Invade your child’s privacy when it comes to their relationship with the other parent. The nature of divorce is such that children will have separate relationships with each parent. As hard as it may be, allowing their relationship with your co-parent to evolve — for better or worse — without your intervention is crucial.

Do:

Encourage your child to communicate their own boundaries with you and the other parent. Family boundaries don’t just apply to the adults in the situation. Your kids should feel safe to explore setting boundaries too. Let them know that if anything makes them uncomfortable, they can be honest about it with you and/or their other parent.

These do’s and don’ts are just some of the many ways you can set boundaries to maintain a healthy relationship with your co-parent. You’ll find your own rhythm if you stay open and flexible.

Set Clear Boundaries With Other Family Members

little boy with his grandma

To keep a healthy relationship with your co-parent, it’s important to protect what you’ve agreed upon together. You shouldn’t let any third party get in the middle (unless it’s a court mediator, family therapist, or someone else with your best interests in mind).

The boundaries you’ve set for your kids’ well-being should be honored at all times. I know how hard it can be to hold to this when you may not want to disappoint loved ones or have to explain your co-parenting agreement to them.

I’ve been in this situation plenty of times, with both my family and the other parent’s family getting involved.

One time a few years ago, my parents wanted to take my son to a big family gathering on a weekend that wasn’t my scheduled time. It was already too close to the date for me to request a schedule change according to my parenting plan. I didn’t promise them he’d be able to come, but I said I’d try to work it out.

I sent my co-parent a request for a schedule change, stating that I knew it was a bit too late but I wanted to see if it was possible anyway. When they responded with a no, I said, “Thanks for considering it,” and told my parents it wasn’t possible. They didn’t understand why there couldn’t be an exception for this event, but I said this was the final answer.

Even if I had really wanted my child to be able to have fun with his grandparents, I had to put our family boundaries first. Next time that birthday party or family reunion happens on the other parent’s time, it helps to put yourself in their shoes and think about what you’d want if the situation were reversed.

Learning how to set boundaries with family is not only best for your relationship with your co-parent, but great practice for paying attention to your own needs.

Notify Caregivers About Your Family Dynamics

mom sending her son to school

Schools, daycares, and even private babysitters can also be a common source of boundary violations. This can be because they simply can’t relate to your family dynamics, or they just don’t remember what they’ve been asked to do. A facility may have lots of families with unique situations, so it’s your and your co-parent’s responsibility to gently point out what you need from them.

Here are some examples involving a lack of boundaries on the part of a childcare provider and suggestions for how to handle them:

Action:

The administrative staff at your child’s preschool sees you after school and hands you a bill for the other parent’s portion of tuition.

Response:

“This is actually my co-parent’s responsibility, and I can provide you with our court agreement if you need confirmation. Do you have their contact info?”

Action:

Your child calls their other parent while your babysitter is there and the sitter asks permission to take the kids out while you’re at work.

Response:

“I appreciate that you asked permission to take the kids somewhere, but the way our co-parenting plan works is that all decisions about the kids on my time need to go through me, and vice versa. The kids are allowed to call the other parent any time, but you don’t need to talk to them unless it’s an emergency. Let me know if you ever have any questions about how our arrangement works.”

Statement:

Your child’s teacher asks you to share a progress update with the other parent.

Response:

“We’d prefer for you to share the update with both of us via email. Can I give you our email addresses?”

Statement:

Your child’s after-school program director says a negative remark about the other parent having been late, and your children are within earshot.

Response:

Tell your children you need privacy for a moment. Then say, “I understand you may have had a tough experience with my kids’ other parent, but I have a policy of not speaking badly about them. I need to know you can respect this, especially when the kids are around.”

How to Prepare to Speak Up

If reading those responses makes you feel nervous that you might not be able to pull them off in real life, I recommend you answer the questions below to help you prepare:

  • When was another time you were scared to do or say something, but you did or said it anyway? What happened as a result?
  • What is your relationship with this childcare provider? If they were to respond negatively, what options would you have?
  • If you were the caregiver on the receiving end of one of the above boundary-setting statements, how would you react?


Many times, we exaggerate these moments in our mind and agonize over how another person sees us. It’s not easy to get into the habit of asking for your boundaries to be honored, but once you do, you’ll realize you’re saving yourself, your co-parent, and your kids from a lot of unnecessary heartache and frustration.

Firmly Set Boundaries to Support Your Kids’ Mental Health

dad and his children playing

Making family boundaries a priority is not just about you and your co-parent being able to get along and follow your agreement. It’s very much about protecting your child’s mental and emotional wellness.

A lack of boundaries in a co-parenting circumstance can contribute to a general feeling of instability, which can negatively affect your child.

No matter what a family system looks like, it will be the core of support for a child and affect their ability to form secure attachments for life. Make sure your child (of any age) knows what’s OK and what’s not for your family, and feels free to state their own personal boundaries.

Lay the Foundation for Healthier Relationships

Any relationship can benefit from setting boundaries, but we can forget this also applies to us, our co-parent, our kids, and the other people involved in our kids’ lives. Because we’re willing to do anything it takes for them, we can confuse a lack of boundaries with a commitment to parenting.

Following the guidelines above, you’ll learn to build boundaries into your family’s life in a way that doesn’t feel difficult. In fact, establishing and respecting boundaries can make single parenting and co-parenting far less stressful.

Chelsea Williams

Chelsea is a twice-divorced mom of two boys. She is happily single parenting and doing her best to balance two simultaneous co-parenting relationships. Despite the complications, Chelsea can see the beauty in her story and believes healing is possible for the whole family.