Updated: Sep 27
There is no doubt that a red hot text is likely to spur another and then another. The opposite can happen as well - that the receiver goes cold and completely withdraws from exchanging pertinent information.
Whether you and your co-parent are married, separated or divorced - it’s just not easy to co-parent. Studies show that among those married, money, sex and kids are the most common areas of disagreement.
Arguments around sex and money can end with a successful divorce, but co-parenting continues and so can the disagreements.
Spotlight on the Stoplight Approach
Maybe you have a difficult co-parent or maybe your co-parent is having a bad day. Either way, you will certainly benefit (and your kids!) by using the stop light approach for replying to inflammatory texts: green is for go, yellow for proceed with caution and red is for stop.
Green Signals Go
This type of response is one you can use most of the time, it is healthy and useful to you. You can be confident in using this type of response often.
Being on the receiving end of a text that is accusatory, blaming, shaming, full of venting or anger does cause a variety of reactions in us. Maybe your jaw clenches, you get a gut ache, a literal pain in your neck, your heart rate goes up or you space out. Giving yourself 2, 3, 5 minutes (as many as you need!) to get grounded will set the stage for a green light response.
Getting grounded is getting your body and mind in a calm state. You feel balanced, in touch with your experience of the text while also in a frame of mind to respond from your frontal lobe (the area of the brain responsible for critical thinking).
Next, ignore the inflammatory part of the red hot text. Focus on the facts, the critical information of the text. Respond only to the critical information. Sticking to the facts addresses the informational content rather than the emotional content of the disagreeable text. At the end of the day, information about your child is really important which is why you want to respond. On the other hand, the charged part of the text may be informational for you about the other parent’s state, but is not necessary to respond to for the day to day matters of your child.
Be cordial to friendly in your response. Friendliness tends to be disarming and makes it difficult (but not impossible) for the other parent to stay heated. You may have a co-parent who just doesn’t respond to friendliness that well either. In that case, be at least cordial - cordial will not incite more venting or anger or blaming. On the other hand, anything less than cordial can drive up the chance of another inflammatory text.
A short and simple response will serve you. Keeping your response short benefits you in two ways. One, you spend less time and energy on the text. If you are a parent, you are very busy! A short response frees up your mind’s mental resources quickly. Two, a brief reply provides less for the other parent to respond to or disagree with. Your goal is to tend to the business of your child as quickly and easily as possible.
Yellow Signals Slow Down
A yellow response means that you want to use it with caution. It is not your best option, but it is also not your worst. It’s not an optimal response, so you want to use it in a limited way.
Asking questions can be useful for clarification but it can also backfire and create more derogatory or incendiary texts. If you really do not know what the text is referring to, you may want to ask a clarifying question. You can start a clarifying question with, “Can you please clarify…” Likewise, if critical information is missing from the text, you may need to inquire about that information. Keep it simple by just addressing the necessary piece of information like, “What time is the game?”
If you do need to ask a question, follow the green light methods of being brief and cordial/friendly.
Red Signals Stop
This sort of response can drive up the heat, possibly cause even more difficulty for yourself. You want to avoid this type of response most of the time, if not all of the time.
Anger can easily trigger anger. Likewise, hurt easily triggers hurting back. It’s human to see an accusatory or derogatory text and want to respond in kind. Unfortunately, this does not tend to actually serve you: responding in kind can go on and on, take you down the rabbit hole, use up your precious mental and emotional resources as well as your time.
This is not a good time to bring up the past, defend yourself or use words like ‘always’ or ‘never’. If the text you received was charged, it’s likely your coparent is in a charged state. We are not able to operate from the area of our brain in charge of critical thinking when we are in a charged state. It is unlikely that your coparent will be able to receive input right now - no matter how right you are or wrong they are! Save your time, save your energy because it is likely to just evaporate if you try to defend yourself or get your coparent to see things from your point of view right now. Some coparents struggle to ever see things from another’s point of view while some can go through temporary states of failing to understand your perspective.
Lastly, red may mean stop as in stop yourself from responding. Not every text needs a response. Ask yourself if there is information in the text that needs a reply or is your coparent venting?
If you find yourself repeatedly in stoplight mode, you may need additional supports. Prolonged conflict between coparents yields very poor results for kids. A mental health professional can be extremely useful in identifying more specifics for your specific coparent and situations.