The dissolution of a family is tragic and creates severe stress on the children as well as the parents. However, research shows that children fare better in two homes with their parents separated compared to a single home with conflict, yelling, and threat of emotional or physical harm.
During and after separation, some parents successfully shield their children from the stress of the divorce, and help them adapt to life in two homes. Unfortunately, in many cases, parents are so angry and hurt that they use the children as pawns to seek revenge by denying custody to the other parent or engaging in parental alienation. In the worst cases, a parent will seek to harm the other by making repeated frivolous reports to Child Protective Services or the police, or by filing multiple Court motions requiring the other parent to respond and incur attorney costs, thereby draining the other parent’s financial resources.
In cases where parents exhibit difficulty sharing child custody and engaging in collaborative communication focused on the needs of the children, Family Courts order “co-parenting counseling”.
Types of Co-Parent Counseling
Two types of co-parenting counseling are offered:
Collaborative Co-parenting is offered when the parents communicate with each other with some semblance of respect, and both are motivated to cooperate for the benefit of their children. The goal is to develop collaborative planning and flexible problem-solving skills, to provide security, resources, and opportunities for the children.
Parallel Co-parenting is used when one or both parents are incapable of communicating in a calm, objective manner; exhibit a high degree of animosity that precludes their focusing on the needs of their children; or when they demonstrate an unwillingness to engage in problem-solving for the benefit of their children. The goal is to reduce contact between the parents to a minimum to avoid exposing the children to conflict. This is accomplished by creating clear, repetitive routines, procedures, rules and boundaries to allow each parent to live and have time with the children without interference from the other.
Presented below is an outline of the skills I teach in Collaborative Co-parenting counseling. Note that co-parenting counseling is not psychotherapy. If we learn that either parent is in need of additional emotional support or skills training – for example, in emotional regulation and calming, assertiveness and negotiating, or self-assurance – a referral will be made to a therapist who is familiar with co-parenting.
Topic 1: Purpose of co-parenting counseling. The purpose of co-parent counseling is to enable you to focus your attention on creating new homes and lifestyles for “the benefit of your children”. It is not to focus on your issues, re-litigate your grievances, or vent your failed expectations.
Topic 2: Narratives and boundaries. You each have your own perceptions of events and reality. Accept that you will disagree and that you will often feel inappropriately blamed or accused. Let go of being “right”, trying to get the other parent to validate you, or feeling you have to correct him/her. Focus instead on listening, reducing tension, and engaging in collaborative communication for planning and childcare.
Topic 3: Let go and stop arguing. Use reflective listening to show understanding before sharing alternate opinions. Don’t correct, don’t seek validation, don’t oppose, don’t be defensive, don’t counter-attack. Work toward joint solutions and compromises to address the children’s needs. To manage your feelings, seek emotional support from your friends and practice self-soothing: Breathe, talk to yourself, and talk to your best friends. Expect to get upset and have someone to talk to about it. Exercise regularly. Get enough sleep.
Topic 4: Communication methods to create transparency. Never use text messaging to express feelings or arguments. Text messaging is acceptable only to announce when you will arrive or if you will be late. In a tense discussion, use email to have a written record of what was said and decided, and to give yourself time to think and self-calm before responding. Use a software app for joint scheduling such as Our Family Wizard: www.ourfamilywizard.com, or Talking Parents www.TalkingParents.com.
Topic 5: Nature of communications. All communications should be brief, fact-oriented and business-like. None are to air conflicts or resolve disputes, or express feelings. Work toward emotional disengagement and disentanglement, and focus on the needs of the children. Let go of the expectation that anything needs to be “fair”. If you encounter an unresolvable disagreement, work through your attorneys, but realize that the cost will be more than $800 per hour in attorneys’ fees.
Topic 6: Equity rules. Each parent is encouraged to establish rules for his/her own home. However, there are several areas where co-parents need to coordinate efforts; for example, dietary restrictions, sharing the children’s birthdays and holidays, coordinating doctor visits, school homework, bedtimes, vacation destinations, extra-curricular activities and sports, and contacting the non-custodial parent at bedtime. When co-parents disagree, we use Equity rules to create solutions. These include (a) compromise, (b) turn-taking, (c) trading or exchanging, (d) sharing, (e) whose needs are greatest, and (f) who is most able to provide or sacrifice. In most cases of collaborative co-parenting, the parents will decide to use one of the rules to fashion an acceptable though perhaps imperfect solution focused on the benefit of the children.
Topic 7: Do’s and Don’t’s. Toward the end of co-parenting counseling, we review the list of do’s and don’t’s below, and then discuss conflict scenarios (that will be presented in our next blog entry).
- Don’t argue in front of the child. Being civil with each other in front of the children helps them feel safe and secure.
- Do encourage the children to have a good relationship with the other parent.
- Don’t talk about the other parent with the children or say bad things about the other parent. If the child asks about the other parent, encourage the child to ask the question to the other parent.
- Don’t make the child choose between the two of you, or manipulate for loyalty: “Do you want to go to your father’s house or stay here?” “If you love me, you would spend more time here.”
- Do ask the children what they are feeling. Empathize with their feelings about moving between the two homes.
- Do remind the children that the divorce was not their fault.
- Pay attention to the what the child wants/needs, not just what you want/feel.
- Don’t ask your child to give messages to the other parent, or make demands for you.
- As much as possible, try to keep rules, schedules, playdates and bedtimes in synch between the homes, and sit together at the children’s activities.
Finally, many co-parents ask me how to protect their custody rights in court by documenting that they are good parents and that the kids feel safe with them. Some want a way to record interactions with the co-parent to improve on their co-parenting skills, or document unwanted behaviors. I invite them to use our CaseKeepers application at no cost, which is an electronic journal for creating custody logs.
Further, I encourage parents to use the CaseKeepers journal to vent their feelings and practice self-calming, and to improve their negotiating skills and strategies. I remind them that their journal is completely confidential from their co-parent, is HIPAA-compliant, and allows me to provide rapid feedback as needed, because life with children happens in real time and without pause.
Recommended reading: Parenting After Divorce: Resolving Conflicts and Meeting Your Children’s Needs (Rebuilding Books) – October 1, 2007; Buy it on Amazon