Coparenting After Divorce: Easier Said Than Done
October 30, 2015
Co-parenting while in a healthy and successful marriage has its challenges and is certainly a difficult task. Now add in the correlates involved in many divorces (e.g. unhealthy communication patterns, anger, frustration, revenge, and living in two separate homes) and you have a situation ripe for dysfunction. Divorcing parents hear from their attorneys, judges, therapists, and evaluators that healthy co-parenting is vital for their children’s healthy emotional growth. What really is co-parenting?
Gable, Belsky & Crnic, writing in the Journal of Marriage and the Family (1995, 57, 609-616) defined co-parenting as the support that parents give to each other as they are advancing the parenting goals. Other researchers have focused on an inter-parental agreement, parental alliance, and the parental interaction that is centered on child-rearing issues. Cohen & Weissman (Parenthood: A Psychodynamic Perspective, 1984) focused their attention on the parental alliance and the ability of the parents to acknowledge, respect, and value the parenting roles and tasks of the other parent.
Coparenting is an important issue to address since post-divorce conflict between the parents is perhaps the single most psychologically damaging behavior that divorced children routinely see and experience. Regardless of the definition of co-parenting, the goal is to raise children from childhood to adulthood in the most psychologically healthy way. Healthy co-parenting leads children to feel emotionally secure, take risks, and deal with life’s ups and downs. If divorced parents can reduce their conflict, move toward a unified parenting goal, and communicate to their children the idea that they still have two parents who love them and care about them, the better for the children. If divorced parents can view co-parenting as parenting, unchanged since before the divorce, they will often make better decisions. Those of us who provide co-parenting counseling encourage divorced parents to share information about the children as they would if they resided under the same roof. The exchange of information about the children that is shared between the parents is vital. This not only helps the parents to have a better picture of the children’s behavior in all settings, but it gives the children a sense that their parents are still functioning as their parents even though they are divorced and living apart. This sharing of information makes it more difficult for children to split parents and play one against the other. Normal healthy children, in intact families, often play one parent against the other. The opportunity for the child to work one parent against the other is magnified in divorce if the parents are unable to share information and value the input from the other parent. Children feel much safer and secure when they know their parents are essentially unified. Often children will be happier when their parents are unified, even if being unified means being tougher on the child. This is true for children in divorced families as well as in intact families.
Since many of our clients have severe difficulty managing their own emotions, they need coaching to even achieve a very basic level of healthy co-parenting. It is up to attorneys, judges, guardians, psychotherapists, divorce coaches, and others to remind these individuals that they should not place the child in the middle of the conflict between them and their spouse or ex-spouse. Basic coaching reminds parents that children should not be the messengers between the parents; badmouthing the other parent can emotionally hurt the child, and showing disgust for the other parent’s opinions is unhealthy for the child. Parents will benefit from learning to use communication skills such as active listening and assertiveness skills so as not to come across in a hostile manner and to facilitate open communication. Parents who are coached regarding co-parenting should learn to regularly share information about health, education, religion, and extracurricular activities without getting caught up in an emotional battle. Parents sharing information in these four areas allows children to feel that their parents are interested and engaged in all areas of their life. When two parents can speak to each other in a respectful manner it models appropriate communication skills to the children and decrease the exposure to interparental conflict.
It is a wise settlement choice to have a co-parenting counselor/coach or parent coordinator involved post divorce to assist the clients in healthy co-parenting. It takes a number of years post divorce for newly divorced couples to decrease tension and normalize communication. A specially trained mental health professional providing co-parenting counseling increases the likelihood that the parents will achieve a state of healthy co-parenting. In addition, the co-parenting counselor/coach or parent coordinator can assist in conflict resolution to prevent small arguments and conflicts from spinning out of control and negatively affecting the children. Thus, the addition of the parent coordinator or co-parenting counselor/coach has both a preventive function as well as an intervention function. They attempt to prevent problems through education and counseling. They intervene when there is conflict to teach the parties how to resolve conflict in a healthier manner which is ultimately in the children’s best interest.