The Struggles to Co-Parent
The struggle to co-parent persists whether you use collaborative divorce, mediation, or litigation co-parenting is tough. While the divorce proceedings are going on and even after a reasonable settlement has finally been reached, hostile feelings often remain.
So how do you co-parent effectively to release your children from all the tension they’ve been living through for months or years? The general advice is: “Doing the Best for the Child” but how do you really do that?
The Problem Child
All too often, when trying to co-parent, one child seems to be the one causing lots of trouble. Lying, temper tantrums, disorganization, school failures, slamming doors. Everyone focuses on him and he seems to be blamed and criticized all too frequently. Quite often, however, this is the most sensitive child who bears the pain for everyone.
I remember a six-year-old telling me how at Easter both parents decided to have a family dinner with both divorcing parents present “for the sake of the kids.” They thought they were carrying out “co-parenting.”
The parents complained to me about how verbally destructive this child had become yelling about the food, the presents, the whole holiday. He was blamed for “ruining the day.” However, what he told me was that his parents “acted so nice” but “there was an atomic bomb in the room.”
While we could say he played out the atomic bomb, it was just a metaphor for all the painful energy everyone was concealing and he was revealing.
Why blame this distressed child who couldn’t contain inside his small mind and body the vast emotions everyone was feeling. What he needed was lots of empathy for the loss of his family as he knew it and the charade that he was supposed to carry out on this imaginary happy day.
Two Major Tips for Real-Life Co-Parenting
1. Empathize, don’t punish.
Parents have to expect that even with the most “amicable” divorces children are deeply troubled. Even when some teens say they are relieved their parents aren’t together anymore, so they don’t have to hear their arguing, they remain the fall-out from the family despair.
When your child gets into some sort of trouble, empathize with his stress rather than blame him for his misdeed. It’s hard to do when things seem to be falling apart, but that’s what’s needed. Tell him how you know he’s having a rough time and you’ll try to help him through it.
2. Spend alone time with each child.
Each child experiences divorce differently. Some try to be model children to keep things calm. Don’t believe this outlook for a second by saying “she is handling it well.” She just hides her feelings and quivers inside alone.
She may get upset about little inconsequential things that don’t make sense. These are the signs that she’s hiding the bigger emotions. Only when you are alone with your child can you find out how she is actually doing. When she says, “Fine,” follow it up with “And how else besides fine?”
Listening closely is the key to co-parenting during and after divorce as well as years to come. As children grow they continue to experience the divorce in different ways. It’s our job as parents to listen and understand without judgment.
Co-Parenting is life-long. That’s one of the hardest parts of divorce. Parents and children have to take one problem at a time as routines are set and transitioned as the kids get older. Everyone will grow and change even in very positive ways, if there is constant empathy and alone time with each child.
Parents need a lot of patience with themselves as well as with their kids. It’s a long learning process.
Laurie Hollman, Ph.D. is a psychoanalyst who writes about child development, mental health, parenting, and Parental Intelligence. Her upcoming book, Unlocking Parental Intelligence: Finding Meaning in Your Child’s Behavior, will be released in October, 2015.