Parenting in the same household can be tough. But parenting from two different homes? That comes with its own set of added complications — especially when each parent has their own way of doing things — that can leave children confused and conflicted. It goes without saying that the dissolution of a marriage (or any romantic partnership) brings many feelings to the surface.
Having kids in the picture makes it even more emotionally fraught, and when emotions run high, the likelihood of clashing with each other also peaks. If you find yourself in this situation, it might be time to explore co-parenting counseling and help bring a little harmony (or at least civil collaboration) to your family. To help you navigate this tricky time, Scary Mommy spoke to therapists and certified divorce coaches to glean some insight.
What is co-parenting counseling?
“Co-parenting counseling occurs when parents who have separated, divorced, or are in the midst of separation or divorce, support the participation of their children in counseling services,” Kevin Kidd, LPC, MA, a therapist with Open Arms Wellness, explains.
He elaborates, “The structure of co-parenting counseling is extremely varied depending on the family’s situation and the direction of the counselor. In some cases, separated parents are both able to put aside their own emotional baggage from the conflict for their children to participate. Other times, one or both parents may struggle to do this. Issues addressed typically include adjusting to parental separation and the changes that brings, improving communication, coming to terms with the separation of parents, as well as managing conflict.”
What is the goal for parents?
Entering co-parenting counseling doesn’t always mean that the parents don’t agree. Sometimes parents simply want to maintain the healthy co-parenting relationship that’s already working for their family. Though, unfortunately, many seeking the help of a co-parenting therapist are dealing with an ex that they don't get along with, making it difficult to agree on the best way to parent their children. And that’s where co-parenting counseling comes in.
Similar to conventional, individual therapy, co-parenting sessions will focus on helping each parent understand their feelings and how they influence the way they parent and interact with the other parent. Therapists also heavily focus on parents understanding their children so that they can make decisions based on what is best for the children.
“The work involves learning skills to increase the effectiveness of the co-parenting relationship. These skills are taught in the context of discussing and coming to agreement on a variety of parenting plan issues, from the parenting schedule to how to save for college,” explains Mary Ann Aronsohn, MA, LMFT, a marriage and family therapist specializing in co-parenting, stepfamily, and divorce.
She continues, “Skills include basic communication strategies (such as ‘I’-messages and polite requests, genuinely curious questions, and consulting one another while giving the benefit of the doubt) as well as negotiation strategies (such as interest-based focus, proposals, and counter-proposals). The intent we use as common ground is the desire for the child/ren to thrive.”
The aim should never be to get leverage to use against the other parent, adds Kidd, emphasizing, “The goal is to help your child adjust to an earth-shattering situation that is pervasively confusing and difficult for them, not to make yourself look good, or your spouse look bad, later in front of a judge. Children should be the sole focus of this type of counseling service.”
What is the child’s involvement in co-parenting counseling?
Co-parenting counseling is highly individualized, with your therapist determining the best course of treatment based on input from the family. But the child’s involvement is a vital part of the process. Kidd recommends parents bring their child(ren) to meet with a counselor early in the process and allow them to meet individually with the therapist for a majority of the sessions so they can “freely and honestly” process their thoughts and feelings.
“In cases where children have just been informed that their parents are divorcing or separating, therapists provide opportunities for children to process their thoughts and feelings,” he says. “The therapist will likely discuss potential pitfalls in the process.”
In situations where the children have been aware of their parents’ split for some time, the focus shifts to solutions for any issues that present. “This could include helping children determine the best coping skills to use for decreasing angry outbursts, finding ways to improve transitions as they split time living at two different households, and role-playing how to best deal with situations involving the children’s friends and peers becoming aware of the split and asking questions they’re not emotionally prepared to answer,” says Kidd.
What can you do at home until you can see a co-parenting counselor?
It’s not always feasible for two different households to come together to coordinate getting to a co-parenting counselor. And some families can’t afford the extra expense, particularly at a time when inflation has caused such a spike in the cost of living. If co-parenting counseling doesn’t align with your family’s schedule or budget right now, Aronsohn offers the following advice:
- Treat children's comments as pieces of a puzzle (rather than the whole or complete truth). This approach teaches co-parents to come together to share their puzzle pieces in an attempt to join their bits of information and create a larger picture of what the child may be experiencing.
- Focus on thinking rather than feeling. Especially applicable in higher-conflict co-parenting situations, this helps you productively come up with possible solutions instead of sorting out the truth of the past.
- Try to find middle ground. When tempted to accuse, complain or criticize, instead work to create either a polite request (for the specific desired behavior) or a proposal (that you think the other parent might actually be able to agree to).
- Speak occasional positives about the other parent, as well as positives about how the child is like the other parent. In addition to avoiding bad-mouthing the other parent within earshot of the child (or similar non-verbal expressions), this supports the child and allows the child to more freely love both of you.
- Create a blame-free narrative about what happened to the parents' relationship, conjoint if possible, so that children, friends, and family can avoid taking sides.”
- Disagree in Private. Coparenting is a journey, and there are often bumps in the road that may lead to disagreements. For your children's sake and to prevent any confusion, try your best not to have your disputes in front of the kids. Especially when co-parenting, it's essential to show a united front. But if you do accidentally argue in front of the little ones, just be sure to make up in front of them as well.
Of course, not every co-parenting journey follows the same path. The issues you deal with — and that your therapist discusses, if you choose counseling — can vacillate depending on the situations particular to each family situation. The most important thing to remember, says Aronsohn, is that “a productive and respectful co-parenting relationship is critical for children’s growth and development.”
Editor’s Note: Co-parenting counseling is not advised in abusive situations. If you or someone you know is the victim of domestic violence, understand there is both help and hope. Contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).
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