A question and answer session with a licensed mental health counselor, Tristin Hodges, regarding how to parent after a divorce.
Q: What is co-parenting?
A: Co-parenting is basically the relationship or the quality of relationship between the parents and how they help. Each other and work best towards the the best scenario for the children and obviously not all divorces end well, so when we think of it in that aspect, when you have a joint custody custody arrangement your going to have to communicate.
Sometimes it's very stressful because sometimes we have resentments, sometimes we have animosity towards each other based on what the divorce is about, whether it's been like a domestic abuse situation or it could be something as simple as like one cheated on the other. And so that can make those co-parenting relationships very hairy for lack of better terms.
Q: When you're talking about the quality of the relationship with the parents and how it's best for the children, how do you best put aside those emotions for the better of the kids?
A: Well, first and foremost, any of that anger, resentment, hurt, or those emotions that you have towards the other person has to take a backseat to the needs of your kids.
You know, setting aside strong feelings are going to be really hard to do. So what I encourage my clients to do is make sure you get your feelings out somewhere else. You know, one of the things that we have in Iowa is a parenting class that talks about children in the middle, specifically not to put the kids in the middle of the adult conversations. For example, don't vent to your children about what the other parent has done. You know, talk to your friends, find a therapist that you can talk to, maybe even one that specializes in how to get through a divorce, or even to be honest, you could even have a pet that listens to you blow off steam.
If you're starting to feel like you're getting angry or resentful, maybe taking a step back and a deep breath; taking a minute for yourself before you talk to your kids. Or even thinking of something that will calm you down, as it will be helpful to make sure that you're not venting to your kids in a way that's going to be detrimental to them, because what you're doing is you're actually building some animosity with the kids. Kids are either going to be resentful that you're talking bad about the other parent or they're going to believe you, and then you two are going to be this united front against the other parent, which isn't a good.
Q: How does that affect the kids growing up if they constantly have those parents that just battle back and forth and are not co-parenting?
A: Well, you're going to have children that are going to be anxious, you're going to have these kids that are going to be scared to be open with either parent based on what they're being told. I know it's easy to just say, "hey, tell your dad this" or, "hey, tell your mom that", but really, that's not their role when you're co-parenting. And that anxiety, can lead to physical struggles like having stomachaches, being scared to leave their parent, sometimes I've even heard of where sometimes parents are having their kids sleep in the same bed with them for longer than what's healthy.
It starts with your mindset. You have to be able to think about your child's best interest when you have those communication issues and maybe it has to be more business tone versus something that is a little more relaxed and personable. And maybe one of you is having a bad day or someone is upset because they're not seeing the kids enough. And, maybe just having those conversations via email once a week will help both of you keep to the issues at hand.
Q: What does having different roles and responsibilities at different houses look like with co-parenting?
A: What we want to do is aim for consistency. No, rules don't always have to be the same between both households, but if you have a general consistency between the two, your kids aren't going to have as hard of a time bouncing back and forth between two different environments. Consistent rules such as making sure they have their homework done before you get on your electronics or maybe curfews are similar.
That brings up an interesting topics, discipline. When you try to follow similar systems of consequences, even if the infractions don't happen under your roof, it helps the kids recognize that you guys are a unified front. That will help the children realize that they can't manipulate both parents into getting their way.
Make sure that you kind of have a set schedule, like getting the kids up at about the same time and putting them to bed about the same time. You know, that can go a long way towards making that adjustment for the kiddos a lot easier.
Q: What have you seen work the best and what have you seen fail?
A: I talk with parents about what their responsibilities are and where to let go. Trying to control the other person and their actions is where the issues start. Don't worry about what the other parent is doing more so than what you're doing.
The thing that I think has been helpful, especially with the with the clients that I've dealt with, is helping the children anticipate change. Making sure that they are getting prepared, packing in advance, and taking into consideration planning for the next few days with the other parent. For example, if they have gym in two days and they're going to be with that other parent making sure they get their tennis shoes.
No matter what the custody situation is, if a parent is taking the kid to a doctor's appointment or they have some sort of thing that comes up because they're kids, they're going to get sick, they are going to break bones. That's just how it works. Keeping things low key, by saying something like, "here's the situation" or "just wanted to let you know" or even better, having that conversation before something like that happens. Because sometimes when we get in the moment, we can tend to get upset so just being able to say "if they get sick over at your place, this is the insurance card and if you want me to take them..." Just be able to be open minded to all these variations that are going to come your way.
Ultimately, I think it's healthy the more that the child sees that all sets of parents are really there to support that child. Seeing posts on social media where the shirts say, "Dad, Mom, Step Mom, Step Dad", warms my heart. That's what I love to see, because that's exactly what parenting means, putting all of that emotion aside and just being truly happy for each other, even though each other is not who were happy with. I think that's the best case scenario.
Q: What would be the worst case scenario for a child?
A: The worst case scenario is the scenario where the parents don't get along and one parent is isolating the other parent. There's something called parental alienation that unfortunately happens more often than we'd like to admit. Parental alienation is basically talking negatively about the other parent towards that child, not allowing the child to go over to the parent's house, and not being open minded. And just basically the opposite of what we were just talking about, they will do anything they can to make that other parents life miserable at the expense of the child. And there's a lot of people, unfortunately, that I see come in and out of my door that have that experience.
The parent that tries to alienate the other parent will do things like choosing a counselor that they can think they can manipulate or that they can control. And and if they don't get the answer they want from one counselor, they'll go to another one until they find that.
I would highly recommend to join support groups, even on Facebook, that most are closed/private where nobody can see your posts or comments. Those groups offer support and guidance and similar people sharing experiences. I mean, it's really hard in a court of law to actually prove parental alienation, but there are ways with the right attorney and support.
Q: How can people find more help?
A: Second Saturday is a group of professionals such as a financial planner, lawyer and therapist who volunteer their time over zoom to field questions from those in need during a divorce or post divorce. In our group in Iowa, we have an attorney that comes in that talks about what to expect as far as the divorce proceedings and custody agreements. And then we have the mental health therapist discuss the importance of support and the emotions you will experience throughout this time. It is a nationwide program and if you have one in your area this group will be able to help you connect with other people going through a divorce and find some answers to those larger questions.