Sometimes separated or divorced parents embroiled in conflict are unable to recognize their ability to transition to a healthy relationship. They are so overwhelmed with emotions that can derail a positive co-parenting situation. Parents experience relief that a professional’s involvement can support them transitioning forward in a healthy way.
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As a Parenting Coordinator (PC), I often hear a plea from parties for assistance in effectively communicating with their co-parent. Many times co-parents who engage the services of a PC feel at a loss with regard to an ability to effectively communicate with their co-parent. Often times new PC couples provide me with deleterious text and email correspondence they have exchanged with one another around issues in their parenting agreement. Emotions such as frustration, anger, sadness, bitterness and hopelessness are apparent in these documents, and in their words, during our meetings. In orienting new parents to the PC process, it often seems there is a sense of relief that a third party is going to assist them to help move forward in a healthy way.
Part of the role of the PC is to educate parents and to sensitize them about how a child might be internalizing feelings about being a member of a divorced or separated family where there is ongoing conflict. Children are aware of the communication patterns, or lack thereof, between their parents. They are often relieved when their parents communicate effectively and they receive both overt and covert messages that it is OK to freely love and spend time with each parent. It has been said “children are like sponges” and that is certainly the case with the children in the families who seek our services. Children pick up their parents’ covert messages and frustrations. When parents are arguing with each other or disengaging through a “cold war”, the children are vulnerable; this can be burdensome and may hinder healthy development. Children love their parents and they hope for simple things, like to go to the dentist or on a play date, without a stressful or difficult discussion. In some families where the communication is extremely strained, the child might not get to the dentist or play date at all.
Together with parents, a PC can help to uncover the patterns or themes of communication that have not worked historically. In my social work training, we learned that when working with a couple or family, the interaction between the individuals becomes the client. That principle certainly is true with PC. Whether our work involves coming to the table for a joint meeting or a parallel process where parties email each other and copy me, my focus is on the interaction between them. Feedback is given with regard to how only they could know best what their co-parent’s “hot buttons” are and how can this person be approached differently on behalf of their child. Work is also done around trying to be as clear as possible in communicating with the other party so that nebulous or “what did they mean by that?” communication can be kept reduced. At times, I might make suggestions to parties around how to re-phrase something they said or wrote in an email as it might seem inflammatory or not clear.
At FamilyKind, we understand it is not an easy task to unbraid yourself from a significant other and child’s other parent then reconfigure the relationship into at least a “business” one on behalf of your child. Powerful residual feelings that are difficult to put aside can make effectively communicating with your co-parent seem like an impossible task. The other parent might also feel stuck in their own strong feelings and struggle with communicating with you. By working with a trained Parenting Coordinator, hopefully parents can start to recognize the patterns of communication that have not been helpful and consider new strategies with hands-on assistance. Effective communication between divorced and separated parents equals a better chance of adequately meeting children’s needs. It also contributes toward an environment around the child that is more conducive toward their overall emotional well-being.
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Diane Hessemann, is a licensed clinical social worker and parenting coordinator.