HIGH-CONFLICT DIVORCE & CO-PARENTING ISSUES
By Jeanne M. Hannah
High-conflict divorce exposes both parents and also their children to a lot of stress.
Signs That Co-Parenting Issues are Harming Children
The stress that co-parenting issues inflect on children aren't just inconvenient. In many cases, they actually cause harm and can even reverse the development of a child's life. Some of the most prominent signs include:
Little ones who were already potty-trained may suffer lapses.
Youngsters can be clingy, whiny and may go back to thumb-sucking or insist upon having a bottle for comfort.
Kids who were previously OK sleeping alone may seek comfort in Mommy's bed or Daddy's bed at night.
Kids in school can suffer a loss in performance.
Stress related to co-parenting issues can manifest physically, leading to headaches, stomachaches, sleep disturbances, or other psychosomatic symptoms.
Children may exhibit disruptive behavior, aggression, defiance, or acting out in school or at home.
Children may try to avoid situations that remind them of co-parenting conflicts, or they may become more confrontational and argumentative themselves.
Children might internalize the conflict and blame themselves for the co-parenting problems.
Prolonged exposure to co-parenting conflicts can make it challenging for children to trust others or form secure attachments. This sometimes leads to greater difficulty in forming romantic bonds later in the child's life.
Children may feel torn between their parents, struggling to navigate divided loyalties and feeling pressured to take sides. This may lead to ongoing issues in the child's relationship with one or both parents.
In severe cases, chronic stress from co-parenting issues can potentially lead to developmental delays in cognitive, emotional, or social areas.
Older children and adolescents may turn to substance abuse or engage in risky behaviors as a way to cope with the stress.
It's important to note that the presence of these signs does not necessarily mean that co-parenting is the sole cause, and they could be indicative of other underlying issues. Additionally, not every child will exhibit all of these signs, and the severity and combination of indicators can vary.
Anybody who has been through it or watched another go through it knows that conflict and stress can negatively affect everybody. What is a parent to do to help kids through this stress? Sometimes parents feel like they will never be able to talk to the other parent again, and often a "no contact rule" seems like the only answer. But if parents aren't communicating about the kids--health issues, school issues, scheduling arrangements such as extra-curricular activities or doctor appointments--then no effective co-parenting is going to happen.
The Importance of a Strong Co-Parenting Relationship
Some parents use their children as messengers, but everybody knows that this is not recommended. It's not rocket science: it is in the children's best interest if both the mother and father are cooperative in co-parenting and keep the kids from being caught in the middle. You might wonder if the Family Court has any methods of disengaging uncooperative parents.
Co-Parents and Family Courts
But the court cannot "fix" broken families. In the court's view, if the parties were getting along, they'd probably still be married. Most judges view post-judgment parenting issues as outside the scope of their "job description."
Some family courts appoint a parenting coordinator or a Guardian ad Litem [GAL] to look out for the best interests of the divorced parents' children. This can occur at any time during the divorce process, either pre- or post-decree. Typically, a GAL is a lawyer and a parenting coordinator is a counselor, although many courts will appoint either a lawyer or counselor for either role.
How a GAL Helps Guide Each Co-Parent
The parenting coordinator/GAL's task is to make independent and objective observations and recommendations as to what is in the child's or children's best interest. The GAL will typically interview each parent, stepparent or significant other, and talk to the children separately.
In Michigan, a parent has to file a motion clearly setting the type of parenting issue that is unresolved and needs clarification in order to get a GAL appointed. Post-judgment parenting coordinators may be authorized by a court to consult with the parents in a mediation-style format to resolve co-parenting issues.
We previously mentioned the possibility of children underperforming in school after their parents split up. For this reason, the court may authorize the GAL to talk to teachers and pediatricians or other third parties who have independent information about a child. These professionals may have unique insights about the child's emotional well-being.
Obviously, this takes a lot of stress from the court's docket. It can be helpful to parents because they might get a quicker resolution, but in the long run, the option of GAL or parenting coordinator can be quite expensive. Most courts will order both parents to share the cost involved.
Emailing and texting can be a way for uncooperative co-parents to minimize some of the stress involved in telephone or face-to-face communications. But in this digital age, knowing that emails and texts will often be attached to future parenting time motions, a parent needs to know that the communications are (a) genuine and not modified by the other parent and (b) are easily found in a chronological "roadmap" that shows the extent to which each co-parent is or is not cooperating.
Documenting Challenging Co-Parenting Issues
When one of my clients experiences high conflict in a divorce or has post-judgment parenting issues and an uncooperative or non-communicative ex-spouse, I always recommend that the parent keep a log or journal that details the problems. Documentation of the details related to the parenting problem is important so that information can be presented to the Court at a later date. This is a common co-parenting strategy when negative feelings begin proving detrimental to the child's well-being.
Journal entries should include the "Who, What, Where, and When" even when you cannot explain the "Why." Send an email to your co-parent--short and if not sweet, at least civil--to help your lawyer help you avoid the "he said, she said" problems. I recommend that they save emails, voicemails, text messages, and often recommend family counseling or a parenting coordinator. You may also want to document negative impacts on the child's welfare.
But recently, I found a better way. Family law judges in over 44 states and 4 Canadian provinces are ordering parents who have difficulty co-parenting to use OurFamilyWizard, an online calendar and communication program, to make sure that the kids are not caught in the middle in high-conflict cases. You can take a free test-drive of OurFamilyWizard here at http://ourfamilywizard.com Our Family Wizard empowers parents by providing long term solutions for co-parenting in a high-conflict relationship. All family information is shared by both parents online, including private and shared calendars, notifications and reminders, a message board, a journal, expense log, etc.
The thing I like about OFW is that everybody's emails are saved, can be accessed chronologically, and cannot be modified to remove something said in haste or anger. Our Family Wizard costs each parent $99.00 for a one year subscription. While that might seem like a lot of money, it is a drop in the bucket when compared to the attorney fees and costs a parent would incur in returning to Court on a post-judgment motion. Moreover, it's impossible to put a price on a more peaceful existence.
Finding Help in Overcoming Co-Parenting Challenges
Many times, a co-parent's anger, spite or bitterness lingers or even intensifies after a divorce, or in the case of unmarried parents, after establishment of parentage and custody and parenting time. Sometimes a parent will be embittered because the other parent has moved on to a new partner. These issues can also arise when different co-parenting styles come into play.
When counseling doesn't help or when parents won't agree to counseling, the best possible solution is to remove or minimize the behaviors or the failure of follow-through with co-parenting that impede open communication and healthy co-parenting. This is especially true when the problem is that one or both parents have a history of substance abuse problems or personality disorders. These challenges can all negatively impact effective child-rearing decisions. Stay tuned for another guest post by Donna Ferber about tips for moving forward with a "parallel parenting relationship".
Parties transition at different speeds after a divorce. If you or someone you know is still having trouble communication and cooperating with his or her co-parenting relationship, perhaps a parallel parenting approach will help them heal, transition and grow toward a more cooperative approach to co-parenting. Some form of effective interventions is often needed to overcome co-parenting challenges.
Be sure to consult with a family lawyer if you are not successful in managing parenting time issues after entry of a divorce decree. Courts and their perspectives vary. A lawyer familiar with your Family Court will be in a good position to guide you as to how to deal with the problem of high-conflict co-parenting, based upon knowledge of the particular Court or judge assigned to your case. Click here for article.