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Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Cooperative Coparenting Strategies for the Holidays

The holidays are a time for sharing and caring, giving and receiving, feeling and expressing gratitude and love. It's a time for making lists that detail our priorities in our closest human relationships. And for those who are parenting 2-home children, it's a time to do all of these wonderful activities in the context of what may be a challenging coparenting relationship.

So here are some strategies to keep in mind to create peaceful and loving holidays for 2-home children and their Moms and Dads:

1 Remember that children don't care which day the celebration occurs as long as it's close enough for all their loved ones to participate!

2 Compromise is definitely in the spirit of the season...winning and losing are not useful ways of making decisions about holidays - really an incompatible approach!

3 A family is a circle of people who love you. Our 2-home children are lucky to have not 1 but 2 circles of such people!

4 Say yes to sharing time with your child with extended family and friends. Love is synergistic, the more you give the more you receive.

5 The best gift is our time and unconditional love, not stuff!

6 If you need to ask for a schedule change let your coparent have first choice on the make-up time/alternative schedule!

7 Keep your communication cordial and business like at a minimum! Kind and respectful is even better, especially if you can add just a bit of GENUINE warmth :-)

8 Offer to help and support your child in making or buying a gift for their mom or dad, and include step-mom/step-dad if appropriate. Set a budget and create clear opportunities to make it happen!

9 Honor the old traditions and create new ones!

10 Love all of who your child is by respecting your coparent whether your child is present or not!

If we try to respond instead of reacting we are more likely to enjoy the holidays. Emotions run high for everyone this time of year so take a deep breath and think it through before you speak, text, email, tweet, or post an update!!

Have a wonderful holiday season.

Susan Griffin, MS
Executive Director
Hannah's House San Diego
Parenting Help

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Seal Beach California Custody Dispute Ends in Murder

So incredibly sad. Devastating, really, for so many people, so many families, an entire community. An act of violence in the context of family/intimate relationships is always shocking and horrific even for the people who say "I saw it coming." And sometimes it seems predictable because we do know something about patterns in domestic violence relationships. But these acts of intimate family violence are not identical and they do not follow a progression that can be clearly identified and so they can rarely be prevented.

None of us really know how we would react if our relationship with our child was threatened. And no one knows which parents in the midst of these custody disputes in the family court will act out violently against self, other, or both. In this case, the father was the one who crossed some invisible line between hopefulness and hopelessness and took final and fatal action.

The couple divorced in 2007, and the battle over the child continued unabated for over four years. The day prior to the shooting, the father's request for primary custody was denied by the court based on a custody evaluation that concluded that the 50/50 shared parenting plan was working well for the child. While a final decision was delayed until yet another hearing December 20, 2011, the emotional upheaval after such a decision is often like a powerful earthquake for some people. It may shake the very foundation on which they stand, on which they have built a life because the outcome they seek provides the sole meaning in life. The sense of hopelessness that follows the perceived failure in their pursuit of justice can be so overwhelming that suicide or homicide feels like the only option. And so people act out of that hopelessness.

Four years is a long time to be at war. It would wear anybody down. And families are often shocked by the lack of fairness and justice in family court when parents are unable to make their own agreements and decision about their children. If parents can't agree, they must rely on the best efforts of professionals working in an often over-burdened system ruled by laws and procedures that feel adversarial and intimidating. And the process is slow and frustrating. For example, a high conflict family may have 70-80 court hearings over the course of four years, and still have no final decision.

While there is no exoneration or redemption for the human being who acts out in such a violent manner, it is possible that there could have been a different outcome for this family had the system been better equipped to provide adequate support to intervene earlier to help the parties cope with the losses that accompany divorce and changes in custody. These are huge transitions and the adversarial setting of the family court is often not conducive to helping the parties cool down and be able to disagree in a civil and business-like manner. Alternative dispute resolution approaches are used by some jurisdictions, and mental health intervention approaches are used by some.

One example of an under-utilized tool for families in the early stages of family upheaval is called supervised exchange. This service has the potential to provide the parents with a buffer zone that can help prevent escalation of the fear, anxiety and anger that are often present as the parents separate and try to rebuild their lives. Emotions run high when there has been a custody dispute over sharing of the children. These disputes are rooted in the belief of one parent that the other parent is "unfit" in some way. So declarations are written and a case presented to a judge who decides whether the allegations of unfitness are believable and rise to a level as to potentially represent a threat to the health and well-being of the child.

This process takes time. Typically these allegations/accusations are made and remain unresolved for 3-4 months before there is actually a court hearing and the possibility of a decision. For one parent this may mean that they completely lose contact with their children for that period of time if the other parent withholds them. They cope with the loss, grief and emotional pain of that loss. For the parent who has taken charge of the children, they tend to become increasingly committed to their belief that that they are in the right.

Supervised exchanges allow the children to go back and forth between Mom's House and Dad's House without the parents having any contact with each other during the transition between the homes. A professional trained in assisting with these transitions acts as a go-between so the parents are able to express their needs and concerns and even communicate appropriate coparenting information without the emotional challenges of direct contact with each other. The children are freed from the fear of their parents fighting every time they see other, and the children no longer have to worry about choosing between the parents.

For some parents, supervised exchanges are a temporary support during the initial very emotional months of family transition. For these parents, they will be able to move towards a cooperative coparenting relationship with each other as their lives normalize. For other parents, they may use supervised exchanges indefinitely when the parents just have too many differences to comfortably interact with each other. This is particularly helpful when there is a history of domestic violence or other traumatic history between the parents. While not a panacea, supervised exchange can provide a sense of safety for both parents.

Just as there is no way to know what parent is going to become violent, there is no way to know what support each parent may need to navigate the challenges of these difficult family transitions. We need to focus on tools that help with cooling down the emotional heat, for the sake of the children and the larger community.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

San Diego FCS Recommendations/Court Orders

For any parent who has received a Family Court Services Report from the Superior Court of San Diego, Family Court Services, the following is probably language you recognize:
"Neither parent shall make negative statements about the other parent in the presence or hearing of the child or question the child about the other parent. The parents shall communicate directly with each other in matters concerning the child and shall not use the child as messenger between them. The child shall not be exposed to court papers or disputes between the parents, and each parent shall make every possible effort to ensure that other people comply with this order."

Here is proposed new language as an alternative for those parents who do not understand that this is intended to be a guide to the spirit in which all communication about or between the other parent needs to be handled:
Neither parent shall make negative statements/gestures/facial expressions/Facebook posts/text messages/emails or any other form of communication about the other parent in the presence or hearing of the child or question the child about the other parent, whether directly or indirectly. The parents shall communicate directly with each other in matters concerning the child and shall do so outside the presence and/or hearing of the child. The parents shall not use the child, the child's back pack, the child's diaper bag, the child's lunch box, or any other item that accompanies the child back and forth between the parents as a messenger between them. The child shall not be directly, indirectly, overtly, covertly, actively, passively, aggressively, or passive-aggressively exposed to court papers or the contents of any court papers. The child shall not be exposed to disputes, disagreements, nasty comments disguised as friendly, or any direct communication other that at least minimally cordial between the parents. Each parent is responsible to ensure that other adults observe all of these guidelines for communication about and between co-parents raising 2-home children."

Or, put another way, being technically in compliance -- at least in your own opinion and would point out that you are checking your own homework here -- because the language is vague and not comprehensive enough does not pass for good parenting in any one's book. Okay, a little preachy, maybe, but every day brings amazing examples of the mean, destructive and manipulative ways that co-parents find to undermine the success and well-being of their own children. And, of course, the nastiness always seems to follow or be preceded by the phrase..."in the child's best interest!"

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Good-Enough Parenting is Great!

This is not the kind of saying you are going to find on a coffee mug or a t-shirt. But this is the stuff that great kids are made of! The good-enough parent. Not the best. Not the greatest. Just good enough. Unfortunately this is not even something that most parents would set as a goal. Culturally, socially, it's just not what parents say. Think about it - can you imagine telling someone that your highest aspiration as a parent it to be adequate and that you hold as your highest goal to just do a satisfactory job as parent.

But the truth of the matter is that we would all be better off if adequate and satisfactory performance were highly prized in the parenting role. There is an abundance of research and clinical experience about dysfunctional families that details the devastation of perfectionism in family life. Demands for perfectionism are laden with shame and blame; sarcasm and rage; denigration and its fragile mirror image of idealization. In other words, striving for perfection in the parenting role inevitably means that when we blow it, which of course we will, then we are failures and that is an emotional experience that is tough to cope with for anyone.

Parenting is full of challenges for co-parents living together and working together to raise their children. When co-parents live in separate homes with separate lives, goals and aspirations and the children are going back and forth between the two homes, the challenges increase exponentially. For example, a common problem that occurs is that some co-parents compete with each other for the children's affections by being overly permissive. Some parents do it consciously with clear intent and some don't even realize they are doing it. For example, a child tells a parent that the other parent "never lets me have dessert," so the receiving parent says "oh, you poor thing, that's just not right;" and proceeds to over indulge the child with sweets. Whether consciously directed as retaliation/compensation or not, the impact on that child is negative.

Most parents know that consistency, routine, love and support are important in raising children. But having that knowledge and gaining the skills we need as parents to actually do the work of raising well-adjusted children are very different. For example, consistency is a skill of the good-enough parent, and rigidity is a trait of the perfectionist parent. How can you tell if you are being consistent or being rigid? Pay attention to your level of stress, emotional distress, and how you feel when your child doesn't do exactly what you want. A major freak out over something ordinary like spilled food or a slow response to a request is a sign that your expectations are out of synch.

Good-enough parenting can be roughly quantified 70-75%/25-30%, meaning that we want to be on-target with our children 70-75% of the time and allow ourselves to be off-target about 25-30% of the time. Perfectionism is a 100% proposition and is unattainable, so children end up neglected, abused, and shamed when parents fail or give up. The good-enough parent knows that they're going to blow it once in a while and they approach parenting with the notion of doing their best, compromising when the issue isn't critical and apologizing when they let the child down.

So what do we mean by "blow it?" Most of the time (70-75%) the parent wants to practice the following behaviors/traits with a child: attentive, warm, direct, honest, sharing humorous moments, offering immediate intervention/feedback, and being thoughtful. When a parent blows it (25-30%), they are probably practicing one or more of the following behaviors/traits: distracted, withdrawn, indirect, dishonest, using sarcasm, procrastinating, and being impulsive/thoughtless.

The good-enough parent recognizes very quickly when they blow it or are off-target. What do they do? First they admit it, then they give the child permission to have hurt or angry feelings, then they listen and then they do it over. For example, you come home from a busy day at work completely stressed out and your toddler runs to greet you and starts excitedly saying "look at this look at this look at this look at this" and you snap and angrily say "can you just wait a minute." The child's face changes from excited to hurt, from happy to sad in a split second. The good-enough parent catches him or herself and immediately gets down to eye level and says, "oh, sweetie, I am so sorry! Mommy/Daddy should not have talked to you that way. That must have hurt your feelings. Let's try that again. Please, show me what you have for me and tell me about it."

May seem like common sense but sometimes common sense is not that common. Parenting is a challenge because it's made up of hundreds of moments in every day that shape a child, for better or worse. Despite our best efforts, we are going to miss soccer games, arrive too late to read the night time book, use a harsh tone of voice in response to ordinary childhood needs, and just generally live the human experience.

Strive for balance and moderation and humanity in your approach to parenting. Strive to be good-enough. The alternative is a style of parenting that careens between extremes that confuse and stress the entire family system: hyper-vigilant or detached; idealizing or shaming; rigid or neglectful; intrusive or withdrawn; and the list goes on.

Embrace the ordinariness of those hundred little moments every day that shape your child. Relax, moderate, breathe. You will enjoy parenting so much more and you will enjoy your child.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Creative Coparenting

Sometimes parents complain about the lack of a sane coparent, the lack of a cooperative coparent, or the lack of any coparent. While each of these complaints may be valid it's no excuse to go it alone! Look around, open your eyes, and get creative. I'm suggesting that you broaden your concept of who a coparent is! Almost all parents already have at least one coparent in their life, regardless of the personal situation. At its simplest, a coparent is another adult who agrees to share the responsibility for raising our child, whether for a few minutes, hours or on a regular basis.

Rarely is a parent in a completely isolated position with absolutely no help. More common is the parent who is unable or unwilling to either see or acknowledge the help that is already there or to ask for help that is needed. Now...don't get your dander up because I am definitely not blaming the victim here. I know people get overwhelmed and depressed and so stressed they can't even think straight. So take a deep breath if you are one of those folks, and then continue reading! Think about friends, family, neighbors, community centers, libraries, churches, and schools. There are more possibilities but these are the basics for most of us. If you have just one adult in any of these settings who likes you and likes your child, you may already have a coparent.

I recently spoke with a young father who has primary custody of his son. They live with the paternal grandparents, who provide child care while the father works. Dad was complaining about the differences between his mother's parenting style and his own. I asked him if he had talked with her about their coparenting relationship and how they would deal with those kinds of differences. He looked puzzled and then said it had never occurred to him. The next time I saw him, he let me know that he and his mother had met about coparenting and had reached some agreements about a number of things. Dad was feeling supported, empowered, and optimistic as a result! He had also discovered that his mom was very open to working with him when he didn't start and end the conversation with a criticism of her.

Make your own list of possible coparents in your life. Look at the list I offered and add your own. People want to help, at the individual level as well as at the family and community level. Let your friends know what you need help with. Talk to your family members about what your ideal situation would be and see what happens. You may be surprised to find that what you need is exactly what someone else needs too! Maybe you've noticed postings for the FREE offerings for children at your local library and just never gone over to check it out. Do it now.

All of us limit our vision of possible solutions sometimes. When it comes to coparenting, it's time to expand and enlarge our vision because our children deserve parents who are awake, energetic, engaged, and healthy. Creative and effective coparenting relationships are good for everyone.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

But She/He is So Good With the Kids

Sometimes we feel tremendous social pressure to allow our child to have too much contact with an adult who isn't someone we would willingly choose to be close with and/or to be influential over our child...that is to say if we felt empowered to make that choice. The most obvious person who might fall into this category is your co-parent. Other people include the new partner/spouse of your co-parent, in-laws or former in-laws, your own siblings and sometimes even your own parents.

Oops! Any of you experiencing ambivalence? That is a combination of both loving and hating feelings experienced toward the same important person in our life. Or maybe the ambivalence (strong opposing feelings) passed through your conscious mind so quickly you're already on to denial or repression or justification or in "her selfishness isn't that bad"....."I don't remember my father ever saying something that nasty, what are you talking about"...."we only see them once in a while so let's just put up with it"..."they really aren't that involved in our lives"..."we don't want to hurt their feelings"...and so on.

We are all in a position sometimes when we have to spend time with people we don't really like whether in our business life or our personal life. So most of us have developed the skills necessary to manage the discomfort that accompanies these awkward and uncomfortable situations. And, as grown-ups, we have a variety of coping skills and defense strategies to manage without any major disruption to our self, our family, our life. For example, if we are required to attend a work-related meeting or function with a smoker and we are not a smoker we will probably make sure we do not end up in a car infused with tobacco and nicotine residue -- we will drive our own car to and from the meeting location and say whatever we need to in order to avoid the situation.

I am not concerned with the adults in these situations -- the issue here is young children who do not have either the coping skills or the defensive strategies to identify people who have, often unconsciously, ill will toward them. Nor do the little ones have the ability to protect themselves emotionally or psychologically from negative and hurtful intrusions. The only person who can protect infants and young children from these unnecessary and unhealthy pokes, prods, and insults is a parent who is genuinely able to place the needs of the child above their own needs, which includes bearing the social awkwardness of saying "no" to an adult friend or relative who is unkind, intolerant, unreliable, passive aggressive, painfully narcississtic, or just generally obnoxious.

The reasons people tolerate such inconsiderate and sometimes outright destructive behavior in others has everything to do with an unwillingness to rock the social boat or to deal with any kind of conflict. "Being nice" and "avoiding conflict at all costs" take on a whole new level of meaning when the sacrifice being made is the emotional calm and psychological trust/innocence of a little one and not just your own peace of mind for an hour, a day or a week --depending on how long it takes you to recover from a toxic person.

If you dread spending time with someone in your life because you can barely tolerate their nastiness -- of whatever variety -- and you know it will take you time and energy not just to get through it but to recover from it, I hope you will think long and hard about why you really want expose your child to that stress. If it is someone who smokes cigarettes around your child it's probably (although not always) easier to prevent or severely limit contact than if it is when it's someone who is verbally negative and disagreeable, even hateful, in almost everything they say. Whatever the toxic influence, your first responsibility is knowledge/awareness and your second is protective action. If you decide to immerse your child in the toxic mix anyway, you will never know how things might have been different for your child had they not been exposed so early.

And a final thought for those of you who have a court order in place that requires your child to be exposed to toxic influences in the form of the other parent and/or the other parent's family and friends. The Court and Child Protective Services generally protect from physical abuse and severe neglect, but sometimes have a very difficult time substantiating emotional/psychological abuse. There has to be a clear legal basis for curtailing a parent's rights. Present your case to the Court and request supervised visitation by a neutral third party, a professional monitor, so that the parent and child are able to continue their relationship but in an environment that ensures the safety of the child.

If there isn't sufficient evidence to warrant judicial/CPS restrictions, then you have to comply with the court order and do your very best to compensate for the negative influences present in your child's life and keep them safe. Whatever your situation, be aware and be proactive in setting appropriate boundaries for your child to ensure their safety and security in a loving, nurturing family environment.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

You Try Co-Parenting With This Maniac!!!

Are you pulling your hair out because of a terrible co-parenting relationship and tired of hearing people tell you: (1) it's going to get easier, (2) time heals all wounds, or (3) sometimes it just takes a while, and so on ad nauseum?

Are you tired of it because you absolutely know beyond a shadow of a doubt that your co-parent is currently operating at maximum capacity and there is no "potential" for improvement?

If so, you are a member of a very large club. How else do you explain the library full of self-help books on crazy ex-spouses and "How To..." deal with them without losing your own mind, let alone your dignity?

But does that really help, either? To know "you're not alone." Yeah...not so much, huh?!?! So what does help?

For starters, take a good long look at yourself. The only reason this person is in your life is because you made a choice or a series of choices at some point that didn't turn out the way you planned. That choice part is your responsibility. There are probably some shared responsibilities between the two of you as well, but you can only accept your part and you can do absolutely nothing with the part that belongs to your co-parent.

Next take a look at your child. Your contribution genetically is one-half which means the other half is irrevocably and undeniably contributed by your co-parent. Which half of your child are you hating, feeling angry with, wanting to scream at, or just hoping will drop dead? Unless you have completely lost your mind, meaning that you are a maniac too, these questions should make you at least a little uncomfortable. You don't really hate half of your child or secretly wish that half of your child didn't exist. And if you do, get a referral for therapy and do it soon.

If a co-parent hates their co-parent more than they love their child, the child may as well be living in a war zone where every day means hoping you are alive at the end of it. Depression, fear, anxiety, terror, withdrawal, isolation - survival mode. This is not to say that your co-parent isn't a maniac, a real crazy person who creates drama and chaos everywhere they go and in everyone whose life they touch. What it does mean is that you have to find a way to parent sanely, consistently, and lovingly during your time with your child.

Sanely. It only takes one reasonably sane co-parent to stay calm, grounded and focused on the needs of the child to have a huge positive impact and compensate for/overcome the shortcomings of the crazy co-parent. If you are co-parenting with a crazy person, you need to make a commitment to your self and your child to be the sane one and then follow through with whatever you need to stay sane. Be the calm in the middle of the storm. Resist the seductive pull of the chaos and drama.

Consistently. Daily routines provide the scaffolding on which to build a family structure that feels safe, secure, and nurturing to each family member. Your child needs to know that they count on you to be stable, predictable, and fully present in the moment. Your child needs to know that the people you include in your inner circle are stable, predictable and fully present in the moment as well. Your child needs to know that each day with you will start pretty much the same way, that meal times will have a familiar pattern and that activities during the day occur with a rhythm that feels fun and interesting with just the right amount of challenge.

Lovingly. Thoughtful and targeted parenting actions are the right of every child. It is through hundreds of tiny parenting actions every day that you show your love and care your child. Focus on your parenting. Think about how you will protect your child today. Plan all the ways you can listen actively to your child today. Create opportunities to nurture your child through words and actions and touch. Notice those teachable moments that emerge spontaneously when you are with your child and teach the values, concepts, and attitudes that are important to you.

Bottom line. Identify what you can and cannot control in your child's life now. Take responsibility for what you can control, and do it. Seek help from a professional to figure that out if you feel lost in the chaos. You owe it to yourself and you owe it to your child.