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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.