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Monday, December 30, 2013

Coparenting For Better or Worse

I return to a familiar theme today, coparenting for better or worse. I believe there is no such thing as neutral coparenting. If I am a co-parent, I have feelings about and towards my coparent, usually very strong feelings. If I try to make the claim that I am neutral...well...I am reminded of an old George Carlin bit where he addressed the topic of people who try to kid themselves: Old George would say that my claim to neutrality in a role that defies such a claim, means that I am either full of S**T or I am F****N Nuts!! I can say that about myself because there once was a time when I prided myself on being neutral in my role as coparent!

The rude awakening about this personal falsehood I tried so hard to believe came about when my 4 year old son essentially told me to knock it off. He said "STOP IT!!" and then told me that I "go away" every time he starts talking about his "Daddy!" I was shocked and very quickly realized that he was right. Who was I trying to kid, anyway? I thought that being mature meant that I needed to act as if I didn't have negative feelings and thoughts about my ex. My son got my attention that day and I changed my mindset. I worked very hard to become a good coparent, which I accomplished, and my life's work for many years has been supporting, teaching and encouraging other coparents to become the best coparent possible.

Coparenting is a critical aspect of all of our lives. All children are conceived by at least two parents. In the case of adoption, surrogacy, and other family constellations some start out with more than two. Research over the last 30 years has pushed and pulled family professionals toward the understanding that virtually all children will be coparented and virtually all families coparent. One of the most comprehensive texts on the topic is a book by James P. McHale and Kristin M. Lindahl called Coparenting: A Conceptual and Clinical Examination of Family Systems. For those of you interested in the research, I recommend it.

Children need a protective family structure and coparenting is especially important in providing the safety, security and continuity so critical to the child's healthy development. Coparents who compete with each other by trying to have the child become an ally with one parent against the other provide an unsafe family structure for the child.  The child is left with few options except: (1) to become a go-between, (2) to choose one parent over the other, or (3) withdraw from both parents at least in any genuine sense of connection. A coparent who tries to eliminate the competition by alienating or estranging the children from the other coparent risks alienating or estranging the child from parts of him or herself as the child struggles for a sense of identity in an unsafe and unbalanced family system.

If you can't respect and cooperate with your coparent, then shift your perspective and try respecting and cooperating with the part of your child that needs his or her own experience of that other parent in order to develop a strong, clear and autonomous sense of self in the world. When you find yourself thinking negative thoughts or saying negative things about the other coparent, try inserting your child's name and face instead. Cooperative coparenting is about valuing the needs of the child and respecting all of who your child is, not just the part that you contributed.

Navigating the aftermath of the break up of a family is difficult for everyone. At least the grown ups have tools and resources to find their way. The children do not. They are relying on us, the grown ups, to support them in finding their way.

Friday, November 15, 2013

What is Your Co-parenting Relationship Vision?

Cooperative means, at minimum, a cordial and respectful relationship - like the United States and Canada - those Canadians are just a little bit too nice to fully trust! Conflicted means one or both of you - at least some of the time - are reactive, controlling, and/or intrusive - like the relationship between Israel and Palestine. Parallel means there is a clear line of demarcation - like the line between North and South Korea - between the two homes with separate rules and little communication and no mutual cooperation. For those of you caught up in battle or stranded on the other side of the great divide, where you start and where you end up CAN be different. It requires one co-parent who is willing to be proactive, trust in the love the other parent has for the child, and share control of the situation. A personal example: My ex and I got through our divorce with the usual emotional bumps and bruises and were doing 'okay' within about six months in terms of the emotional, economic and community divorce aspects -- refers to Bohannan's Six Stations of Divorce, for those of you are interested. Our co-parenting divorce was a disaster. It was clear that we were not able to develop new patterns of childcare and living arrangements that adequately supported our child. So, I called my ex and made a proposal. Would he be willing to meet with me with a neutral third party knowledgeable about divorce, co-parenting and the needs of a 3 year old to help us make some positive changes? And, before he could say NO, would he be willing to find the neutral third party? He said yes. The director of our child's preschool was willing to sit down with us. We were able to negotiate a schedule and, most importantly, a process for co-parenting that worked well for the next 8 years. It broke down when he got engaged but that's another story not pertinent here. What matters is that our son had 8 years of calm, peace, respect, and routine because his Dad and I were able to care more about him than we did about our own sense of control. The deep-down, super-serious question you need to soul-searchingly ask yourself is "does my co-parent love OUR child?" And the second question . . . "Do I love OUR child?" Obviously not that simple because there is more to the question, ". . . enough to trust in that love for the sake of OUR child?" You are the only one who can make a difference in the co-parenting relationship. If you make the decision that the other parent is in charge, that you are helpless and powerless, that you have no responsibility, then you are teaching your child and modeling for your child what it means to you to be a parent, to be a grown-up, and to be a co-parent. What is your co-parenting relationship vision? Look at it from the eyes of your child, then answer that question. NOTE: There are grown-up issues that can block healthy adjustment, for some co-parents: domestic violence, substance abuse/addiction, mental illness. If you are in a relationship with these kinds of issues, then seek support and education and counseling to do the very best you can, whether you are the one with the problem or the one trying to co-parent with the person with the problem.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Right of First Refusal in Family Law Cases

Right of first refusal (ROFR or RFR) is a contractual right that gives its holder (the parent) the option to enter a business transaction with the owner of something (the child/ren), according to specified terms, before the owner (the parent/s) is entitled to enter into that transaction with a third party (extended family of origin and family of choice).

In brief, the right of first refusal is similar in concept to a call option. An ROFR can cover almost any sort of asset, including real estate, personal property, a patent license, a screenplay, or an interest in a business.........wait just a minute! Where are children in this list? Hmmmmmm. . .

It might also cover business transactions that are not strictly assets ....okay, then, here it comes... such as the right to enter a joint venture or distribution arrangement. . . Huh?! Again, where are the children??? Where do they fit?

In entertainment, a right of first refusal on a concept or a screenplay would give the holder the right to make that movie first. Only if the holder turns it down may the owner then shop it around to other parties. Geez...I am just not getting this!

Because an ROFR is a contract right, the holder's remedies for breach are typically limited to recovery of damages. In other words, if the owner sells the asset to a third party without offering the holder the opportunity to purchase it first, the holder can then sue the owner for damages but may have a difficult time obtaining a court order to stop or reverse the sale. I get it!

So, if I ask my best friend to trade overnights for our children so that we can each have some grown-up time, I can be sued by my coparent to recover the damages done I am lost again. What are the damages? My child loves my best friend and her children so that can't be where the damages occur. My child can't wait to have my best friend's children spend the night at our house as soon as possible so that can't be where the damages occur. I get a little grown-up time which allows me to replenish myself, feel awesome about my life, and excited to reunite with my child, so that can't be where the damages occur. 

However, in some cases the option becomes a property right that may be used to invalidate an improper sale. This makes no sense at all! How in the world is somebody going to go back in time and take away the experience of fun, happiness, and joy my child experienced when he got to spend the night at his friends' house!?

I don't know about you but I am thinking that this whole concept of a Right of first refusal (ROFR) is completely inappropriate in the context of Family Law.  First of all, children aren't property, and second, coparenting is not about the rights/ownership of the parent; it's about the well-being of the child!
Hannah's House has FREE support groups for Moms and Dads who are co-parenting 2-home children. Child care is provided. Dad's Group is Monday night from 6-7 pm and Mom's Group is Friday night from 6-7 pm. The groups are open to any Mom or Dad with 2-home kids!

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

It Doesn't Necessarily Take Two...

Family law cases are often designated "High Conflict" because of repetitive litigation and a chronic state of seemingly high tension between the co-parents. Sometimes though, the tension exists within just one of the co-parents rather than between them. In these case, the unmitigated negativity in one of the parents gives the entire case/family the "feel" of a high conflict situation. Thus, one parent may continually be swept along in the tumultuous currents of emotion and tension generated solely by the other parent.

How do you know if this is happening to you? The Honorable Donna J. Martinson is a Judge in British Columbia who advocates a change in the overall system to provide High Conflict cases and the children in them the attention they deserve. While Judge Martinson is focused on changes in the judicial approach, some of the ideas she raises are important for each coparent to seriously consider as well.

Sit down with someone who is mature, neutral, intelligent, AND uninvolved and talk with them about your answers to a series of questions. You will notice that these questions focus on your behavior, not the behavior of the other coparent. Be honest and answer these questions as directly and straightforwardly, factually, as possible without explanation or defense.

  • Has your court case becomes the major focus of your life?
  • Are you in battle mode most of the time?
  • Do you blame the other parent, view the other parent with contempt, and see yourself as a victim?
  • Do you want to control the other parent and control what happens when the child is with them?
  • Are you focused on the past, using inflammatory, blaming language in affidavits and/or testimony
  • Are the facts often distorted, either minimized or exaggerated, and your anger palpable?
  • Are the children encouraged to support you in a number of ways including showing them court material, encouraging them to contact the court to support your position, and even bringing them to court?
  • Have you recruited friends and relatives to join in the mudslinging?
  • Do you attempt to delay the proceedings by changing lawyers or deciding late in the proceedings to be self-represented, filing last minute materials, coming late to court, or deliberately being unprepared?
  • Are there highly charged, emotional proceedings in the courtroom, with allegations made, with your supporters gathered to cheer you on?
  • Do you attempt to dominate the process and to treat the other person with contempt?
  • Do you attempt to sabotage professional assessments or interventions by undermining the credibility of the professional(s) by unilaterally involving other professionals and by not cooperating or making accusations?
  • Do you involve the police and/or child welfare authorities when there is no danger?
  • Do you make unjustified complaints about the conduct of the professionals involved,including the opposing lawyer, the assessor, and the judge, to their professional disciplinary bodies?
  • Do you try to involve the media in support of your "cause.”

If you find that you are engaging in these behaviors then you are probably a High Conflict person yourself. On the other hand, if you are the one getting hooked, overwhelmed and swept along, then get some help and support to ground yourself and find some equilibrium.

Each coparent can only control his or her own behavior with the child, with the court and toward the other coparent. So get the focus on yourself and your behavior and make the changes you need to disengage from the conflict. Hannah's House has FREE support groups for Moms and Dads who are co-parenting 2-home children. Child care is provided. Dad's Group is Monday night from 6-7 pm and Mom's Group is Friday night from 6-7 pm. The groups are open to any Mom or Dad with 2-home kids!

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Self Care in the Midst of Chaos

Most of us have either given or received this advice: "you need to take care of yourself first or you are no good to anybody else!" Makes sense. It's good advice. The only problem? If someone is saying that to me, or I am saying that to someone's probably obvious to everyone that there is a problem with self-care. After all, most of us tend to cycle through periods of adequate to great self care and periods of slips, relapses, indulgences, too-tired-to-care-about-much-of-anything!

Self-care is one of the greatest challenges of family break-up and family conflict. Self-care by the parents is one of the protective factors essential to the long term positive adjustment and well-being of the little ones. Children need to be cared for and protected from adult concerns to the greatest extent possible and that responsibility lies with the parents. Unfortunately, some parents care for themselves by placing the burden and responsibility for adult worries squarely on the shoulders of the children. Directly: "tell your Mom/Dad that I need the child support or I can't pay for your school pictures." Indirectly: "Oh, sweetie, I wish we could afford to do that, but your Mom/Dad isn't paying his/her child support so we just can't afford it."

We know that inter-parental hostility creates a negative home environment and results in children who experience stress, unhappiness, and feelings of insecurity and vulnerability. Research informs us that that parents who go through a high conflict family break-up are more likely to devalue the importance of the other parent in the life of the child and interfere with the other parent's relationship with the child. Research also informs us that an ongoing relationship with both parents serves a protective function and predicts a child's overall well being. In fact, several studies have found that children in joint custody situations fare better after divorce than children who are in sole custody situations.

Let's look more closely at inter-parental hostility and its affect on self-care and care for the other. It's perhaps the clearest example of a parent putting his or her own emotional needs far ahead of the needs of the child for warmth, care, nurturing, and protection. Hostile parents are stuck in an attitude of opposition, negativity, hatred and loathing toward the other parent and, therefore, toward important aspects of who his or her child is! Hostile parents are not able to love, accept and nurture ALL of who the child is, but only a part. Hostility/negativity as a stuck position for a coparent makes self-care an impossibility, which means that care for the child will be impaired long term and the child lives in a state of vulnerability and insecurity rather than stability and security.

For many parents who survive the earthquake of a family break-up, accepting personal responsibility for the quality of our life and that of our children moving forwards is the key to peace in the family and is at the core of self-care. This doesn't mean that all is forgiven but it definitely means that I take responsibility for my own choices on a daily basis and move toward my own healing and wholeness. Some parents are not able to make the changes needed to truly move forward; mental illness including trauma histories, substance abuse, poverty and other fundamental challenges interfere. The good news for the child is that a stable, loving, healthy parental relationship with just one of their parents can compensate for the impairments of the other parent.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Ahhhh, the Holidays!

I can tell the holidays are here again because parents fighting over children has escalated at Hannah's House -- right now it's costumes and Trick-or-Treating. Soon it will be fights about when the family eats the turkey and what time that absolutely must happen! I met a 30 year old woman recently who spoke about how much she hates Thanksgiving and Christmas now because of the way her parents fought over her when she was a little girl. She said that there are not any good memories for her, just bad ones. Tension, fear, competition, and being caught in the middle between her mom and dad. She remembers trying to tell her parents to stop fighting, that she didn't care what time of day she hate turkey, that she didn't care if she had to eat turkey twice in one day, and that she didn't care what day she celebrated the holiday. All she wanted was for her parents to get along.

That is what most children of divorce and separation want, for their parents to get along. So what does that look like from the child's point of view? Here are some ideas! Let us play with our friends, wherever they are. Let us share a meal with Mom and Dad during the holiday week-end -- that's right -- the REAL day does not matter to a child. Lamenting the loss of family tradition is a coward's way out and sometimes that of a very selfish person pretending to be a grown-up. Sound harsh? I suppose so. But I have been helping children navigate the stormy and threatening seas of parental disputes over these holidays for over twenty years and things just don't seem to change.

What will your child associate with important cultural/family holidays? Fighting, tension, and the pretense of happiness? Or will it be compromise and a spirit of sharing? What a great opportunity to teach your child about cooperation, positive solutions and finding the win-win for everybody in the family -- I hope you seize this chance to be kind and generous with your child this year. After all, a family is a circle of people who love you and your child deserves to experience that circle of love during this holiday season

Happy 2013 Holidays! Hannah's House has FREE support groups for Moms and Dads who are co-parenting 2-home children. Child care is provided. Dad's Group is Monday night from 6-7 pm and Mom's Group is Friday night from 6-7 pm. The groups are open to any Mom or Dad with 2-home kids!

What's Age Got to Do With It?

Children who get caught in the middle during family break-up are at risk for mental, emotional, and even physical health compromise depending on several important factors. Age at the time of the trauma, co-parents ability to get the child out of the middle and keep them out of the middle, and protective factors in the child's life are critical to long-term healthy adjustment.

Younger children, in general, tend to fare better if the parents are able to act like grown ups and take responsibility for the decisions they made that placed their child in a difficult family situation. If a parent continues to blame the other parent and hold themselves faultless beyond a year after the break-up, the child is less likely to make an adequate adjustment. Parents are role models and most want to teach their child to be fair and responsible in relationships. "Do as I say and not as I do" is a sure way to breed confusion, resentment, and acting-out or acting-in for children; especially when the negativity is directed at the child's Mom or Dad. A simple question for a young child: How can you hate that person so much and not hate me? That's my Mom! That's my Dad! If you can quit loving him/her, can you quit loving me?

If a parent is too immature, too cutoff from a support system, or troubled by undiagnosed/untreated mental health problems to provide adequate care and protection for the young child, that child may have no escape from the emotional war zone. And children who grow up in a war zone suffer long term emotional, mental and physical health consequences because there is no break from the tumult and the stress.

Pre-teens and teens are often more compromised than young children by the family break-up. Parents in the midst of intense emotional upheaval tend to treat the older child as a sounding board or a confidante and are more likely to pressure them to take sides in the conflict. It's easier for a parent to justify or even ignore the burden of putting a teen the position of an adult than it is with a young child. The good news for the older child? He or she is much more likely to have protective factors that can mediate the negative effect of a toxic parent, because they often have relationships with caring adults outside the family at school and in the larger community!

Parents with children who are in a relationship that is troubled owe it to themselves and owe it to their children to learn as much as possible about how to make the transition from a family who lives together to a family who lives apart in an informed and thoughtful way. Sometimes that doesn't seem possible because a specific problem like domestic violence, substance abuse, or mental illness is at the root of the break-up.

If you are a parent facing the transition of a family break-up, whatever the situation, reach out for support and information! You do not have to do it alone. There are many people who have done it successfully, and many people working on making the same transition. Learn what helps and hurts children who are the age of yours. Find out what kind of co-parenting relationship might work best in your situation. Investigate all of the alternatives available to avoid the trauma of Family Court litigation. The resources are there for you and for your children.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Parenting is Very Personal!

Parents love their children, and feel strongly about providing care and support to help them. Parents aren't neutral about their children. Yet parents who are sharing parenting responsibilities with a co-parent living in a different home, frequently rush to reassure themselves and other people "Oh, no, I don't ever say anything bad about my co-parent, I am neutral!!" Really? I don't believe it, because it's not believable. Try replacing the word "neutral" with one of its synonyms to understand how ingenuine the use of this word is: impartial, unbiased, unprejudiced, objective, disinterested, detached, impersonal, unemotional, indifferent, uncommitted...

Children end up with hurt feelings when parents don't support them. Children feel confused when parents ignore their interests and needs. Ask parents if they think it is important to listen to their children and to nurture their interests, and most parents would wonder why you would even ask such a question. They would say,"What do you think? Of course I think it's important. I love my child. How can you even ask that!?!?!"

Most parents intuitively know that children often need encouragement the most at times of transition, whether they are the little transitions of daily life like getting up, eating breakfast, getting dressed, and getting in the car with all the gear needed for the day -- or big transitions like the break-up of the family. The difference is that parents know how to cope with the ordinary transitions of daily life. Break-up of the family overwhelms the coping skills of everyone in the family.

Parents don't usually think of themselves as "co-parents" until the couple relationship ends, even though they may have years of co-parenting experience to draw on. And, like most of our life experience, some of it has been positive and helpful, and some of it has probably been more negative and unhelpful. Families break apart because the grown-ups have differences that can't be resolved. Inevitably some of those differences are in the area parenting and, unfortunately, one or both parents tend to paint the other parent as "the bad parent" and him or herself as "the good parent." As the Executive Director at Hannah's House, I have personally had the experience of a parent telling me they are "the good one."

My heart hurts when I hear these words or perceive this attitude/belief in a parent. I hurt because it is an impossibly painful situation for the child. It means the child is "half good" and "half bad." And, no, parents don't go to that next step because they just are not thinking about the whole child. In fact, that mom or dad isn't thinking about the child at all. They are focused on their own needs, feelings, and shaky identity with no regard for the child. It's not intentional and it will not last. At least it won't last for the vast majority of parents because sanity will return. But what damage is done to the child as the parent struggles to find a sense of equilibrium again?

Neutral just is not possible for a parent even under the very best of circumstances! And it is completely impossible when the parent is hurt and their dreams shattered. If you are a friend or family member of a parent striving to be "neutral" when really what they are is angry, frustrated, hurt, depressed and so on, then please speak up. Validate the pain and grief of loss that goes with the break-up of the family and support that parent in acknowledging and supporting ALL of who their child is, not just PART of the child. The way children end up with a facade, a false self, a loss of childhood spontaneity and pleasure, is through the neglect of their emotional and psychological well-being by the most important adults in their life: Mom and Dad.

So, please don't be neutral! Speak up, help, support, and be a friend. Be a thoughtful and loving family member. Suggest a co-parenting class, counseling or therapy, a support group, something to help Moms and Dads get the support and information they need to deal with one of the most difficult life transitions a person can navigate.

Hannah's House has FREE support groups for Moms and Dads who are co-parenting 2-home children. Child care is provided. Dad's Group is Monday night from 6-7 pm and Mom's Group is Friday night from 6-7 pm. The groups are open to any Mom or Dad with 2-home kids!