28 May A View from the Professional

A dearth of information exists “out there” educating parents how to behave when they decide to end their relationship and separate. Much of that information focuses on informing parents how to reduce conflict so that their children fare better through difficult family transitions. The information in print, audio and social media comes in the way of a variety of the top 10 things parents can do to be the best role model for their children in the face of separation, how parents can help their children enjoy the holidays in two homes, how divorce or separation affects children from their youthful perspectives and many other topics.

Reading this information is helpful, but what happens when parents actually have to do the work required to put this advice into action? Can they manage their own emotions and feelings during a challenging time that portends to reconfigure the family? Can these parents put their children’s needs ahead of their own? Judges, lawyers and family court professionals will refer struggling parents for services to shore up their co-parenting relationship. Those people are not the best suited to make decisions about the family, having just brief periods of exposure to the parents. The care-taking adults need to resume making decisions about their children since they are the best people to do so. Often, parents need assistance maneuvering the new minefield of separation and all that it entails. In this emotional state, parents appear in a professional’s office seeking assistance to get themselves back on a healthy co-parenting track.

Professionals who engage with people during this emotional time are a special breed. It is no small task to reconfigure sad or angry parents into civil minded beings so that the job of co-parenting can begin again, albeit with a new paradigm. What is is like for a professional to work with these parents?

I asked some colleagues, legal and mental health professionals, to share their opinions about working with this fragile group of people, whose mantle is to chart new waters in a different boat than the one in which they originally set sail as an intact family. The sentiment was consistent for all of the professionals despite their educational background and training. For all of the professionals, choosing to engage in this work seldom provides a financial windfall. This work is undertaken because of the personal satisfaction that it yields.

As an attorney, Barry Armata engages these parents with a view toward protecting the future health of the couple’s children. Improving the newly defined co-parenting relationship helps parents insulate their children from the harm that comes from continued exposure to conflict. Educating parents to help them resolve conflict is akin to one of Attorney Armata’s favorite proverbs about teaching a person to fish rather than just providing the fish. The parents can take their newly honed skills and apply them to issues that arise so that others need not make the decisions, thereby preserving the integrity and privacy of the family. From his perspective, he’s not a detached observer despite the boundary of professionalism. Unlike a grocery store cashier who rings through the items on the conveyor belt often without much interaction with the shopper, Attorney Armata derives personal satisfaction from shepherding parents through the process so they can walk out the door and use the skills they learned outside the legal arena, which is rife with adversarial, destructive behavior.

Success in co-parenting work is not a forgone conclusion. Nancy Lichtenberg, a licensed clinical social worker at Jewish Family Services, observed that some parents don’t do well when they attempt to communicate. She begins her involvement by assessing whether the parents can even do the work. If the sessions are dominated by negative, angry, vitriolic communication, the process can be difficult and it can become discouraging for all parties, herself included. Ms. Lichtenberg does not apply a “cooke cutter” approach. She assesses each case individually and analyzes the needs of a particular couple. Sometimes, she sees parents separately because a meeting with one parent and herself might allow a parent to feel more relaxed before a joint meeting is held. Because her role is not cast as therapist, Ms. Lichtenberg doesn’t obtain a personal history of either parent, conclude a diagnosis or delve into childhood issues. The focus is on the co-parenting relationship. In order to move the couple forward, she will try to uncover “what gets in the way” for the parents to hear each other. Sometimes, she will recommend that a parent engage an individual therapist for additional support, although the parent might choose not to follow through.

There are parents, she said, who can’t make decisions on their own. They would prefer that she make the decision for them. This tact disempowers the parents, which is contradictory to the purpose of parental autonomy. Sometimes the parents get so fired up, they talk over her and lose the opportunity to hear the guidance she provides.

When parents do well at their co-parenting, Ms. Lichtenberg is quick to compliment them so that they know they are on the right track. It is frustrating when parents aren’t able to accomplish their goals and it’s sometimes necessary for them to drop out of the program. There are parents whose interaction might turn explosive and their interaction worsens because it can cause anxiety for one parent. “The meetings”, she said, “should be a safe place to raise issues for discussion.”

Attorney Margaret Bozek, also recognizes the limits of some parents’ ability to participate in a co-parenting program despite all of the benefits. “Unfortunately, not every parent “gets it”, she shared. She, too, has experienced parents who are unable to be helped, although she’s learned not to take it personally. “Some people are too invested in conflict.” The professional has to know when to release the couple from the program.

In Attorney Bozek’s experience, some of those parents who have been successful in learning the skills, have voluntarily returned for a “tune up” when a problem down the road could not be resolved by the couple themselves. Those parents see the return to the professional as an ongoing learning process and, often, people are eager to do that. When the couple experiences success and she offered professional guidance to help them, it is professionally rewarding.

Dr. Liza Thayer, a psychologist, likens co-parenting to a challenge for two people who often see the same issue from two different viewpoints. Her task is to figure out how to bridge the gap so that the parents can come to an agreement. For Dr. Thayer, it’s not just about the concrete agreement, but how can she get one parent to hear the other. If that moment comes up, she grabs it like a key and uses it to open a door that had previously remained closed, blocking the flow of positive communication. The satisfaction for her is that one more child is protected from the damaging effects of conflict. Success isn’t often a quickly achieved because it takes time to solidify the co-parenting relationship when it’s been damaged. She urges parents to behave consistently to build trust between them. “The change isn’t one that comes from some external behavioral change; it’s a change that comes from an internal shift of the parent’s behavior and is shared with the other parent.”

What if the parents aren’t able to resolve every single issue that comes up after meetings have concluded, despite using all of the skills that they learned while they participated? Should the parents view a return to the program as a failure? “No”, Dr. Thayer shared. She sees a return to the process as confirmation that the co-parents have utilized the skills that they learned. Rather than damage the trust built up in the co-parenting relationship, a return to a follow up session provides additional support.

The analogy is akin to a plumbing problem. If someone tried to repair a leaky faucet with solutions that he or she was familiar with but the faucet continued to leak, it’s time to hire a professional to fix the leak, rather than mopping up over flowing water that can cause further damage. Dr. Thayer posits that it’s better to return for that “tune up”, than let the foundation of the co-parenting relationship erode with conflict.

From my perspective as a professional who also undertakes in this work, when a parent decides after one meeting he or she will not return to the process because the other person just doesn’t “get it”, it is frustrating. Professionals see the value of commitment to the process and the hard work that it takes to change the direction of a cycle of conflict. Helping parents understand that loving their child is as important as co-parenting with that child’s other parent. Those aren’t mutually exclusive ideas. No one disputes that this work takes time and hard work. Changing old habits doesn’t happen overnight. The commitment to work on changing those bad habits provides a multitude of benefits. When parents can do that work guided by a competent professional, it is rewarding not just to the parents and beneficial to the child, but to the professional as well. Sadly, not every parent can engage in this work, and it’s important from a moral standpoint to let people know that it’s time to move on. Those parents who are successful doing this hard work and making positive changes provide their children with immeasurable gifts: freedom from conflict and tacit permission to love both parents.

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