Couples don’t get married and have children anticipating divorce, leading to co-parenting in different homes. Since over 50% of marriages end in divorce many children are co-parented by divorced parents. Other parents who did not marry are also co-parenting after separation. Emotional safety and healthy guidance provided children in these homes is partially dependent on the co-parenting skills and the quality of the relationship between the parents and subsequently, in many cases, step-parents. The outcomes for these children are widely varied, with some parents doing a pretty good job of adjusting to divorce or separation and others needing guidance from professionals and/or the courts. A number of factors can bring about confusion and emotional unrest in these homes. Unresolved mental health issues of parents or step-parents, including alcohol and other substance abuse issues can also be detrimental to the emotional safety of children.
When divorced and separated parents resolve negative feelings; such as pain, anger, hostility, or resentment about the other parent and/or their relationship, both past and present, without expressing these feelings around the children; a safer emotional environment is more possible. These negative residual feelings can be managed when doing therapeutic work such as; individual counseling, relationship counseling, parenting coordination or parenting facilitation where family systems issues can be addressed. It is most effective when each parent takes 100% responsibility for their own part, as well as healing their own personal and family system issues. Besides resolving negative feelings, learning to communicate respectfully to the other parent and/or step-parent is also possible and helpful during such therapeutic work.
Part of respectful communication is the use of what is commonly called “I Statements”. The use of “I-Statements” keeps each parent responsible for their own thoughts and feelings. I suggest using “you” at the beginning of sentences in which one has something specifically positive to say. What many parents do is make assumptions and accusations about the other parent and thus blame the other parent, instead of respectfully clarifying what the parent has said or done. Communication between parents is often improved during therapeutic work by the parents being “coached” to focus on their joint goals, interests and objectives for their children; taught to communicate respectfully, each being held accountable for their own communications and behavior; encouraged to be 100% responsible for their own part in conflicts; taught to each keep their own communications and behaviors healthy; and to stay off the corners of what is called the “Drama Triangle”. Versions of this triangle or other triangles are widely used in therapeutic work. The concept of the drama triangle specifically comes from Stephen Karpman’s “transactional analysis” (TA). The three corners of the triangle are Persecutor, Victim, and Rescuer. In therapeutic work parents learn how to stay off the corners of the triangle and how to choose healthier behavior, which in turn creates even more emotional safety, not only for the children, but also for the parents.
Besides staying off the corners of the “Drama Triangle” parents and step-parents who want to create a healthy emotional environment for the children trusted in their care are well advised to adhere to “The Children’s Bill of Rights”. The Children’s Bill of Rights is a list of 35 rights of children now ordered in divorce decrees and other suits affecting parent and child relationships. A complete list of these rights can be obtained online. Generally the rights include;
• being able to communicate with each parent to know they exist, and have a relationship and healthy experiences with them and their extended family;
• not to overhear abusive or course language, arguments, negotiations or discussions about legal or business dealings between the parents, criticism of the other parent or their extended family;
• not to be physically or psychologically pressured or influenced to have a particular opinion about the other parent or their choices in life;
• to be able to display photographs and have other objects reminding the child of the other parent and/or their extended family, including gifts and greeting cards;
• to know they have two homes;
• not to be interrogated about the other parent or their household;
• not to be used as a messenger between the parents or to be used as an “ally” against the other parent;
• not to be asked by one parent to be disobedient to the other parent or be rewarded for acting negatively toward the other parent;
• not to be transported by a person who is intoxicated or be in the presence of anyone who is intoxicated due to consumption of alcohol, illegal drugs or abuse of prescription drugs;
• not to be in the same inside structure or vehicle with anyone smoking or using any tobacco materials;
• not to be scheduled for events, during the parenting time of the other parent, without the prior consent of the other parent.
If parents realize they are not adhering to these rights or have been behaving in ways which makes it harder for their children, they can at any time make changes and apologize to their children and the other parent.
Corrections to parent’s misguided parenting behavior are beneficial at any time improvement happens. The sooner these corrections are made and the family gets on a better path, the less the emotional damage. If these corrections are not made, children will not feel emotionally safe and parents may end up in front of a judge, who will hold them accountable for making these changes and be ordered to attend therapy, parenting coordination or parenting facilitation sessions. If parents who have parenting issues are not litigious and want to make these changes, they can get family therapy and/or parenting coordination services. If divorced or separated parents have a history of many court appearances, parenting facilitation services are more often used.