March 1, 2015/by Shari Bornstein
Every so often, a song lyric resonates with me. As I pursue my work with FamilyKind assisting parents who are separating or have separated, I frequently quote a line from The Eagles song, Hotel California: “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.”
What an appropriate line to remind parents that they are stuck (for lack of a better word) with each other forever because they share children. The belief that they are relieved from communicating or co-parenting with each other once they’ve separated is false. “Why do I have to let him/her know about the child’s after school activities? He/She was never interested before.” The answer is pretty basic: research shows, all things being equal, children benefit greatly when both parents have access to the same information and are actively involved in their children’s lives.
Recognizing that parents can’t “check out” once they separate, we’re launching GoodTalk4Parents. This is a new program that focuses on improving communication between parents so that they can share information with each other on a regular basis about their children. Most parents want to know and should know what the other parent knows: school information, medical appointments, discipline, activities, etc. Improving the consistent and full sharing of information keeps both parents engaged and involved in their children’s lives, relieving the burden on the children.
In addition to information sharing, many parents must address new issues that arise with the passage of time. Poor communication sabotages the co-parenting relationship and makes it impossible for parents to resolve these issues in a healthy way for the benefit of their children. Parenting by conflict is an ineffective way to parent children and can be harmful to their developmental growth and future relationships. “Good communication” can take many forms and never would place one or the other parent in a bad position for the sake of the child. We offer a personalized approach to each individual family.
The reasons parents separate are wide and varied. Some parents divorce; some never married and share children, perhaps never even having lived together. This program is helpful for parents at any stage of separation. Sometimes parents need to improve their communication before taking legal action or while their court matter is pending. Often, parents may have resolved their legal disputes with an agreement through mediation or litigation, but still experience poor communication causing conflict. Emotions and lack of trust arising from their crumbled adult relationship can challenge parents’ ability to make decisions for their children.
As well, life changes can impact the co-parenting relationship and may not be covered in a court agreement because of the impossibility of drafting a document to cover every life eventuality. The agreement may talk about each parent’s full access to medical information, but what happens when a child becomes ill and the parents aren’t on the same page about the course of treatment or when and who should/could take the child to the doctor. What if the regular pediatrician is not available? Then who will provide medical care for the child? What happens when a child is diagnosed with a chronic illness and the child’s medicine or medical supplies need to go back and forth between homes? What happens when a parent establishes a new adult relationship? What should that person’s role in the child’s life? The reality for most parents is that the courtroom need not be the place to resolve these issues with its adversarial dynamic that can pit parents against each other, while exposing them to crowded dockets, often resulting in delays in resolving their issues. Sometimes the rancor that led to the termination of the relationship has tainted the ability of parents to work together in a way that is healthy for the children or the parents themselves.
FamilyKind offers the one-stop shop where the family is embraced and supplied with the service or services that they particularly need. Often alternative dispute resolution programs may be preferable to litigation. For example, mediation often helps parents reach an agreement on the issues that must be resolved in order to finalize their court matter. Parenting coordination can be helpful for parents post-judgment who still need to resolve parenting time and other decisions about their children. FamilyKind’s parent education classes give parents tips and strategies to help them keep the children out of their conflict. The children’s classes directly support the children and reinforce the fact that they are not the reason for their parents’ split.
FamilyKind’s GoodTalk4Parents, with its focus on communication, provides individualized education to parents to help them develop practical and effective communication with each other to reduce their present conflict and give them skills empowering them to move forward without strangers continuing to be involved in their lives. They learn to share information on a consistent basis so that they can then make the most beneficial decisions affecting their children. Most importantly, they will learn how to set aside the emotions from their past relationship that can sabotage the foundation of their newly formed co-parenting business relationship. This always takes place in an emotionally and physically safe setting, never compromising what is appropriate for each parent.
In this program, parents participate in joint sessions, and, in addition to working on improving their co-parenting communication, will likely resolve some concrete issues that have arisen between them. Separate communication and meetings with each parent is not common and but might occur if a parent needs some support to prepare to discuss a difficult topic in a neutral business like way for an upcoming session. Children do not participate in this process because if parents take charge of reducing their adult conflict, their children will be the beneficiaries of the adults’ hard work. The facilitator does not make the final decision about an issue, but may offer options for compromise to help the parents move toward resolution.
The number of sessions varies depending on each case. The couple may also be referred to other FamilyKind services as they wend their way through familial transition. They also may touch base with a professional in the GoodTalk4Parents program whenever needed.
Which leads me to the other song lyric that resonates and needs to be heard by parents in conflict, reminding them to open their minds to compromise because their children deserve it. It’s the Rolling Stones song, “You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometime, you just might find you get what you (and your child) need.”
• • •
Shari Bornstein is an attorney and mediator. Learn more