February 1, 2015/by Bruce Berman
As a divorced or separated parent you are faced with the task of preserving (or establishing if it was not there to begin with) an effective co-parenting relationship with your child(ren)’s other parent now that you are no longer romantically, sexually, and emotionally involved with one other. Separation and divorce, because it involves the loss of a major relationship and entails the transition from one family and one household to two, is one of the most challenging experiences parents can face.
As a result it is not unusual for parents to not be as fully attuned to their children as they ordinarily would be and to have increased difficulty cooperating with one another during the first year or two following their separation. Once they have successfully navigated the difficult transition divorce entails some parents are able to resume effective parenting and co-parenting. However some parents can become stuck in conflict over parenting issues that is so unremitting and intense that it impairs their ability to co-parent effectively. When parents are not able to coordinate and communicate well enough regarding their children, it then becomes more difficult for them to provide their children with adequate stability and emotional security. In addition if the children are drawn into their conflicts it will affect the children adversely. Research has shown that the one factor most impeding children’s adjusting positively to their parents’ divorce and most predisposing them to emotional problems is when they are pulled into intense conflict between their parents. This is why it is so important that you and your child(ren)’s other parent find ways of co-parenting that help you avoid being in intense conflict with one another and that, when conflict does occur, attempts are made to insulate your children from it.
Divorced parents usually fall into one of four categories of co-parenting styles. These styles can be distinguished by the level of conflict and by the level of involvement between them. About 25% of parents fall into the cooperative category. Parents in this category have a low level of conflict, maintain a high level of involvement, and are readily able to come to agreement about a variety of issues. If you are fortunate to be in this group you have nothing to worry about. Your children will most likely adjust quite well to the changes in your family brought on by divorce.
About 10 to 15% of parents fall in to the conflicted category. These parents have a high level of involvement and a high level of conflict with one another. Their interactions are characterized by anger, antagonism, poor communication, and difficulty in problem solving, and making joint decisions. Research has shown that children of such parents are more likely to suffer adjustment difficulties than children of cooperative co-parents. If despite your and your children’s other parent’s best efforts you find yourself fitting into this category, you might want to consider using the services of a parenting coordinator (PC) — a divorce professional who helps separated and divorced parents avoid coming into conflict and enables them to co-parent more effectively.
A third group, made up of 10 to 20% of parents following divorce, includes parents who are characterized by a mixture of low involvement and high conflict. These parents are generally not that engaged with each other but when they do engage, they do so in angry, conflictual ways. Parenting Coordination would be helpful to parents in this group as well as it would provide them with a structure for avoiding conflict and interacting more constructively when involved with one another.
The fourth and most common group (40% of parents following divorce) is the parallel co-parenting type. These parents have a low level of involvement and a low level of conflict. Their level of conflict is low not because their interactions are cooperative but because they minimize the contact they have with one another. These parents parent independently during their parenting time and have limited communication between them. Children whose parents use this model of co-parenting do just as well as children with cooperative parents and better than children whose parents are in intense conflict with one another.
It would be highly unlikely for parents to move directly from the conflicted group to the cooperative group. However parenting coordination can help high conflict parents move into the parallel parenting group thus ensuring their children’s having a positive adjustment following divorce. Parenting coordination accomplishes this by helping parents who are in intense conflict disengage from one another. Less engagement leads to less opportunity for conflict to occur. Once parents have successfully functioned in a parallel co-parenting model for an extended period of time, it might be possible for them to shift to a cooperative model of co-parenting.
So how does parenting coordination help high conflict parents disengage? It does this in the following ways:
by offering them a means of resolving disputes that avoids litigation and is non-adversarial
by establishing guidelines for communication that require parents to communicate in ways that are respectful, businesslike, and child focused
by having what’s in the best interest of the child(ren) be the basis for resolving disputes
by having a parenting plan be detailed enough that it leaves little or no room for interpretation or disagreement
by ensuring compliance with communication guidelines and the parenting plan
by managing the level of engagement between the parents
by providing a timely resolution of impasses through the PC’s role as an arbitrator — making a recommendation when the parents cannot come to agreement about a particular issue
by putting procedures in place for how to address similar types of issues when they arise thus helping the parents avoid conflict each time they occur. As the parents become better at following all of the above, they will be become capable of co-parenting more effectively and no longer need the parenting coordinator to help them do this
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Bruce Berman, PhD, is a psychologist and parenting coordinator. Learn more
This post is informed by an article by, and personal communication with, parenting coordination expert Dr. Matthew J. Sullivan.