The most important factor for helping children cope with and heal from divorce is reconciliation between parents, otherwise described as the ability to maintain a sense of "family" and "togetherness", even if the family is no longer "intact". If parents can maintain healthy communication post-divorce (often referred to as “co-parenting”), children can internalize positive images of both parents, which can help create a unified sense of self and lead to healthy relationships. Co-parenting is an ideal situation in which both parents can work together and make decisions regarding parenting without exposing children to conflict.
However, there are situations when co-parenting is not feasible due to irreconcilable conflict and/or abuse. Oftentimes, the best solution is to move to a form of communication called “parallel parenting” to reduce conflict between parents and improve healing for children. Parallel parenting allows parents to communicate about parenting decisions with limited excess contact. Below you will find important tools for maintaining and improving parallel parenting:
1. Create and stick to a court order as best you can. Seek out an attorney with experience working with high-conflict divorces. Request that the attorney(s) attempt to make the parenting plan/court-order as black and white as possible to reduce any chance of subjective interpretation. Make sure the plan requires that all communication be performed through third-party platforms such as “OurFamilyWizard”, “Talking Parents”, and/or a shared “Google Calendar” for scheduling.
2. Unless the court order says otherwise, and unless the children are being neglected or abused, do not get involved in the other parent’s visitation time. We have to accept that we cannot control what goes on during the other parent’s visitation, even if we disagree with the activities the children are, or are not, participating in.
3. It is important to maintain a sense of normalcy and routine during your visitation time. If your children lack a routine with one parent or if the routine does not compliment your own established routine, it may be beneficial to set aside one-on-one time with your children to help them transition smoothly and adjust back to your established routine.
4. Use the BIFF model for communication: brief, informative, friendly and firm.
Brief: Communicate your message in less than one paragraph.
Informative: Stick to the facts. Do not engage in any power and control tactics and do not respond to attempts at diversion such as deflecting, moving the goal post, strawmanning, changing the topic, minimizing, insulting, etc. When these happen, it is best to either a) disengage and not respond or b) re-state your original request if you are in need of information. Do not hesitate to take the broken record approach and repeat yourself in order to maintain an emotional boundary.
Friendly: use polite greetings and closings such as “hello/good morning/good afternoon/good evening” and “thanks so much/take care”.
Firm: use close-ended questions (yes/no answers) rather than open-ended questions that leave wiggle room for diversion attempts. Set boundaries for when you expect to get a response, such as “Let me know by 8pm Friday.”
5. Do not speak unkindly about your children’s parent in front of them, do not ask or expect them to pick sides, and do not communicate about the divorce through them. As I stated above, it is very important for children to be able to internalize positive images of both parents so they can develop and maintain healthy relationships. If your children come to you with a concern about the other parent, listen, empathize and (depending on their age) help them identify and learn problem-solving and communication skills without labeling or speaking unkindly about the parent.
Parallel parenting can be chaotic and mentally exhausting if you do not have firm boundaries. Following the steps above can be helpful in creating foundational skills that can be built upon with the additional guidance of therapy, support groups, family and friends, podcasts and books. For further reading on navigating a high conflict divorce, I suggest the book Splitting: Protect Yourself While Divorcing Someone with Borderline or Narcissistic Personality Disorder by Randi Kreger and Bill Eddy. Randi Kreger is an author of various books about borderline personality disorder, including Walking on Eggshells. Bill Eddy is a retired LCSW and family law specialist with over 20 years experience working with high-conflict divorce.