When parents divorce from one another, it is only natural for each person to feel incredibly protective of their children and feel concern as to what divorce will mean for them. Unfortunately, in the process of deciding what is best for your kids, communication between ex spouses can break down entirely – to the point that any discussion or decision relating to the kids becomes a never-ending storm of competitiveness and hurt.
So how do warring parents break out of this pattern after a divorce? The answer may lie in co-parent counseling – a form of therapy aimed at guiding you through life after divorce and the road to living separate and healthy lives as independent loving parents. Your love for each other may have gone, but the love you have for your kids hasn’t changed, and neither should your parenting. Co-parenting is not the end of your old way of parenting, just about taking a new approach.
If you’re reading this article, it may be that you have been given a court order to attend co-parent counseling following your divorce. Or perhaps you have heard the term and are curious about how it all works. Whatever the reason, we hope to shed light on co-parenting counseling as much as possible to help you communicate peacefully with your partner and continue to be the great parent you always were.
What is Co Parenting Counseling?
So what exactly is co-parent counseling? Many people mistake it for a form of marriage counseling after divorce, but let’s make one thing clear – co-parenting is nothing to do with saving your marriage! As the name suggests, it is has everything to with your children and its main goal is to help divorced parents communicate more effectively with each other for the best chance of success at raising kids after divorce or separation.
Co-parenting counseling is intended to switch the focus from why your relationship broke up and who’s to blame to being solely about your children and their needs. A family law attorney at Cordell & Cordell, Jamie Spero states that “the purpose of co-parenting counseling is to talk about the kids’ best interests in a neutral environment with a neutral third party who has special training.”
Talking to a professional about your differing parenting techniques in a calm and neutral environment helps to prevent conflict and keep sessions focused on what they should be – lessons in better parenting. Being a parent to your child is and has always been your priority and counseling makes sure that you do not lose sight of this in the heat of an argument with each other.
What to Expect from Co Parenting Counseling
It’s natural to feel apprehensive about the idea of co-parenting counseling – especially if you have been ordered to attend them by the divorce courts – so how does counseling work and what can you expect from it? If you have consented to co-parent counseling as part of your custody terms, you can normally expect the following process:
Step 1 – Both parents will have a chance to jointly choose a counselor, and if this cannot be decided upon, then the courts will choose a counselor for them. The chosen counselor will have signed a confidentiality agreement, to give you peace of mind that nothing you discuss in session will ever be shared or used without your consent and will never be used against you in court.
Step 2 – Parents will be given a minimum number of weekly counseling sessions to attend (e.g. 4 or 5) and any cost that is not covered by insurance will be divided between the ex partners or paid by just one partner depending on financial circumstances (this may be arranged beforehand).
Step 3 – The chosen counselor will then decide how the sessions will be arranged based on your unique circumstances and the therapy style that is right for you and your ex partner (e.g. some sessions will be done jointly with your ex, others on an individual basis and some with your children present as well).
Step 4 – If no seeming progress has been reached between the two parents by the end of their recommended number of sessions, then the ex couple have the chance to either agree to further sessions together and see if things improve or quit co parenting counseling.
The actual style of therapy you have will, of course, differ based on your circumstances with your ex and your children’s specific needs. In sessions, you will discuss things like your individual approach to childcare, where you can improve your past performance as a parent and go into detail about how you will both deal with your child’s birthdays, hobbies and after-school interests etc.
If you’re still not convinced that co-parenting counseling is right for you, read on to learn about the many benefits of co-parenting therapy, and never forget who you are doing it for – your children.
Benefits of Co Parenting Counseling
From her experience as a co-parenting therapist, family psychologist Shendl Tuchman states that children of divorced parents are “better able to adapt to changes in the family structure when their parents work together to create a post-divorce family.” It may sound obvious, but this is essentially the main and most important benefit to attending co parent counseling – to not let the family unit be destroyed. You and your ex are no longer a couple, but you will always be a family.
Let’s break down how this can be achieved in therapy – here are 10 amazing benefits of co parent counseling for the parents and the kids:
For the parents
1. Being able to talk about the issues you find most uncomfortable/painful with your ex.
2. To have a better understanding of your partner (and give them the opportunity to understand you better).
3. To learn how to respond to conflict. Your therapist can help you both change the way you react to each other.
4. To make decisions in a neutral, calm environment. An argument about your child’s health or school project can turn into a productive discussion and solution.
5. Lastly, therapy can be the best place and time for discussing rules for your child’s care with the other parent e.g. are bedtime routines the same at each household? Are they eating a well-balanced diet? Does each parent help them with their homework? - This can be a way of checking up on your ex, without making them feel attacked or criticized.
For the children
1. Kids are less likely to suffer from mental health problems in later life or rebel from their studies when they see both parents respecting each other and expressing kindness.
2. Dividing their time between 2 homes and 2 sets of rules will improve their organizational skills, which will benefit them greatly in their adult life.
3. Keeping children out of your conflict helps them to lead happier, fulfilling lives and give them a perspective outside of the “divorce bubble” - giving them space to grow and have fun discovering the world and who they are.
4. Watching their parents work on disagreements and reach solutions provides them with great life skills in the workplace and added maturity in social and romantic situations.
5. Best of all, attending therapy will make their relationship better with both of you! The effort you put into showing kindness to your ex and vice versa will create stronger bonds between you and your children.
What is the Goal of Co-Parenting Counseling?
The ultimate goal of co-parenting counseling is for parents to communicate without the need for a professional third party to ‘monitor’ them. Essentially the end game is for you and your ex to interact effectively in a way that won’t harm the relationship you have with your children and ensure that you can ‘co-parent’ well as a team. Co parent counseling is not meant to be seen as an ongoing form of treatment after your divorce, but as a stepping stone towards healthier communication.
In the same way that you learn to ride a bike without stabilizers, co parent therapy is meant to give you the confidence and strength to interact with your ex spouse without straying off the track and falling back into conflict again. The main goal of counseling is to help ex couples find common ground and focus on the one subject you can agree on – the love of your children! Whether you are still in the process of divorcing or have already moved out and live far away from your ex, co-parenting therapy aims to assist you through this difficult period and help you in your new role as individual parents.
Tips on Successful Co-Parent Counseling – the Do’s and Don'ts
To help you in achieving this important goal, there are a few things you should know about how to approach co parent counseling. Be patient, stay committed and follow these top tips for getting the most out of your therapy sessions – and becoming awesome co parents!
DO praise each other’s strengths – each parent has good traits, and as much as you might resent admitting these to your ex, they can be very helpful (and important) for your child to hear when they’re present in therapy sessions. Speaking positively about your ex like: “Mommy is good at making you feel better when you’re sick” helps your child to see that despite your divorce, you can still appreciate things about the other parent, and your kid will learn to find the positives too.
DON’T use your child as a messenger – the entire purpose of co parent counseling is to communicate your child’s needs to your ex partner, not to communicate through your child. Don’t grill your child about what your ex shared in therapy either (unless they open up to you about it).
DO convert your complaints into requests – if you find yourself criticising your ex’s way of parenting (which is bound to come out in counseling sessions), re-phrase these complaints into polite requests, suggests family therapist Bruce L. Ross: “By using phrases like ‘Would you be willing to…?’ or ‘If it’s possible..?’, this demonstrates respect and politeness to the other parent and goes a long way toward establishing cooperation between the parents.”
DON’T talk about your personal life – don’t bring up things like a new romantic relationship in therapy sessions, unless it is somehow relevant to your children’s schedule, i.e. if this person occasionally picks them up from school or helps out in some way. Your ex doesn’t need to hear about your new promotion or relationship (and certainly won’t benefit from it!), so keep your personal life private.
Does Co Parenting Counseling Work?
Like any other form of therapy, co-parenting will not guarantee an overnight cure. But with patience and a commitment to using what you have learned in each session, you will gradually be able to apply new communication skills to each and every interaction with your ex partner – and if both parents can do this, then yes, co-parenting counseling will work.
There is no ‘one fits all’ rule when you and your ex partner attend co parent counseling – the job of your chosen therapist is to listen to your concerns about how your ex is raising your kids and how to overcome them.
Family psychologist Dr Danielle Levy makes clear that counseling can only work if both parents are prepared to make it work: “you are learning how to move from one home to two homes in the least impactful manner”. Your counselor will give you the tools to communicate effectively with each other Whether you stick to using these tools is up to both of you.
So what happens if co parent counseling doesn’t work? There can be many reasons for this such as your kids refusing to attend or long distance exes etc. But normally the most common reason for co parent counseling failing is down to a narcissistic ex who wants to control every element of therapy or refuse it altogether. If this is the case, keep reading for advice on how to deal with a narcissist while going through co parent counseling...
Co Parenting Counseling with a Narcissist
Deep down, most divorced parents want to seek a solution, even in times of high conflict. But when you are dealing with a narcissistic parent, reaching solutions and communicating well can be incredibly difficult if not impossible, and for this reason, co-parenting counseling may not always work.
If, for example, your ex partner has been abusive in the past or shown tendencies towards domestic violence in the past, family law states that the court is prohibited from arranging joint counseling sessions in order to protect the abused parent from the abusive ex.
Even in these unfortunate circumstances, however, there can still be hope for parenting counseling, but on an individual basis for the safety and well-being of you and your children.
Narcissistic ex partners feed off of your responses and reactions to their mind games, so if you are not there during therapy, then they cannot be fuelled by these arguments and conflict. It can therefore come down to one of two solutions – having separate therapy or taking a new approach known as ‘parallel parenting’:
If your narcissist ex won’t partake in the ‘co’ part of co parent counseling, you may still find it helpful to attend co parenting counseling sessions solo. If this seems pointless, consider the fact that your therapist may give you the tools to deal more effectively with your ex, not to mention being given professional advice on how to be a better parent in the wake of your divorce.
When attempting to reason with your ex has failed at every turn, parallel parenting offers an alternative to co parenting. Parallel parenting involves reducing conflict by having virtually no contact with your ex other than in matters of your children and mostly indirectly by text or email. This keeps you and your children safe from toxic or abusive narcissist exes. You can find out more about how parallel parenting works here.
Should I be friends with my ex? Remaining friends with your ex can be perfectly healthy, as long as a) there are mutual benefits and b) that you set boundaries (especially when kids are involved). If you genuinely care about each other, friendship can make life easier if you work together or if you share social circles. It will not work, however, if your ex still has feelings for you or makes demands.
How can I guide my kids through divorce? Family mediator Sara Dungan reveals that children of divorced parents experience grief in the same way they would if someone had died, so it is your job to show them patience in helping them get through. In the early stages of shock and anger, Dungan recommends “listening to them without judgment” to allow them to vent. Your kids will also feel reassured to see you playing with them and enjoying activities again, because “your kids are watching you grieve too.”
How should I choose a divorce lawyer? After figuring out your budget, you should think about what divorce process is right for you and pick a lawyer who will understand your specific needs. If kids are involved, for example, a family law attorney will be ideal. Be sure to do your research and ask plenty of questions of your potential candidates to find the best possible lawyer for you.