As family law attorneys, most of us wish we had a book of guidelines for clients to help them navigate through the separation process as responsible parents. Hopefully we can assist our clients in the legal process with one goal being to ensure they do not destroy their relationship with each other, which can be harmful to their children. Well, now there is a handbook: The Co-Parents' Handbook: Raising Well-Adjusted, Resilient, and Resourceful Kids in a Two-Home Family from Little Ones to Young Adults was written to assist parents facing divorce or separation.1
Recently we had the opportunity to interview one of the authors, Karen Bonnell, at her office in Bellevue. Bonnell is a co-parent coach and specialist in the field of assisting/guiding parents through the crisis and change inherent in separation.2 Bonnell shared with us that animosity in a separation process can be fueled by grief/loss, betrayal and specifically by one or both parents' fear of losing a reasonable amount of time with the child.
As we discussed her recommendations for developing a co-parenting strategy, it was surprising that Bonnell does not support a "right of first refusal" in most family situations because it often increases conflict. She suggested that when co-parents have a basically healthy relationship, they do the "right thing" by offering their co-parent time with a child; when they have an unhealthy relationship with a ROFR, this requirement becomes a source of game-playing and manipulation.
Bonnell noted that there is a movement afoot to consider a presumption of equal time with each parent while continuing to tailor the residential schedule to the specific ages/needs of the children, and to the unique work schedules and the adults' capacity to parent. Bonnell explained that differentiated marriage roles can cause problems during separation because one parent who may have focused more on earning income for the family (or spent increasing amounts of time away from home to avoid an unhealthy or struggling marriage) may now want to spend more time with the children.
This is what she called a parent "stepping up and stepping in" as a co-parent who is divorcing a spouse, but not intending to divorce his/her children. Bonnell reminds parents that past agreements about division of labor and responsibility of parental authority are no longer true in the new family dynamic.
Bonnell stated, "All bets are off; separation/divorce is a game changer. Past behavior could be the guideline for future child-rearing responsibilities, but in a world where both parents want to be involved in their children's lives, the kids benefit."
Bonnell further explained, "A bereft spouse often exaggerates negative information" (either knowingly or unknowingly) "and that is why it is helpful to use a third-party neutral, such as a child specialist, to provide information to both parents. Some parents justify their destructive/inappropriate behavior toward their co-parent by thinking: 'You broke my heart so now I am going to make you pay.' Of course this is not helpful in co-parenting. Parents need assistance during the separation process to think of the other parent as a parent to the child and not as a former spouse. There should be an uncoupling process that allows the parents to separate as a couple, learn to manage their emotions, and focus on parenting issues."
To avoid problems and hard feelings, Bonnell suggests that the parents avoid expectations that are no longer appropriate for separating spouses. The couple is no longer the backstop for each other for care of the child.
Bonnell gives specific guidelines for emails regarding requests to change the residential time with each parent. Bonnell recommends the email chain concerning a schedule change or confirmation should state specifically in the subject line: "Request to change schedule" and there should be one of three answers given: "Yes, I'd be glad to," "No, that doesn't work for me," or "Your proposed change does not work with my schedule, but I could do this...."
Even with these guidelines, Bonnell advises it is best for parents to stick to the parenting plan's residential schedule in the first year and minimize changes to support stability in the new two-home family for kids and adults alike.
Another surprising and practical guideline for parents is to recognize that children don't need "perfect parents," but rather "good enough parents." Children do not need to be encased in bubble wrap and protected from every stress. Rather than focusing on all the missed expectations, parents should appreciate the gifts and talents of the other parent, and appreciate that a child's heart belongs half to each of them. Children get so much more by having a relationship with a parent - even if fed a little junk food, as long as the choices don't risk the child's health.
More advice from Bonnell includes: "Current research indicates that children of basically healthy parents have better post-divorce and adult adjustment if there was a more shared parenting arrangement." She encourages parents to support one another and reminds them, "Don't complicate things for the children."
In high-conflict situations, Bonnell prescribes that the parents have more structure and appropriate boundaries, but not necessarily less parenting time. "It's difficult to know whether it's marginalizing a parent who creates the ongoing conflict between the parents," she says. "Under high stress, parents act in ways that they would not normally act - we must appreciate the stress and pressure parents are under when they fear losing their children.
"Some parents should have limited contact with one another and may even need to do transfers through a third party or school/daycare. Children should not be penalized - lose a parent - because of a complicated adult relationship between their parents. We can help the parents find solutions that don't hurt the children."
In closing, Bonnell notes that family law attorneys should assist their clients in focusing on creating soothing, comforting and nurturing rhythms for their children and to recognize that the child is not a football. The parents should also remember that their anger is often about being a grieving spouse and not about being a parent.
They should visualize their child's high school graduation and how they want their child to feel afterwards when they are released to see their family. Can the parents reach a place in their relationship where they can be civil and in the same space so their child does not feel split loyalties and worry about how the parents will react to each other? This can be accomplished by the parents sticking to the "duty" parent being responsible for the child during their time and the "off-duty" or "guest" parent allowing the "duty" parent to make decisions during that time.
The book contains invaluable advice for parents to use in navigating their new relationship. It includes recommendations on dating, step-parents, attending public activities, decision making and many other complicated issues that arise for a child in a two-household family.
Due out this fall is a second book with specific recommendations for parenting plans called: The Parenting Plan Handbook: A Four-Part Video Guide to Skillfully Building a Strong, Child- Centered Parenting Plan. We look forward to her insight and suggestions.
Bonnell encourages family law attorneys to tell their clients "I am a helping hand on your back, I will help you do this, I know it is difficult, but I will help you." The Co-Parents' Handbook is a wonderful resource for parents and family law attorneys and we highly recommend it.
1 Bonnell, Karen & Little, Kristin, The Co-Parents' Handbook: Raising Well-Adjusted, Resilient, and Resourceful Kids in a Two-Home Family from Little Ones to Young Adults, CMC Publishers, Bellevue, WA (2014).
2 The advice in the book reviewed may not be appropriate for parents in domestic violence or high-conflict situations.
Family Law Matters
This is a quarterly column series regarding current and practical issues in the practice of family law.
Authors Lisa DuFour (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Sharon Friedrich (email@example.com) are partners with Integrative Family Law (formerly known as Carol Bailey and Associates).
They focus on complex family law cases and welcome topic suggestions or requests for future columns.