I recently listened to The Hidden Brain podcast, episode "Empathy Gym," from July 2019. The guest was Psychologist Jamil Zaki, who talked about his parent's divorce that took four years when he was between ages 8-12. He spoke about trying to live in each of his parent's homes. "Bouncing between houses is like bouncing between parallel universes." His parents were fundamentally different, and to maintain his relationship with his parents, he needed to find empathy for his parents at an early age. I could not help but think that this was backward. It is the responsibility of the parents to find empathy with the child – regardless of their differences. Even when living in separate houses, the parents need to meet the child's best interests.
How do parents go about placing their children and their emotional needs first? Here are 4 ways parents can ensure effective communication about their child's needs.
Start with a Mediator or Collaborative Divorce Team
Ideally, divorcing parents will work with their Mediator or Collaborative Divorce team when initially deciding on custody and parenting time issues to ensure that they have the tools to meet the child's needs as they arise. One excellent collaborative tool is Our Family in Two Homes™, which helps parents think about their child's issues moving forward, helping them work collaboratively. Parents cannot necessarily predict a child's needs. Still, they can work with the collaborative team or mediator to put the tools in place early in the process to ensure that the parents are meeting the child's best interest.
Co-Parent with Empathy
Co-parenting is sharing the parenting responsibilities for your children between your two households. When the parents co-parent well, they cooperatively meet the child's physical and emotional needs. There will be disagreements between the parents. That occurs under the best of circumstances. It is challenging to ensure that a child's needs are met after a divorce when they need to transition between homes. Parents need to share information about their child and the child's needs. If a child has a hard time in one home, that parent should share the information with the other parent. If a child was physically injured at the other parent's home, that parent should share what occurred with the other parent.
Respond Instead of Reacting
Unfortunately, in many divorce situations, parents react when they hear information about a child being emotionally reactive at the other parent's home or was somehow hurt at the other parent's home, even when the situation is innocent. One parent's allegations of poor parenting can snowball into a crisis and the other parent becomes afraid to share information with their ex-spouse. Divorcing parents should be aware that a child may be reacting to the situation rather than poor parenting. The best co-parenting relationship recognizes that a child is going through a difficult transition and that their behavior at one parent's home or during pickup and drop-off does not mean that the child is somehow rejecting one parent or the other. The child is reacting to the stress of the situation.
Communicate Effectively Between Parents
My office strongly encourages parents to communicate with each other about the needs of their children. If parents cannot communicate effectively at pickup or drop-off, many tools help parents communicate. Post-divorce, several software programs can help parents exchange information, such as Our Family Wizard. Another option is for parents to consider mediating difficult decisions that may come up and that cannot be fully addressed cooperatively.