20 August 2014

Communication Resources for Separated Parents

The end of a relationship between parents can often be a lot more difficult than the end of a relationship between a couple without children: people who don't have kids can just ride off into the sunset and have nothing more to do with each other, but people with children will be in each other's lives for the indefinite future. The constant contact separated parents have with each other delays the time it takes to heal from the separation and, more significantly, provides lots of opportunity for ongoing conflict.

Some degree of conflict is, of course, normal. But there is a small segment of the separating population — estimated at anywhere from five to fifteen percent — whose conflict is excessive and way out of proportion to their actual legal disputes. I have had clients, both paid and pro bono, who had been involved in a dozen or more applications prior to trial and a dozen or more applications following trial; these are people whose court papers occupied six or more 3-inch binders on my shelf and whose correspondence files were measured by the pound not the inch. 

Although the stress and cost of these high-conflict disputes are destructively taxing on the parents involved, in many ways the people most affected are the children, and what's alarming about this is that parental conflict can negatively affect children well into their teens and adult years, and sometimes permanently. I won't go into this in any detail since you can get a lot more information on parenting after separation from my wikibook, but children exposed to conflict between their parents:
  • drop out of school at higher rates than other children;
  • have higher rates of truancy and delinquency, and involvement with the criminal justice system;
  • experience self-esteem issues and psychiatric disorders like depression and anxiety at higher rates than other children;
  • have difficulty dealing with conflict, and often handle their conflicts as they have seen their parents managing conflict; and,
  • have difficulty forming stable, trusting relationships as adults.
Given the severity of these potential consequences, anything separated parents can do to reduce their conflict, or to shield it from their children, is important and helpful.

One of the easiest ways parents can manage conflict is by changing how they communicate with each other. As a result, communication is one of the key subjects in parenting after separation courses, and is especially emphasized in the special parenting after separation courses offered to high-conflict parents in Alberta and Nova Scotia, and I am always on the lookout for resources and tools that can help parents communicate more effectively.

One of the best short resources I have seen recently is the Co-Parenting Communication Guide (PDF), produced by the Arizona chapter of the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts. This booklet offers plenty of good, practical advice and offers helpful tips for communicating by email, text message and telephone. My thanks to my friend and colleague Arlene Henry, QC for bringing this resource to my attention.

Making Plans: A Guide to parenting Arrangements after Separation or Divorce (PDF), published by the federal government, and Parenting After Separation: For Your Child's Future (PDF), published by the provincial government, both have helpful but brief discussions about positive communication skills and protecting children from conflict.

If you're looking for something more meaty, you might want to get ahold of two books by Robert Emery, a mediator and professor of psychology at the University of Virginia. Renegotiating Family Relationships: Divorce, Child Custody and Mediation and The Truth about Children and Divorce: Dealing with the Emotions so You and Your Children Can Thrive are excellent books and are written in easy to understand, accessible language. Both talk about the psychology of separation, the influence and effect of anger, managing conflict and putting children first. I read Truth many years ago, after I'd settled into life as a family law lawyer, and it provided me with many valuable insights that had an extraordinary impact on how I practiced family law.

Another useful book, directed specifically toward high-conflict parents, is Joint Custody with a Jerk: Raising a Child with an Uncooperative Ex, by Julie Ross, a counselling psychologist, and Judy Corcoran.

There are also a few internet-based tools that are designed to help parents communicate more clearly and more effectively. By and large, these tools keep calendars both parents can access, maintain to-do lists, and keep records of communication between parents. These include:
  • Coparently, a Canadian product which works on mobile devices;
  • Our Family Wizard, an American tool with lots of bells and whistles;
  • 2houses, a co-parenting tool produced by a Belgian company;
  • Cofamilies, another American product; and,
  • ShareKids, an American tool that adds photo galleries to the usual services.
I don't endorse any of these tools in particular. Note that the American tools will of course be programmed to default the American holiday calendar, but can be adjusted.

Do you know of any other useful booklets, guides and tools? Please tell me about them in a comment to this post.