Coparenting Together or Apart with Kate Alcamo
In our most recent live instagram interview, Kate Alcamo,MS, LCMFT of the Family Therapy Center of Bethesda joined MCCC’s Laura Goldstein for a conversation on coparenting. Kate specializes in helping families going through divorce. We talked all about the important issues of coparenting, whether through a separation or even through marriage. Check out the video or read the highlights below!
(2:30) What does it mean to go through a collaborative divorce?
There are several ways to go about the process of a divorce. Litigation is most familiar to people, though can be hard and contentious. There is also mediation which includes no lawyers at all. Collaborative divorce is unique. It helps address both the legal and emotional aspects of divorce. And of course coparenting kids is very important factor. There are usually lots of people involved: each partner has an attorney, a coach to give emotional support and then there’s the roll of a collaborative divorce child specialist. I (Kate) work with the kids to help bring to the parents what the kid needs and to develop a plan.
The beauty is everyone has the same goal, to have a long-term goal that is best for the kids. I help place process over content and long-term communication. The process of parenting is long-term.
(7:00) What, in an ideal world, is the healthiest version of the long-term process of coparenting well?
When thinking about parents going through a divorce, it is about the transition the relationship from marital to business. You remove the emotional component and become more focused and structured in order to communicate well about the kids. Keep it professional with your ex and with your kids. Deal with the emotional baggage of the marriage through other supports and resources so you can show up for your kids separate from those emotions.
Being able to separate emotions from parenting is so important. This means soothing your own emotions in the moment and delaying your response with your child, divorce or not. – Laura
You can have a conflict around parenting whether you are married or divorced. It happens. It’s about forming a solid parental unit for the kids. Each individual parent needs to know how to self-regulate. Then for a couple who is still married they need to be able to attend to each other’s needs through co-regulation.
(11:00) What does the stage of co-regulation look like for couples who are divorced?
It depends on the situation. Often there is a lot of control to give up because your child is not always in your house. Each parent has to realize their area of control. Consistency is so key for children of divorce and ideally you are going to have similar rules and boundaries at both households. This does not always happen. Even in couples who are together, parents can over compensate for each other’s shortcomings to balance the opposite partner out. The goal is not to move to the extremes to gain balance, but rather both parents moving towards the middle to create balance. If you are on the extreme outer edges [i.e. good cop, bad cop] it creates mixed messages for the child. In parent coaching we work on each parent showing up with both sides of the equation for example both showing empathy and accountability.
Balancing empathy and accountability is so important in each household. – Laura
If one person is going back and forth it creates emotional whiplash. Love and authority is a balance. Drawing boundaries and holding people accountable while showing love is also important.
(17:20) When parents have different values, how do you navigate those differences in each household?
The communication and messaging around the differences and the similarities is just as important. How a parent responds to a child who is questioning the differences is so important. Validate that it is difficult or confusing without putting the other parent down or passing judgement. Be curious. Sit with your child emotions and give lots of validation. Highlight the similarities when possible.
Consistency comes in the way rules are applied, even if the rules themselves are different. – Laura
This is also true between consistency with siblings.
(20:00) Being thoughtful and purposeful when implementing new rules with children is so important.
Before introducing a new rule, parents need to be sure they can be consistent because implementing a new rule without consistent follow through can do more harm. You lose credibility with your child. You teach your kid that your word does not matter. And then they learn it’s ok to not keep their own word either. Sometimes you need to wait on implementing new things until you can emotional and logistically follow through with the new rule.
(22:00) Being able to take care of your own emotions is not selfish!
It is so important! Your child can learn the value of taking care of their own emotions. You taking care of your own emotions allows you to show up for your child in a positive way. This is also why we recommend individual therapy for parents. As therapists, we want parents to be involved in either their own individual therapy or parent coaching. Not necessarily because they are part of the teens problem, but they absolutely can be involved in the solution.
Parents need to be involved because the system impacts the developmental stage and cementing of mental health and values. As teens there needs to be the message that we (the family) are all in this together. If a teen feels they are seen as the problem, you will not have their buy-in and little will change. It is so important we aren’t placing blame on the teen even in the configuration of therapy.
(24:30) Push back from teenagers is more prevalent in divorce.
The teen might say “all of my problems are because of the divorce. So why am I here in therapy? They are the ones who need therapy.” Teens want family accountability for emotions.
There are lots of resources for families going through divorce. Likely, parents will be triggered during the divorce process. Parent coaching is so valuable even after a divorce to show that you are still a unit in parenting even if we are not married.
Parenting is one of the most important jobs out there and I don’t know if I would have known what I know about parenting if I did not work in the career that I am in. I feel lucky that I have the information and resources that I have. – Kate
We are a product of what we have seen and this can be helpful but can also not be helpful.
(28:20) Identifying values in parenting and co-parenting is important (and challenging).
It is so challenging to parent and essentially you have two different people with two different backgrounds coming together to parent and it is so valuable to get help in doing that. You have premarital counseling so why not have pre-parenting counseling to explore the values you have around parenting.
Pre-parenting Counseling. The importance of transitioning to a new system and negotiate with the other parent it is also to learn how to navigate what it looks like to be a single parent some of the time. You need to figure out yourself as you transition from a two parent to a one parent household.
Identifying values as a parent and how do you pick and choose what boundaries and where to give flexibility with your kids. Identifying values, you want to instill in your kids is important and should be underneath the choices you make as a parent.
(32:20) Research shows six areas that creates success in adulthood.*
- Internal locus of control
- Growth mindset (knowing that something that’s difficult may not always be difficult)
- Grit – ability to get through hard things (stay on the horse during difficulty)
- Resilience – ability to try again (getting back on the horse after difficulty)
If you build these in your child everything else will figure itself out. This is helpful to consider what is actually important and valuable compared to what you are wanting.
*Notice that good grades, president of debate team, nor captain of the soccer team make the list.
(33:30) The Good Enough Child, by Brad Sacks
When we become parents, we have a vision of what parenting will be like and we get stuck trying to make our child who we want rather than see and love them for who they are. We try to make our child into the idealized version of what we hoped for and it doesn’t match who they are. It is important to instill values…
You have to learn to love who your child is by figuring out who they are and allow them to be themselves. It’s like parenting with the bumpers up, your there to guide and support them.
Parenting with the six values in mind you’re on the right track. If you are parenting with school, sports, achievement in mind you might be off track a little bit.
(39:30) Giving kids space and grace is so important.
AND, in the time of COVID, structure and boundaries and routine are still important. Sometimes parents swing to the other side and loosen up the structure and boundaries because they feel bad for the child. You may think “this is a hard time” and feel guilty and become too permissive. The other side is not good either, being too strict and rigid. Rather it’s all about finding balance, again moving more towards the middle of too loose and too strict.
(40:30) Parenting in the “FOG”: fear, obligation, and guilt.
There is a parallel between going through a divorce and going through COVID. Neither is something the child asked for but rather it is imposed on them with an uncertain ending. As a parent this could cause you to move towards being too strict or too loose, wanting to change it for your child. This can also cause guilt within the parent. It goes back to parents being able to self-regulate their own emotions. In divorce. there is a similar response: reacting to the emotion of your ex-spouse or to the emotions connected to the divorce.
If you are not able to self-regulate your own emotions as a parent you can begin to operate in the “F.O.G.”, fear, obligation, and guilt. If the FOG is what is driving your decisions it is so important that you check your own emotions. Learn to self-regulate and don’t make parenting decisions when you are in the F.O.G.
A good question to ask yourself is “Would I be making this same parenting decision if you weren’t going through a divorce?” -Kate
(42:30) Fear is often at the core of the parenting decisions we make.
Among divorced families there is can be a fear of your child being or become what you do not like in your ex-spouse. There is also the fear of your child not being successful or well-adjusted because of the differences in parenting styles. Or the fear that your child will like your ex-spouse more than you. These are all common fears that can misguide parenting in and after a divorce.
You can be emotionally supportive of your child without agreeing or throwing your ex-spouse under the bus. Your kids don’t need you to be their therapist. You need to be able to preserve the child-parent relationship and realize just because they weren’t a good spouse doesn’t mean they aren’t a good parent. It is so important kids have the opportunity to have a healthy relationship with each parent.
(45:25) Of course it’s important to refrain from speaking negatively about the other parent. But how you respond when your child comes to you complaining about the other parent also matters.
The minute you speak badly about the other parent, your child will feel defensive of a parent they love. Instead of getting emotional support, your child is now stuck in the defensive roll. This unhelpful pattern may lead your child to stop coming to you as a safe place for their emotions. This is so important when you are responding to your child when they complain about the other parent.
This is true when the child comes back from visiting with the other parent. How do you respond? Are you questioning the visit out of curiosity or out of accusation/mistrust trying to get your child to ‘tattle” on a bad parenting moment. This also makes the child feel stuck in the middle, and also unsure of where it IS safe.
Co-parenting apart is about supporting the other parent by building each other up even when you are apart. And at the least not tearing each other down.
It’s also important how you approach the other parent about these complaints. Know when you should go to the other parent and when you do not need to. Navigate these situations ahead of time with your co-parent. Discuss how you’ll handle complaint, knowing this is likely to happen.
If your child comes to you with a complaint about the other parent (divorced or not) take it with a grain of salt. It is likely filtered through the child’s lens and probably driven by emotion. And the emotion is what you need to focus on. On the flip side when your child comes to you with a complaint about you, it is really important to take it at face value. It is so hard for children to risk hurting parent’s feeling and overcoming that is a big deal and must mean there is validity. It is so important for you to hear them and be willing to make change. – Laura