I read with interest Allison Plitt’s review of Susan Golombok’s book, “Modern Families: Parents and Children in New Family Forms,” in the June issue. One of the salient points that resonated with me is: “Much of the research on the psychological problems in children of divorce indicates that these children suffered not as a repercussion of an absent parent, but due to conflict and hostility in the home before the parents separated.” This family shift can be traumatic, and it is incumbent upon parents to help their children transition with the least emotional harm.
Parents who are contemplating divorce or separation can benefit greatly from education about hurdles coming their way. Parents need answers to questions like, “What will the legal process entail? How might my children react? How can the family survive this transition which touches every aspect of their lives?” Parents are entitled to learn how to co-parent in a way that is emotionally and physically safe for them and in their child’s best interest. Many people plan a whole year for a wedding, so why wouldn’t we put as much thought into how we would handle a separation or divorce?
Even though divorce and separation affect a large portion of our society, supportive services are not readily available for the family. Most people on the divorce journey may consult an attorney or possibly a therapist.
The divorce attorney is usually focused on the financial well-being of the client and the amount of parenting time that the client will have with the children. The therapist may work only with the information provided by the parents and speculation regarding how the parents believe the children feel.
Parents could greatly benefit and deserve additional support and education along the way to make sure that their family is on the road to a healthy transition. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, but there are different approaches to co-parenting from which most parents can benefit.
To start with, parents should know about the New York State Parent Education and Awareness Program (www.nycourts.gov/ip/parent-ed). The primary goal of this program is to teach parents different ways they can reduce the stress of family changes and protect their children from the negative effects of ongoing parental conflict in order to foster and promote their children’s healthy adjustment and development.
A certified class is available in most counties in New York State. People can self refer to classes, or a judge may order them to take one. At FamilyKind, our classes are taught by a lawyer and a mental health professional, however, no legal advice or therapy is provided. Strategies and coping skills are taught to help the family take healthy steps toward the new family configuration.
Couples can also benefit from divorce mediation. This service allows people to reduce the financial and emotional cost of divorce and expedite the process. The mediator is a trained, neutral professional who allows each party to express their feelings and helps participants to be heard in a safe space. Through mediation, clients are guided to identify their interests rather than sticking to a position. This process can result in minimizing anger and maximizing cooperation among the parties. Parents often do not mediate with their attorney present, but may do so if desired.
Improving communication skills should be an important goal of separating parents, because after all, once a couple has a child, they are linked together for the child’s entire life. The actual separation or divorce is only one step in the continuum of being parents.
Services like GoodTalk4Parents program is customized for couples who need help establishing skills for productive and effective co-parenting communication that is free from conflict. The program emphasizes healthy communication so that parents can better share and manage the exchange of important information about their children on topics such as education, extra-curricular activities, medical appointments, discipline, and behavior. These communication skills can come in handy, especially when a child may have special medical or emotional needs and each parent wants to make sure that the child’s needs are being met in each household.
Parenting coordination is another pivotal service that helps couples in high-conflict cases learn to co-parent. The experienced parenting coordinator aids in resolving a wide range of issues from discussing parenting time to addressing life-changing decisions such as relocation. Coordinators can even be charged by the court with making decisions for the parents when the couple reaches an impasse. Coordinators may work with the couple together or each parent separately depending on the circumstances of each case.
Informational workshops are available on a wide range of topics such as separation and divorce in the LGBTQ community and services for individuals of all ages affected by their parents’ divorce or separation. We offer classes for children, too — because they need to be supported and educated during the process and assured that their family will make it through this process whole.
With the reconfiguration of families, blended families are very common, and workshops provide support for these newly established families. Being a stepparent is wonderful, but not without its challenges. Even in the best of situations, there are adjustments that need to be made — physically, financially, and emotionally. The divorce rate for blended families is even higher than the divorce rate for first-time marriages. However, with the right strategies and tools, this new family structure can work well.
A Separation and Divorce Meetup group can offer informal group meetings in which members share their experience and concerns about the divorce and separation process. The discussions can be facilitated by professionals who cover a wide range of topics — including approaching the divorce topic with children, successful parenting during divorce, and life after separation or divorce. The internet often contains resources in the form of articles, podcasts, blogs written by professionals, client testimonials, and most importantly, a Children’s Bill of Rights, a reminder to help parents focus on what is most important: the wellbeing of their children.
Research shows that all things being equal, a child needs the involvement of both parents. Strong communication between parents helps them maintain a durable structure for children allowing both parents to provide the consistency and discipline needed for children to thrive in their newly established environment.
I appreciate the fact that New York Parenting is giving voice to “Modern Families.” Families come in all shapes, sizes, and configurations. The best predictor of happiness is not whether families live under one roof, but rather how they handle the separation, always considering the children’s interest.
Lesley Friedland is FamilyKind’s Executive Director with more than 25 years of experience working in the city’s Family Court as a Court Attorney and Referee, hearing matters of visitation, custody, neglect, and abuse. In 2012 she founded FamilyKind and with the support of lawyers, mediators, mental health professionals, and the court system, it provides low-cost, high-quality services for divorcing and separating couples and changes the divorce culture by making education and supportive services more widely available.