Untying the Knots | Episode 5 | Co-Parenting

Dawn Smith and Kristen Files, partners at Atlanta-based family law firm Smith & Files, host “Untying the Knots.” Season 1 offers practical advice and resources to families navigating crisis and covers such themes as co-parenting, intimate partner violence, myths about marriage and divorce, support systems, and financial safety after divorce. The 10-episode series launched July 1 with new episodes weekly through September 2 and includes special guests Chief Judge Christopher Brasher, Chief Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Stolarski, and Historian and Marriage Expert Stephanie Coontz.

Below is a transcript of Episode 5: Co-Parenting.

“Untying the Knots” is available on all streaming platforms, including Spotify and Apple Podcasts. To learn more, visit www.smithfileslaw.com/podcast.

DS: Dawn Smith | KF: Kristen Files | DK: Dr. Kristin Carothers.

DS

I’m Dawn Smith.

KF

And I’m Kristin Files.

DS

This is Untying the Knots, a podcast about family crisis…

KF

And what it takes to survive the tangles and strengthen the ties.

DS

Welcome to Untying the Knots. We’re excited today to be talking about co-parenting. It’s something that Kristin and I live on a daily basis in our professional life. And we have certainly lived at 24/7 as parents of children who have a parent in another home. And we’re really excited to have an expert. Kristen, we have another Kristen coming.

KF

I know, I’m so excited. I don’t get to meet very many Kristens. So I’m excited about that. And I feel like I know a lot but I’m sure I have something to learn. And I hope everyone else can learn something today too.

DS

So Kristin, I just want to observe and tell me if I’m wrong about you. But I think that you and I both come from backgrounds where as children, we did not witness very healthy co-parenting.

KF

The example that I had of what co-parenting should look like, I know that I grew up and was like, “I’m doing it the opposite.” If my parents did talk, it was through accusations. And through “you should have done this,” or “I’m not doing that,” or, you know, it was not collaborative. And I don’t think I’ve seen my parents be in the same place with each other or even have a conversation with each other probably since I was in high school.

DS

Yeah, and I can remember going places like if there was a school event. And both of my parents were there and being completely torn up inside about where I would sit because they would never sit near each other. They would never look at each other.

KF

Yeah.

DS

And I always felt like I was the secretary of state, moving between my dad’s huddle over here saying hello, and going to my mom’s huddle. And I was so aware of how much time I spent in each and felt like it needed to be equal.

KF

Yeah.

DS

And that’s not because anybody ever said anything to me.

KF

Yeah, that’s just the pressure that you feel as a child. And so it’s interesting because the way that you felt, I would say, is a product of, you know, poor co-parenting, and then for me at the school events and things like that. My mom was there, but my dad never came any of that stuff, which is also poor co-parenting and the way I felt was like, “Damn, why doesn’t my dad ever come?” You know, or why does it? Why isn’t he ever here?

DS

Right!

KF

And what I know now looking back at that stuff, that there was a total breakdown in communication between them, there was so much anger and hurt feelings and all the things that happen in relationships that they didn’t know how to deal with within themselves, like their individual stuff. And then so if you haven’t dealt with your individual stuff, of course you can’t properly interface with the other parent to co-parent, and then it just trickles down to your child in that situation.

DS

Right. And I think that, you know, you know, we’re using good and bad and poor and good but I think they were good people doing the best they could.

KF

Right.

DS

And they could have done better, right. So what I know then is when I found myself in exactly the situation I swore I would never be, you know, in the midst of a divorce, that is not what I wanted to do. But it took me fighting my instincts at every step and listeners, I have my fist up about how hard I had to fight it. Because did I want to interrogate my children when they came back to find out every single thing that occurred at his house? Yes.

KF

Of course.

DS

Did you struggle?

KF

Girl, struggle? Yes. Like that’s such an understatement. I mean, I think God I can see myself having gone to all the extremes, you know, because it was so important to me to have what I consider to be positive co-parenting relationship that any feelings or negativity that I felt I was just like, “I’m gonna put them over here. My child will never see them. I will be positive, we will be happy. This will be fine. If that means that my needs are never met emotionally, that’s fine. I’m gonna just be the team player here.” 

DS

Exactly.

KF

You know, lots of counseling and self-reflection later. I know I’m learning to take care of myself better. But you can, you know, go to all different extremes. I mean, I know that, for example, like, my mom signed me up for piano lessons, and it would be my weekend to go with my dad. My dad would say, “I’m not taking you to those piano lessons, your mom signed you up for ’em. It’s my weekend, and we are going to do what I want to do on my weekend.” And I remember asking him, “Well, what do you want to do?” And he was like, “Well, maybe I just want to sit around and watch TV, but like, that’s what I want to do. It’s my weekend, and your mom always plans all this stuff to just take up time on my weekend.” That now I can see looking back was just total breakdown in communication between them. He was mad at her for feeling like she was infringing on his time. And I remember as I got ready to try to be a quote unquote, good co parent. That kind of stuff was so important to me, and maybe to the point that I went to the extreme where I was like, “We need to be on this shared calendar. You need to check it. You need to do this. Do you know what days our lessons are?” You know, and there is more than one way to like have a good co-parenting relationship. I am the type of person who I check emails nonstop. I’m a to do list person, I have to have lists, I love like the structure of that. And my kid’s dad isn’t like that. I mean, he’s not the type of person who is glued to his email on his phone or like look at shared apps and calendars. And we’ve had to figure out other ways that work for us both. It’s like, I don’t just get to call those shots. I don’t get to just go sign her up for something and say you get on board and do it.

DS

Exactly. 

KF

And that’s hard. Actually, like as a parent, it’s hard to let go of some of that control.

DS

Breaking up and divorce and co-parenting is about grownups not getting everything they want, and realizing that kids can be raised lots of different ways that are all good. I do think, I am glad that the period of grief and anger where I had to really restrain myself and my worst instincts passed due to the things we’ve talked about that I did to work on myself and support myself, so that even when we disagreed, and we did not have many, but we might disagree about discipline, or schoolwork.

KF

Mm hmm.

DS

We agreed that we were going to present a united front. Now we would have a talk, and we would talk about, I don’t agree you’re doing it this way. And he would not agree with me. But we would say “Okay, when we sit down with him, what are we going to say?” And we were united front and one of the reasons is, I worked both of my parents. I was flat out wild. I was sly. I broke every rule, because they weren’t talking to each other.

KF

I just can’t even see you doing that, Dawn.

DS

Are you serious?

KF

I’m serious, yeah.

DS

Kristen, I was crazy wild. And I worked them both. I worked curfews, I worked boyfriends, I worked, whether drinking, everything because they didn’t talk to each other.

KF

And it’s so easy for kids to get away with stuff when your parents are not on the same page. And especially when one parent is or both parents are really angry at each other.

DS

So some other good things that I have seen that are helpful to kids are, you know, putting a picture of the other parent in the room of the kid at your house like…

KF

Yeah.

DS

Instead of just erasing the other parent who is so important to that child.

KF

I think that’s really important. I think it’s really important that parents try to be as consistent as possible between their two homes. So if the bedtime is 9:30 at your house, having it be 9:30 at the other parent’s house. If you know
homework has to be finished before they go play video games in one place, try to have that consistent as much as possible. I mean, you’re going to live separate lives and do things differently in different houses. But consistency
is good.

DS

It’s very good. And so what the conversation that may occur that we see happen a lot is Kristin wants bedtime to be at 9:30. And Kristen’s ex wants it to be at 10. And the place you can land is 9:45. You’re not going to get everything that you want, right. But that it’s a conversation where everybody’s got to understand they don’t control.

KF

That’s a perfect way to put it. It is a, it’s a series of negotiations. And it could be for tangible things as well. For example, if one parent is like I want to go buy this child a really expensive car for their 16th birthday, a BMW, and the other parent is like, “No, that’s totally crazy. They need to get this used Honda.” a better outcome is going to happen if parents can meet somewhere in the middle. Because what you don’t want is one parent buying the kids affection, undermining the rules that the other parent has set. You want to try to be on the same page.

DS

I have also noticed what’s helpful to kids having healthier outcomes post breakup is that you don’t quit talking about the other parent. Right? So many households once there’s a breakup or divorce, you know, “I never again mention the other
most important person in my children’s lives,” right? So I have found over the years what my children loved is when I would say, you know, “Your dad used to be a really great pickup basketball player. Did you know that?”

KF

Yeah.

DS

You know, the memories that I have, the information that I have about him that I can share with them. And I became more and more able to share that stuff.

KF

Right.

DS

As time went by.

KF

And that gives
your kids permission to love their other parent in front of you, and out loud in front of you. And I think that’s so freeing. I know personally, from my personal life as a child and as a parent. That’s freeing when you give your kid that permission.

DS

So I want to say that what we know is the most important factor in looking at children post breakup is the ability of each parent to foster a loving relationship between the child and the other parent. And sometimes that may mean swallowing down hurt and pride and anger. But when Johnny doesn’t want go, right, early in the breakup. “I don’t want to leave you mommy. I don’t want to go to daddy’s,” that the fostering comes in. “You’re gonna have fun.”

DS

“Yeah, it’s gonna be fine.”

DS

“Your dad loves to run around and play kickball. It’s gonna be great.” Right and, and sometimes it is fake it till you make it. Right?

KF

Yeah.

DS

But to really encourage that rather than discouraging having a good relationship with the other parent, it is the number one indicator guys of child health. And it’s incumbent on us as the grown-ups in the equation to accomplish that. You know, Kristen, these concepts of healthy co-parenting that we’re talking about, in my experience can be accomplished in 80 to 85% of the situations, right, that you may not feel right now you can get there. But I think take it from us that we have seen people get there and sooner than they think.

KR

Right.

DS

There is a small subset of situations, a small subset, not as many as everybody thinks, where, because of the nature of the other parent.

KF

Right.

DS

Whether it be mental illness, some personality disorder or something of the like, where effective co-parenting can’t happen.

KF

Right.

DS

And what we have seen in those situations is something called parallel parenting, where each household just parents their own way and goes forward with minimal discussion and minimal sharing of information. It is not the gold standard. It is not the healthiest, but there are some situations with exceptional circumstances where that has to occur.

KF

COVID has made people’s brains a mush. This is a crazy time, I think it’s a crazy time for kids, for parents. And I can speak from my personal life of co-parenting and what I see with my clients right now that I think one biggest thing that people can do is to just be flexible. Be kind, be gracious, allow grace, you know, like, we have these parenting plans. And there are many times that people can just get so whittled down to the detail of like, this is what it says, and this is my time, and this is my day. And if you’re not following it, that’s a problem. But in this novel situation that were in there are reasons that it just doesn’t work to follow the black and white that’s on the paper. And to the extent that you can be a little bit more creative with the parenting plan, the better. And that might mean reaching out proactively to the other parent and saying, “Hey, I’m kind of concerned about Susie coming over this weekend, for whatever reason,” or you know, “She’s not really feeling too good. I think maybe she should stay in our house this weekend to just quarantine for 14 days to make sure that nothing is going to be transmitted to the people in your household.” Like all of those things. It’s allowing those conversations to happen.

DS

So while Kristen and I pretend to be experts, both psychological and otherwise. In all of these areas of co-parenting, we really are speaking to you from our personal and professional points of view. We decided to reach out to an expert in this area. And we are so excited to have with us Dr. Kristin Carothers today, who’s a clinical psychologist in therapists with extensive experience in consulting with separated and divorced parents and working with children after separation and divorce.

DS

Dr. Carruthers, can I call you Kristin?

DK

Yes, please call me Kristin.

KF

Thank you so much for joining us today. We’re so excited to have you on the show, to get your expert opinion on this very important issue of co-parenting. Can you please introduce yourself to our listeners?

DK

Sure. Thank you all for having me. My name is Dr. Kristei Carothers. I am a licensed clinical psychologist who practices in New York and Georgia. I’m based in Atlanta at a practice called Peachtree Integrative Psychology, where we work with children, adolescents and adults. My practice is primarily focused on providing individual therapy, family therapy and doing some co-parenting work with families going through high conflict divorces, and also on helping people using cognitive behavioral therapy techniques.

DS

So Dr. Kristin, I have heard that divorce is traumatic just by its very nature, on children. Is that true? Am I accurate in saying that, and if that’s true, what does it mean, when we have these incidents of trauma in a child’s life?

DK

Well, you are definitely accurate in saying that divorce is a stressor that is often associated with trauma. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network actually lists divorce as a traumatic stressor that’s faced by children across the world. I think one of the reasons that divorces can be so traumatic for children and adolescents is that their entire world is shaking up. And they have little or no control over the actual events that occur. And so that’s the basic definition of trauma. And so if we think about what happens as adults, when we go through a breakup or divorce, if we wanted a divorce, if we didn’t want a divorce, there are still some aspects of trauma that we experience. When we think about our kids, the results can be twofold for them.

DS

So then it seems to me that our goal as parents of children, who the parents are experiencing a breakup or a divorce is to recognizing that the very nature of divorce is traumatic is to minimize the trauma in how we interact going forward. So as not too exacerbate, am I right?

DS

That is exactly right. And so I think it is helpful for parents to think of this. It’s not necessarily it doesn’t have to be a chronic traumatic stressor, it can be a periodic trauma that a kid can recover from. But kids have the best outcome
in terms of recovery when they know that the people around them who provide them with support can be consistent and can manage their own emotional reactions so that the child is not been placed in a position of having to care.

KF

Right.

DK

For a parent. And so if parents think about divorce as not just, “This is something that is happening to me, but this is an experience that could be traumatic to my child,” they might approach co-parenting differently. One of the other things that I’ve noticed is that your own trauma history impacts how you deal with others who experience trauma. So for parents in particular, if they are parents of divorce, they may compare their experience as children to the experience that their children are having through their divorce. And what I’d like parents to be aware of is your experience of a trauma is not necessarily the same as your child’s experience of a trauma. And if we get into thinking that we may invalidate our kids experience without meaning to, or we may over identify or overgeneralize what’s happened to our children
based on our experience without meaning to and that can also have negative effects. So we just really want to be aware.

DS

What do you think is the best way for a parent not to do that? To work on keeping their experience or maybe childhood experience separate from what their child is going through now?

DK

You know, it’s really hard because I think the first thing is to acknowledge that if you had that childhood experience, that it was a trauma. So sometimes people invalidate themselves because the environment has been invalidated. And an invalidating environment would say, “Well, everybody’s parents get divorced, lots of people get divorced, you just deal with it, you know, at least you had a mom who did this, or at least your dad came to see you, or at least you were in the same state. Okay?” I think the first thing that is really important for adults to do is to acknowledge their own trauma history, and to figure out what their own experience was and how they felt about it. And after they have their own awareness of their experience, and they are able to acknowledge their feelings, rather than putting their feelings on to their children, they could sit back and say, “Tell me about your experience of this.”

DS

So our listeners know from having listened to previous podcasts that Kristen and I both come from a history of divorce, so both of our parents divorced and it was messy in different ways in both of our lives and then we had these disentanglement and breakups from the fathers of our children and I so identify with projecting onto my kids, what my fears were based on little Dawn, who lived through that.

KF

Right?

DS

Some I’m not going to tell you how many years ago, and it’s very hard, which is why we’ve just been really encouraging support for the grownups and certainly the children as well. But the grownups having a place of support, where they can talk about there’s fears of projection, so they don’t project it on the kids.

DK

Right. And I think it’s really important for practitioners, people who work with parents and work with families, to acknowledge the fact that this is hard, that we all bring something to the table. You know, everybody brings something to the table, I bring something to the table from my own personal experience. And so I’ve got to be aware of that when I’m working with families to not try to put my own stuff.

KF

Right.

DK

Onto the situation and so it’s what we would call like a parallel process. As practitioners or attorneys, we don’t want to necessarily take our stuff and put it on families we’re working with. As parents, we don’t want to take our stuff and put it on our kids. And so the more I think that we’re open and aware, and we’re talking about these things, the easier it can become, because there’s not like a magic wand that’s like, “This is how I’ll make sure that I don’t mess my kid up.” Like there’s this mantra in dialectical behavior therapy, this says, “Everyone is doing their best, and they can do better.” It’s both things are true. 

KF

I like that.

DS

So it seems to me when we talk about co-parenting, that the first opportunity parents may have to do this co-parenting is in the telling of their children about the breakup or divorce. And I have seen it done. well. I regret to say I’ve seen it more often done really poorly. What do you think is important in that first step of co-parenting in telling the children that their parents are breaking up.

DK

I’ve worked with families where the goal of my work was just to help the parents let the kids know officially what was happening.

KF

Mm hmm.

DK

And it can be really tough because most times when you’re divorcing, there’s because there’s a disagreement, or there’s some decision that we can’t move forward together. And we’re two different people and our opinions about how to give that information to kids can also differ. As I think one of the things that’s really important is to understand what is the purpose of giving your kids this information. Is the purpose to let them know that there’s going to be a change? Is the purpose to let them know that you believe somebody is breaking the family up? Is the purpose to have somebody else take what you think should be responsibility for their actions? And when you are really honest about the purpose of your disclosure, you’re going to see how you would choose to I guess, make those statements to your kids. I think initially, the purpose should be to let kids know that there’s going to be a change, and that the change will be hard. And you will be okay.

DS

So let me just throw a couple things out there. It’s okay for me to say, “Your daddy’s decided to leave the family,” or “Your mom is having a boyfriend and doesn’t want to be with us anymore?” I tell you, I’ve heard it.

DK

That’s what’s, okay. So that I think is what it said most often. What I think that is probably the common way that these conversations start. I recommend that parents have the conversation together, if there are no safety issues, but before you can have that conversation with your kid, the two of you all have got to agree that there is only a certain amount of information that’s shared and that’s developmentally appropriate information. When breakups happen, kids may already have an egocentric perspective of why they’re happening. And egocentrism is just thinking that you are the cause or that what is happening is revolving all around you. And so they may think that there’s something that they did.

KF

Right.

DK

Or there is some information they had, that they didn’t share or something that they missed. And so parents first need to be aware of that. But as parents, we can also be really egocentric and say, “Well, I want to let my kids know that you did this to them, and it wasn’t me.” And that is a hard pill to swallow.

DS

And finally, is it important when you’re telling the children so you’ve, you’ve presented it in a developmentally appropriate fashion, you’ve said “mommy and daddy have decided not to be married anymore, but we’re still your parents and love you. This is not your fault.” But then kids want information. Like, “what does that mean?”

DK

And kids often want the details? And they often know which parent will give them the details? Depending on the age of your kid, I think it can be tricky.

KF

Right.

DK

It is important to try to figure out what are the details you’re willing to share. But if this is a contentious divorce, where you’re angry, you’re probably not going to agree, let’s be real. You’re not going to agree about what to share.
But can you agree that you want your kids to be able to be fully functioning, to still be able to come to you to talk, either of you, to still be able to keep up with school and friends? And if you can agree that the point is that you want them to function fully, and you want your kids to be okay, then we can kind of limit that information.

KF

In your opinion, what is co-parenting? Why do people need to do it? Why is it beneficial? Talk to us a little bit about that.

DS

Okay, co-parenting is the ability to raise a child with another person. That’s the I think at the most basic definition. Co-parenting is two separate people working together to provide for one child emotionally, physically, financially, to be supportive of that child. Healthy co-parenting relationships that I’ve seen are those in which people are able to truly put the needs of their kids first, and provide consistency and structure between two different households, and that shared responsibility comes with the purpose of giving the kid consistency, letting the kid know that they can count on both parents. If there are disagreements, disagreements are settled in a way that is appropriate. So it’s okay to have a disagreement, but the disagreement doesn’t take yelling, screaming, stonewalling.

DS

So I opened an email this morning, Dr. Kristin, I’m a guardian in a case and I opened it up right before you got on here. And it said, one parent to the other. “Johnny missed his science assignment last Friday, and you had him, and every time he’s at your house, he sleeps late, and he’s not able to get online to school. And he doesn’t turn in his assignments. Please make sure he gets up.” Right? As opposed to, “Hey, saw this email from the science teacher. I know things are really weird with online grading right now. Can we huddle about what we need to do to get him caught up?” Instead of sort of, instead of going right at the other parent.

DK

Accusations and let me show everybody how irresponsible you are because this is my documentation that you are irresponsible. So if the goal is to just make the other parent aware, you can make them aware by saying, “Hey, we need to chat about the school assignments because I noticed he missed this assignment for Science. Let me know good time to talk.” That’s collaborative. So think about it like when you’re at work, and maybe you have to work with somebody you don’t like, but you know, your supervisor is watching and it could impact your raise if you’re outwardly hostile. How do you send an email to a person that you need to communicate something to, even though you are angry and upset about what’s happened? Here’s the other thing. These things somehow find their way into children’s hands as they age. As a proof, there’s documentation, look at all the things that she did. Look at all the things he did. What is the function of your behavior? Is your goal to make your child angry with the other parent? And why is that important to you?

KF

And how do you see that impacting kids when they do find that type of information? It’s harmful, right?

DK

I work with young adults who been through custody battles their entire lives. And now they’re adults. And you know, there’s this pressure: Does this mean that I have to be on one parent’s side? Can I just love both my parents, maybe I should be mad at this parent, maybe I do need to stick up for this other parent, this parent lied to me, or who’s lying to me, maybe they’re both lying. It makes it really hard as an individual or developing adult to kind of trust the world around you because you don’t even think you can trust your parents.

DS

Exactly. So can you tell the listeners what loyalty conflict is? Is that part of what happens with children when their parents are in constant conflict?

DK

It is and I’m going to tell parents that loyalty conflicts may become internalized. Because remember, your kid is half you and half the other parent. So if they think they have to identify with one parent over the other, does that mean that then that part of themselves that they identify as being as much like the other parent they have to hate? They have to push down? They can’t trust? When I had my child, I had to remember. And this is after his other grandmother said, “You all have to share. He’s ours too.” And I was like, “Whoa, this is not just, what?! This is not just my baby? I have to share. This isn’t, he’s not just mine.”

DS

So Dr. Kristin, we’re recording this during the COVID-19 pandemic, which means to all you listeners, we’re looking at each other on Zoom. So I guess I want to get a little input because we don’t know how long this will go on. And we certainly don’t know, maybe we’ll face something like this again, sometime in the future. Do you have any guidance for divorced or separated families who are sharing custody during the COVID-19 pandemic?

DK

I think that’s an excellent question is come up in my clinical practice. It’s come up in personal life. I think one of the things to remember is hierarchy of needs right now. Right now we’re at a time when there’s a virus that is spread rapidly across the world. And we’re not really that clear on how the virus works. We know that kids may not necessarily present with symptoms, but there have been some off cases where kids have been negatively impacted. I do tend to be more of an anxious person, my friends will say I go to DEF CON nine when things like this happen. I am aware of that. And for me, I think is most important that we put kids health and safety first.

DS

And I think we’re going to have to be creative. I think that there are situations where because of safety concerns, what we’re encouraging co-parents to do is to be creative. With virtual touch points, with cards and letters. I know it’s not the same, but ultimately can be in the best interest of the children, to be creative to acknowledge that there may be makeup time at the end of all of this, and to be understanding.

DK

The last thing we want to do right now is be rigid and inflexible, because it’s not going to get us positive results.

KF

Right.

DS

So Dr. Kristin, we have really just hit the surface of co-parenting and presented some general concepts for our listeners. Thank you for your expertise and the generosity of your time and spirit.

DK

Thank you all so much. I really enjoyed this and I love speaking with parents and so thank you for the opportunity.

DS

You know, I am so glad to have discovered her as a resource because I think she understands a family from every angle and really goes deep with knowing what kids need.

KF

So important. Hope that our listeners got as much from it today as we did, and I look forward to having her again and talking to our next guest.

DS

If you would like to know more about Dr. Kristin Carothers in her work, you can visit her website at Dr. KJ Carothers, that’s drkjcarothers.com. The Child Mind Institute is an independent national nonprofit dedicated to the mental health and well-being of children. You can visit their website at childmind.org. For therapy resources, visit ABCT.org, the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies.

KF

If you would like to know more about the topic we discussed today, you can find show notes and resources on our website which will be linked in the episode description.

DS

Untying the Knots is a production made in partnership with FRQCNY media. I’m your host Dawn Smith.

KF

And I am Kristin Files. Enna Garkusha is our producer. 

DS

Episode research is by Jessica Olivier, Becca Godwin and Vincent Mitchell.

KF

We are recording in Atlanta, Georgia during the pandemic.