Parents Equally Allied to Co-Parent Effectively: A specialized program for parents in high conflict separations and divorces

By Jeff Zimmerman, Ph.D.


Introduction

Parents make a commitment to jointly raise and care for children. This decision means offering children love and support, guidance and needed wisdom, discipline and rewards, and overall, an opportunity to thrive and be nurtured.

Unfortunately, separation and divorce are processes that lead to incredible stress, conflict and hostility. Parenting, often thought to be one of the most complex demands of adulthood, is further complicated by divorce. The conflict of divorce distracts parents. They easily become embroiled in the anger and resentment and spend tremendous energy fighting over both trivial and important matters.

Children are the innocent victims of separation and divorce. Parental conflict is known to be a major risk factor for poor childhood adjustment. Yet, as much as parents say they want what is best for their children, they have difficulty working together for the sake of their children.

This article shares with you the way our PEACE program helps give individual sets of parents the skills to work together, increase their focus on their children and decrease conflict. Our mission is to help Parents become Equally Allied to Co-Parent Effectively. This program differs from the parent education program with the same acronym which provides excellent group classes for divorcing parents.

Program Rationale

The PEACE Program’s primary focus is to teach high-conflict divorced parents the skills they need to reduce conflict and increase successful communication and problem-solving. In this way they can more effectively address the needs of their children. This program is based on the assumption that the parents (not the professionals and the system) are ultimately responsible for and in a position to make the decisions for their children. Some parents need our help to learn the necessary skills in this regard. Additionally, while the system often focuses on the positive and negative differences of the logistical arrangements of the parenting plan, we believe that the interaction patterns between parents are often significantly more damaging to children than the specifics of the parenting plan. Even the best parenting plans are difficult to implement when parental communications are fraught with conflict.

Program Features And Benefits

- Parents Work Together: From the outset of the program we see parents jointly to begin to establish their position as co-parents (rather than replicate their experience as separate adversaries). The program focuses on consistently giving parents the message that it is their joint responsibility to work together in the best interests of the children. We do not meet individually with parents as we find that such meetings only serve to further enhance the parents’ tendencies to work against one another and voice their own individual sense of being in the right or being victimized by the other.
Parent Counseling Is Focused and Practical: After a brief orientation, we immediately begin dealing with the practical issues that interfere with effective co-parenting. We evaluate the parents’ current level of communication and set initial goals for improvement in their level of cooperation and decision making. We specifically focus on helping parents behave in appropriate and healthy ways with one another and the children. We do not focus on helping them resolve their negative feelings toward one another or changing well-engrained personality patterns and traits. That should be left to their individual therapists. We see our job as getting down to the business of helping parents do what is best, regardless of how they feel about one another or their own emotional, psychological or personality issues. Without using complex jargon we teach them effective listening, conflict resolution and cooperative communication skills. With improved communication patterns we frequently see that trust and respect is improved as well. Parents also learn about the effects of divorce, parental conflict and parent alienation on children while being sensitive to children's developmental needs.
The Length Of The Program Is Tailored To Each Set of Parents: Parents are seen for as many visits as they need and as often or as infrequently as is appropriate for their given situation. They are not required to commit to a minimum number of visits. The goal is to individualize the program. Most parents complete the program in 6-8 visits.

- Children And Parents Do Not Have To Undergo Additional Assessments: We, by design, do not meet with the children. Children of high-conflict divorces have in many cases been interviewed by Family Services, Attorneys for the Minor Children, Therapists, Guardians ad litem, and Custody Evaluators. All of these individuals take the position that they need to determine what is in the best interests of the children. Yet, ultimately the parents are left in the position of interacting and making parenting decisions for years after these assorted consultations are completed. We believe that if we have, in all likelihood, limited opportunity to intervene, we need to focus that intervention on the parents. Parents often know what the needs of their children are, yet find that the conflict and dynamics between them interferes with their children getting the best they as parents have to offer. The PEACE program focuses on helping parents parent, not putting children through more interviews to tell the parents what we as professionals think is "best". If children are described by their parents as having difficulty coping with the divorce, we refer them to another professional for evaluation and treatment. Parents also do not have to participate in further psychological testing and individual evaluations that they often fear may be used as evidence in future litigation. Of course, psychotherapy referrals are also made for parents when deemed necessary.

- Parents Often View The Program As A Continuing Resource: They use the PEACE program as a tool to help them when needed. Thus, even after their initial work with us is completed, we are at times contacted by parents to meet with them again for a few visits to help them deal with a new issue or need of their child. This feature allows us to intervene early and avoid the recurrence of intense conflict.

- Customized Goal Setting: Parents (and hence their children) receive many benefits from the program. For example, some parents particularly benefit from just establishing or modifying the parenting plan. Parents benefit from learning how to avoid unnecessary conflict, parent alienation, and putting their children in loyalty conflicts. Some learn to establish patterns of communication to allow them to communicate basic information in a succinct and timely fashion, while others learn how to truly co-parent in a collaborative fashion focusing on the needs of their children, not their issues as ex-spouses. We believe that it is important for a program such as this to have goals that are reasonable for the parents, given who they are (not who we would like them to be). The success of this program is unique to each set of parents and ranges from merely decreasing litigation to establishing a highly integrated pattern of cooperative co-parenting.

- On-Going Communication With All Parties: Throughout the program we communicate with individual attorneys, attorneys for the minor children and Guardians ad litem as needed to help parents work independently again in a co-parenting relationship. Parents also receive a summary letter following each session outlining all discussion and decisions reached, as well as their own communication difficulties and suggestions for improvement and success.

- The Program Is Flexible: We mold the PEACE program to meet the needs of each set of parents. Some parents need frequent visits while others benefit from less frequent visits. The open-ended nature of the program avoids the issue of needing parents to commit to a specified number of visits and a significant pre-established cost.


Dr. Jeff Zimmerman is a psychologist who specializes in helping families of divorce and training divorce professionals. He is President of Beacon Behavioral Services, LLC and Co-Founder of the P.E.A.C.E. Program (Parents Equally Allied to Co-parent Effectively) in Connecticut. See website.

 

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