From the Parent Coach's Desk

INFANT CARE PARENTING CLASS

Parenting is a challenging task for any parent. It's especially true when a parent has a newborn and little or no experience with parenting.

When you add the stress and uncertainty of a custody/visitation dispute and family court involvement, the challenges for Mom, Dad, and the baby become overwhelming very quickly.

This class is designed to assist parents to address all the special concerns of the new parent with a very young infant to care for, and help them develop the strategies and skills necessary to get on track with infant parenting.

While this class can be a benefit to any new parent, our primary interest is in new parents who are integrating a new baby and a family breakup and/or custody/visitation issue.

What do infants need?

1 Both parents in their lives.

2 Opportunity to learn about themselves by exploring the world in collaboration with parents.

3 Parents who honor his or her contribution to the beauty of this new life.

4 Parents who embrace the responsibility to honor his or her choice to create that life.

5 A secure attachment to each parent, which is the single greatest protection a child can receive.

SESSION TOPICS
1 Health & Safety Basics of Infant Care

2 Developmental Stages & Tasks for Your Baby

3 Stress Management Tool Box for Parents - The Power of Parental Warmth

4 Answer to the question: “Is It Normal for My Baby To ...”

5 Understand Healthy Boundaries and Learn Techniques to Establish Positive Parenting Routines for You & Your Baby

6 Develop the Skills to Coparent Your Infant

Facilitated coparenting meetings are the final step in the infant class. Sometimes the other parent refuses or is reluctant to participate, and we will work to achieve at least one meeting just to get the daily care schedules coordinated between the two homes.

Our goal is to help the parents come together with a focus on the child, not each other.

If you or a friend is in a situation like this, reach out today to learn more about the class and the facilitated coparenting meetings.

To get the conversation started, complete the online information form at www.TransitionsFamilyProgram.org.

Email: TransitionsSD@gmail.com

From the Program Director's Desk

ALLERGIES AND COPARENTING

Many parents sharing custody of a child argue about allergies. What is serious? What is mild? How do we decide to test?

Here are listings of MILD and SEVERE symptoms. A good start for a Mom and Dad who view the symptoms differently is to start a checklist and do it consistently. If both parents commit to recording symptoms in the MILD and SEVERE categories, you will be able to let the child's physician see the picture much more clearly.

MILD symptoms may include one or more of the following:

1 Hives (reddish, swollen, itchy areas on the skin)
2 Eczema (a persistent dry, itchy rash)
3 Redness of the skin or around the eyes
4 Itchy mouth or ear canal
5 Nausea or vomiting
6 Diarrhea
7 Stomach pain
8 Nasal congestion or a runny nose
9 Sneezing
10 Slight, dry cough
11 Odd taste in mouth
12 Uterine contractions

SEVERE symptoms may include one or more of the following:

1 Obstructive swelling of the lips, tongue, and/or throat
2 Trouble swallowing
3 Shortness of breath or wheezing
4 Turning blue
5 Drop in blood pressure (feeling faint, confused, weak, passing out)
6 Loss of consciousness
7 Chest pain
8 A weak or “thread” pulse
9 Sense of “impending doom”

Coparents need to collaborate on the topic of symptoms and allergies. Children need to be free of pressure about the topic. Some parents are so anxious about the difference of opinion between Moms House and Dads House that they actually create anxiety in the child.

Make a list of symptoms, document dates and times, observe possible triggers. Do this for at least 90 days before even raising the topic with the other parent. If you have a good-enough relationship to sit down together in a neutral place, schedule the time and do it. If you don't get along, then find someone who can facilitate the meeting.

Facilitated coparenting meetings is one of the services offered by the Transitions Family Program at Hannah's House. Coparents participate in the structured process, reach agreements, and then usually agree to use the facilitated meetings in the future prior to filing in court. Many issues can be resolved this way, saving both financial and emotional resources for both households!

From the Coparenting Coach's Desk

PARENT-CHILD CONTACT WHEN CHILD IS IN OTHER HOME

Parents of 2-home children are sometimes anxious about the lack of contact with a child when that child is in the care of the other parent.

Note that it is the parent who is anxious here, not necessarily the child!

If you find yourself anxious about your child when your child is with your coparent, stop and ask yourself some questions before reaching out to your child:

1 When was the last time you were with your child?

2 Has more time passed since you were with your child than has ever passed in the life of the child without contact with you?

3 Has your child ever been with a grandparent or other trusted caretaker longer than the child has been with the other coparent in this particular instance?

4 How long will it be before you are with your child again?

5 Is the amount of time you have to wait to be with your child again longer than the child has ever gone without seeing you?

6 Is your child verbal? Can your child say "I miss mommy/daddy?" Can your child say "Can I call mommy/daddy?" If so, let them.

7 Is your child capable of self-control?

8 Is your child capable of self-soothing?

9 Is your child capable of getting his or her needs met by an adult?

Most of the time, the anxiety problem is in the parent not in the child. If the parent gives into their own anxiety and acts out as if the child is incapable of waiting and delaying gratification, then the child certainly may learn to be anxious and insecure.

And it's often the parent who is modeling his or her own inability to wait, to delay gratification.

Life requires all of us to bear the discomfort of uncertainty or longing from time to time. It is ordinary and part of the human condition. It is not extraordinary, or traumatic, or horrible.

Check yourself, mom and dad. If you are anxious, admit it and deal with it. Don't make it your child's issue!

From the Coparenting Coach's Desk

Protecting Children From Loyalty Conflict During a Family Breakup

The breakup of a family is difficult for everyone. For some, it is a shattering experience that comes as a shock with no warning.

For the person who is more "ready" to leave, it is still painful. For the person who is caught unaware and unprepared, it is devastating. When children are involved, this difference in the adult experience absolutely must be acknowledged and managed by the parents. It is the only way to protect the children from loyalty conflict, from feeling like they have to choose, from feeling like they have to decide that one parent is the "good" parent and the other is the "bad" parent.

While this should be obvious, it often is not. In the midst of tumultuous change, emotional upheaval, and shattered dreams we go into survival mode. Parents shut down all but the most essential functions which tend to relate to very basic self-care, work, finances, and transportation.

The children are left to deal with being caught in the middle between parents who are blaming each other. One parent is justifying the decision to leave (relief and guilt) while the other parent is outraged (hurt) at being rejected.

Parents who are ending their partner relationship need to plan for the needs of the children before the separation occurs. Let your children see that even though you could not resolve your conflicts to stay with each other, you can mutually love and care for the children.

Can children cope with parents who place them in the middle?

Of course they can. Children need both parents. Children love both parents. Children want to please both parents. Children can learn to choose Mom when they are with Mom, and to choose Dad when they are with Dad. They can do it, but it will not help them develop a healthy and positive view of intimate relationships. It will not prepare them for commitment and honesty in their own relationships in the future.

Don't make your children choose.

Instead, meet together (with a professional if needed) to make some basic agreements for the sake of the children:

1 What will you tell the children?

2 Can you meet together to tell them the mutual story or do you need to meet separately?

3 When will you tell the children? You need to tell them as close as possible to the same time if you are unable to do it together.

4 What will change and what will stay the same in the life of the child?

5 Will you litigate or will you mediate?

6 If you choose litigation, how will you protect the children?

Planning at a time of crisis is tough. That is why crisis counselors are important. The breakup of your family is a crisis. Think seriously about sitting down together with an expert in family breakup and successful family reorganization and make a plan.

Your children need protection from the adult issues. They will have enough to deal with as they learn that moms and dads can quit loving each other; as they learn that life can be scary and unpredictable; and as they gradually develop the skills they need to learn to be able to go back and forth between Moms House and Dads House.

From the Therapist's Desk

HEALING PARENT-CHILD ESTRANGEMENT IN TEENS

At this age if an absent parent hasn't sought out their child, the child may be seeking them. These children are able to move from the fantasy of a reunion that they carried as a child to the idea that they can search out the missing parent themselves.

For children with absent fathers the risks of not having a father figure in their lives can lead to increased sexual activity for girls who may crave male attention and may leave boys floundering when it comes to forming intimate relationships.

If you have not been active in your child's life for several years, don't expect to have an authoritative or disciplinarian role. Be the role model for how they should live and provide support for the boundaries established by the custodial parent on such issues as drinking, drugs, dating, school, enrichment activities, church, and curfews.

Be on the watch for signs that your teen is having difficulty coping. Young men often will tend to appear angry when they are depressed and become more hostile and non-cooperative. Young women often are more likely to show classic signs of depression, withdrawal and isolation; and when unable to process their pain can develop eating disorders and self-harming behaviors.

Both young men and young women in this absent parent scenario may be more likely to turn to alcohol, drugs, tobacco, sex, money, food, relationships to soothe and contain their life challenges.

Young people are exploring themselves in relationships, testing boundaries, and forging their identities. Getting to know a previously absent parent can be critical to that identity formation. If a parent is lucky enough to discover that their estranged child is open to a relationship at this stage, embrace the opportunity and be the best version of yourself!

From the Therapist's Desk

HEALING PARENT-CHILD ESTRANGEMENT IN PRE-TEENS AGES 10-12

Older children may very likely express a lot of anger at the absent parent. Developmentally they are learning to make decisions and do so by categorizing everything into two distinct buckets -- good or bad. It 'sucks' or 'it's awesome." Parent get put into these buckets too! You may have to put up with weeks or even months (or even years) of testy, sassy kids while they check you out and make sure you are safe to let back in again.

Once again we need to emphasize the importance of the primary parent in supporting and encouraging the children to have a relationship with both parents!

In many ways, pre-teens are not unlike two-year-olds. They are curious about new things and are trying to become more independent. When they don't get their way, they may act out by being sassy or defiant. A pre-teen might tell their parent they don't know anything and that they are 'embarrassing!' However, they are comforted by knowing that you are not too far away because they need nurturing and loving as never before.

Pre-teens will approach when they need you and the next minute push you way. This is true whether they live with you or not! Sometimes nothing a parent says, does, wears, or thinks will be right -- at least they don't acknowledge this to your face.

Parenting a child this age is a challenge that requires lots of patience. Anticipate that their new 'I know everything' attitude and sharp tongue will have you feeling like throwing in the towel. DO NOT GIVE IN TO THESE FEELINGS!! This is the time when staying in the game is critical to proving that you are there for the long haul, for the good and for the bad.

The key to keeping your sanity is not to engage in a power struggle with pre-teens. You can acknowledge their position without agreeing with them. You are the parent so act like one. You can be present without being intrusive.

Be prepared to have your child play you against the other parent -- especially if there is a high degree of conflict or if you don't talk to each other. The more pre-teens know that you won't or can't check things out with the other parent, the more wiggle room they have to push the limits. A pre-teen who can convince one coparent that the other coparent makes them so scared and anxious that they just have to have a new flat screen tv in their bedroom is well on their way to a successful divide and conquer strategy.

The good news is that parents who can hang in there with children this age will reap tremendous benefits from the fun parts of spending time with a pre-teen. Children this age are able to think and talk about more interesting subjects. They are full of ideas and creativity, and they can be really perceptive about other people and wickedly funny!

If their interest and curiosity are sparked this is a great time to develop talents and interests that will stay with them into their adult years.

Hang in there! Be the parent! Be wise and loving and respectful. It is totally worth it!

From the Therapist's Desk

HEALING ESTRANGEMENT IN SCHOOL AGE CHILDREN AGES 6-9

This begins the age of empathy and moral understanding. It is also a stage where sadness prevails in situations of loss.

As children this age continue to try and make sense of their world, they do so through the eyes of compassion and empathy. These children deeply grieve the loss of a parent and miss them terribly. Developmentally children this age work hard to please their parents and would rather put themselves in the middle of a conflict than take a side. Children in this age group are particularly vulnerable to being emotionally hijacked by an insecure and immature parent who desperately needs the child to need them more than the child needs the other parent.

When exposed to conflict, these children understand the basic content of arguments -- which are almost always about money or the kids or the belief of one parent that the other is inferior. Given their age, these children will blame themselves for the argument and blame themselves for their parents feeling bad. The child might think "if it wasn't for me my parents wouldn't be getting a divorce/separation; or would be getting along." When children watch the two people they trust and rely on for safety and security battle with each other, it's as if the child is at sea without a life vest.

Signs of distress in children this age are often physical -- headaches, tummy aches, leg pain. Some children might go back to bedwetting. Others become anxious and overly concerned about the needs and feelings and well being of the parents. If you see any of these signs consider slowing down the pace of the family restructuring, or getting additional therapeutic help.

Children who are school age need their energy and focus for the huge lessons they are learning in every area of life as they explore and experience. Don't allow your inability to be good and cooperative coparents to take away your child's spontaneity and joy.

From the Therapist's Desk

HEALING PARENT-CHILD ESTRANGEMENT IN CHILDREN 3-5

Through the eyes of a preschooler the world is a magical place where wishing for something can make it come true.

Preschoolers live in an imaginary world in which they often make up stories to make sense of their experiences. This can include stories about their family. They also have developed the beginning of concrete, black-and-white thinking that makes them more likely to blame themselves for a parent's departure.

Preschoolers are eager to have two parents and will fantasize about their parents being together. It is not uncommon for children this age to 'shop' for a replacement for the absent parent.

The returning parent needs to try to provide an environment that feels friendly and familiar to your child. If you are able to start your parenting time with your children in your own home, display your child's artwork, photos, and other things suggested by your coparent. If you start in supervised visitation, choose an agency or setting that feels familiar and child-friendly. Your child needs to know that they have a space in your home and in your heart when they are not with you.

At this stage children have an increased capacity to worry and can become anxious. Help your child develop words for expressing their feelings in a more concrete way. Typically children this age fear abandonment. Provide your child with constant reminders that you are not going anywhere and will be there when they expect you to be -- for example when they visit or when they get out of school or daycare or have a special event. Show your child they can count on you to do what you say you will.

If you are not prepared to stay and be this reliable and consistent parent, then don't proceed with the healing process. It's not fair to your child.

Watch for signs that your toddler is experiencing anger through behaviors such as biting, hitting, being irritable and withdrawing. Other signs that your child is under stress and that you may need to slow down the reunification process include nightmares, baby talking, wishing to sleep with parents, stuttering, toileting regression, or other behaviors that weren't happening before.

From the Therapist's Desk

HEALING PARENT-CHILD ESTRANGEMENT FOR CHILDREN 0-3

This is a physically demanding time of care-taking for the primary parent. Consider a structure that allows the estranged parent to participate in the many levels of care including feeding, bathing, soothing, settling to sleep and all the other dailies of life.

If the returning parent lacks the experience and skills in these areas then offer to help or ask a trusted family member or friend to  provide teaching and support. The estranged parent can read books and take an infant parenting skills class.

For infants, multiple short visits during the week are best. Babies up until the age of three can have difficulty being away from their primary caretaker for long periods of time. Infants are like sponges absorbing everything in their environment. Thus it is critical that parents provide a soothing, safe, loving, responsive atmosphere. If conflict and tension exist your child will feel that tension inside of themselves.

Pay attention to signs that your infant is experiencing distress, including whining, clinginess, and fussiness that doesn't go away with soothing, as well as changes in eating and sleeping habits. The chances of a successful visit between the estranged parent and child increase if the primary parent and estranged parent can work together to keep the child's eating and sleeping schedules close to what they are in the primary home.

Understand that beginning around age 6 months children naturally experience anxiety when leaving their primary caretaker. So if initial visits have the infant clinging on to the other parent's leg for dear life, it is important that the returning parent doesn't assume the child is reacting to the new parent.  Instead, both parents should think first about stages and phases of development and the ordinary behavior changes that occur.

What should parents do if the infant throws a fit when leaving the primary parent? The primary (or securely attached) can provide tips and demonstrate what helps calm the child down during times of stress or transition. Consider having a transitional object, like a blanket or favorite toy, which goes back and forth with the child.

If you are the returning parent, you need to be in shape for a marathon as your infant becomes a toddler. Around 18 months of age healthy children naturally seek independence. They explore their world by getting into everything and will need a lot of supervision during this time. Keeping up with a curious toddlers can be exhausting!

Both parents need to focus on the child's needs! Cooperation and collaboration is absolutely essential for the task of raising a healthy and happy child. Make sure your adult issues are resolved because your child needs peaceful and pleasant coparents!

From the Therapist's Desk

CHILDREN NEED BOTH PARENTS

This is the core belief upon which all services at Hannah's Houseare based. Many parents respond to this core belief with a sentence that begin with these words: "Yes, but, ........". What follows may include real concerns and threats to the children; distorted fears and personal anxieties of the parent; or projections of bad intentions that actually exist within the accuser.

We respond to the parent with these words: "Yes, and, .......". The child needs to be safe. The child needs to feel as secure as possible. Once safety and security are established, the child NEEDS to have his or her own experience of the other parent without the influence or involvement of the concerned parent.

The primary parent sets the tone for the level of cooperation or conflict that emerges in the coparenting relationship. So, if that is you, you need to be willing to look in the mirror and ask yourself how you have contributed to the estrangement or conflict of the past and what you could have done differently. If there was nothing else you could have done, then what can you do now?

What are the trigger points that push your coping skills to the limit and result in words or behaviors you later regret? More importantly how will you keep your child away from your negativity and desire for revenge or failure now, if that is how you feel? If you insist on being "right" in every aspect of coparenting then you should walk away from the table now. If you are not willing to work, to try, to make yourself open and vulnerable to change then you are setting your own child up for a traumatic experience. You are also demonstrating an inability or unwillingness to act in the best interest of your child.

Don't pretend. Be genuine. In this case that means facing your fear and bearing the discomfort of not being in complete control of your child and yourself. The support of the primary custodial parent cannot be overstated in its critical importance to the success or failure of the effort to reintegrate an estranged parent into the existing family structure. If the primary parent is intent on ensuring the process fails, it will fail. If the primary parent is intent on ensuring the process succeeds, it has every chance of succeeding.

The primary parent needs as much support and counseling during the reintegration process as the returning parent does. Unfortunately we live in a world where families are divided by clinicians and the courts into "treatment units." And, very sadly, the unit is very rarely the entire family. How can you facilitate a successful transition in a family by only working with parts of the family?

The Transitions Family Program at Hannah's House works with the entire family system in our Intensive Family Restructuring Program approach which addresses the important history of the family, the fears and concerns of everyone, and which incorporates all the strengths of the family to work for the good of the whole.

We all have aspects of our Self that we are still discovering regardless of our age or life experience. Part of living respectfully and thoughtfully is a commitment to learn, develop, and become more truly who we are. And that means acknowledging that we all have fears, anxieties, motivations, and desires that distort our perceptions at times. We may exaggerate or minimize reality so that we feel comfortable and reassured.

Restructuring the family after a family breakup is one of the greatest challenges individuals face. Everyone has work to do. Everyone needs to learn new skills. Regardless of how much time has passed or what mistakes have been made or what human frailties have emerged...give your child the chance for a full and complete and loving family life. Take the chance for the sake of your child. You may be amazed how much you will gain!

From the Therapist's Desk

THE ESTRANGED PARENTS MUST BE PREPARED FOR RESISTANCE AND QUESTIONS

The custodial parent is a critical part of the process of restructuring a family when an estranged parent is going to be reintegrated. The issues and questions for the primary parent depend on the circumstances of the other parent's absence and the motivation for reentry.

Questions for the estranged parent:

1 Are you committed to sustaining a consistent relationship if you re-enter the child's life? This means consistently showing up for parenting time and meeting other obligations. Part of the risk for a custodial parent cooperating with a reunification process is that you may disappear again and they will be left to pick up the pieces of their child's life.

2 Do you have the parenting skills you need to care for the child? Are you willing to take a parenting skills class?

3 If you had unsafe behaviors in your life, you need to be able to demonstrate change. If alcohol and/or drug issues played a role in your absence what evidence of sustained sobriety can you show the other parent? What are your plans for relapse prevention? If domestic violence is in your history have you completed an anger management or DV class? Do you have ways to express your anger that do not involve harm to self and others?

4 Be prepared to answer the question "why now?" The custodial parent may harbor feelings of resentment and believe you now want to come in and be the 'hero' or 'heroine.' You will need to demonstrate that you're not just there for the good times.

5 Are you providing economic support? If not, are you planning on doing that? If you have been negligent or inconsistent in providing financial support for your child, begin right away with whatever you can!

6 If the custodial parent has worked to eliminate you from your child's life because of unresolved issues in the couples relationship, are you ready to sit down for high conflict coparenting therapy with the custodial parent to resolve these old wounds for the sake of your child?

Reunification after a period of estrangement in a parent-child relationship is a very serious undertaking for both parents. Be ready to stay and work and build the trust needed to be successful in the process.

From the Therapist's Desk

UNDERSTANDING ESTRANGEMENT FROM A CHILD'S POINT OF VIEW

Children experience feelings of sadness, anger, confusion, guilt and/or shame when a parent disconnects from their life. When the estrangement occurred because of some action or behavior on the part of the parent, the child's sense of mistrust of the parent will usually be heightened.

Even when a parent made the decision to withdraw from the life of a child was based on what the parent believed was in the child's best interest, this is rarely understood by the child.

Children often feel that there is something wrong with them that accounts for the parents departure from their life, or that accounts for the parent behaving in a way that led to the estrangement. "If only I was __________ (nicer, smarter, kinder, etc), my Mommy/Daddy would have stayed."

Children often blame themselves and feel rejected and abandoned. As children try to make sense of why a parent doesn't come around, the easiest explanation for them is to blame themselves.

Children may lash out at the absent parent in anger, "You left the family," convinced their life would be whole, or at least better, if you hadn't left.

On the other hand, some children will form an idealized image of the absent parent and have unrealistic fantasies about the day they will be reunited.

Whatever the response of your child, your job as the estranged parent is to be patient, present, loving, warm, accepting, consistent and predictable. Children need a sense of safety and security from birth. An absent parent -- regardless of the reason -- damages that sense of safety and security.

Part of the healing process for children is learning that the absent parent has taken responsibility for their absence, made a genuine apology and is prepared to show them they will make it right. The child must see the parent as trustworthy and dependable.

Even if the estranged parent has been the target of behaviors disruptive to their relationship with the child from the custodial parent, the child does not want excuses that blame the other parent. The child's connection to the custodial parent is the basis to a sense of safety and security because that relationship was not disrupted. 

Educating children about "the truth," about what really happened is not helpful and, in fact, can be quite damaging. The estranged parent needs to be able to answer the child's questions about why the parent left without pointing the finger at the other parent or making the child feel as though they must take sides.

Equally important, the custodial parent must genuinely support the child's connection to the estranged parent. This means establishing trust with your coparent. This may be hard to do without actually meeting in the same room with your other half and having conversations about the family process of conjoint therapy to heal estrangement. If the child sees or senses that their primary parent is afraid of or mistrustful of the estranged parent, it is unlikely that the family healing process will be successful.

The Transitions Family Program at Hannah's House requires coparenting meetings periodically during the conjoint process to remove pressure from the child and place it on the parents, which is where it belongs. Each parent has a responsibility to actively work on the healing process. It is truly a shared responsibility and the coparenting meetings are essential to begin a process of cooperation and collaboration in that relationship. 

The child needs to see and feel that Mom and Dad can work together for the sake of the child. 

From the Therapist's Desk

GUIDANCE FOR ESTRANGED PARENTS

First, be prepared to go slow. It is natural for a parent to want to jump in with high energy, intense determination and 110% enthusiasm. Many expect to pick up from where they left off, or start a relationship if they recently learned that a child existed.

The parent has a sense of urgency about catching up on what has been missed with the child. However, a plan for renewing or creating a relationship with a child when there is estrangement must be built entirely around the the child. This means careful preparation and proceeding at a pace and level of intensity that the child can handle.

Trust in a close relationship builds slowly based on interaction and shared time and shared activities. This is especially true when there are wounds to be healed. The time invested carefully at the beginning can create a foundation for a lifetime of involvement between parent and child. Don't rush it!

Consistency and predictability are an absolute must for the child. Trust is earned, not automatic, for any of us in our important relationships. This means being honest about your own ability to be patient, be present, be consistent, and be predictable. This means that the parent has to be ready and willing to overcome barriers and make the child the top priority.

This also means no cancelled appointments unless you are in the hospital. Talk to your friends, family, employer, and coworkers to make sure they understand the importance of this journey you are about to embark on.

No matter how you ended up disconnected from your child and their life, you must think about this process and your absence from the point of view of your child not yourself.

From the Therapist's Desk

Integrating an Estranged Parent Back into the 2-Home Family

There are several important considerations to include in the development of a plan for changing the family structure when an estranged parent is returning.

How old was the child when this parent last had an active role in their life and how old are they now?

An absence of over a few months for a child age 3 and younger may mean there is not much memory of the missing parent or memory of a relationship. It's essential for the returning parent to educate him or herself about the developmental needs and milestones missed during the absence, as well as to learn the current developmental needs, tasks and goals now.

What were the circumstances that lead to the loss of contact between the parent and the child and what memory does the child have of those events?

Children who witnessed frightening behavior (domestic violence, substance abuse, mental illness, high conflict couple relationship) may feel anxious at the idea of integrating the absent parent back into the new family structure.

If the parent had a problem behavior or illness, it has to be stable/resolved with a clear plan for continuity of recovery/stability. This is essential in order to honestly reassure the child that the returning parent is a safe and loving person who can be relied upon.

Are there unresolved feelings/issues/wounds/traumas in the adult/couple relationship?

If either parent is still emotionally and negatively engaged with the past and unforgiving toward each other, the restructuring of this family will probably not succeed. Couples resolution therapy for high conflict and/or estranged coparents is a critical component in ensuring the success of this process for many former intimate partners.

What is your child's history of loss and trauma?

It will be important to assess the number and types of losses your child has experienced as well as an events that have caused them trauma, such as parental conflict. Together these factors may impact the length of time it will take your child to manage the reunification process.

Children can be traumatized by abandonment, abuse, and neglect and witnessing verbal or physical conflict between their parents.

When children lose contact with a parent they can experience a range of emotions as part of their grief including confusion, anger, sadness, anxiety, anticipation, shame and guilt. If children suffer multiple losses, like losing significant caregivers, extended family, friends through change of school or home that often accompany a family breakup, then the losses add up.

The more losses a child sustains, the more difficult it becomes for them to bounce back from other experiences.

The level of cooperation or conflict between parents is very often the reason the child lost a parent in the first place. When the coparenting relationship is the cause of the estrangement, it is Mom and Dad who will need to work on change first, if the child is going to get the help he or she needs.

From the Therapist's Desk

Sample Agreement for Healing Estrangement and Reuniting a Parent and Child

Some parents are able to reach agreements about integrating a returning parent into the life of a child without needing attorneys or the court. Others will need court orders. In either case, parents and children need support during the process and may benefit from professional assistance.

Whatever your situation, here are the basics for an agreement.

1 We will both seek counseling.
2 Our children will receive counseling.
3 We will focus our attention and conversations with each other on our children.
4 We will build up the amount of time the returning parent spends with our children at a pace comfortable for the children, whether fast or slow.
5 The primary parent will retain the support systems and schedule established for the children while the returning parent was estranged.
6 To make sure that the returning parent's reentry into our children's lives is for the long term, we will meet together monthly for a coparenting meeting (facilitated if we agree on that) to make necessary modifications to our initial agreements.
7 We agree that we will use facilitated coparenting meetings with a neutral professional who has expertise in child development and family resturucturing prior to using court resources to resolve disagreements whether attorneys are involved or not.

Transitions Family Program at Hannah's House provides comprehensive services for families dealing with an estranged parent-child relationship. 

From the Therapist's Desk

Healing Estrangement in Parent-Child Relationships Means Healing Estrangement Between Coparents

Healing estrangement between a parent and child requires hard work and perseverance. There is work for both the Primary Parent (PP) and for the Returning Parent (RP),

Answer the following questions as honestly as you can in assessing your level of preparedness for the journey ahead.

Choose 1 -2 - 3 - 4 for each questions:
1 Confident I have this skill
2 Still developing this skill
3 Don't have this skill
4 Open to help

Questions Returning Parent (RP) / Primary Parent (PP):

RP
I have the patience to start slowly and build increased parenting time as my child is able.
PP
I can support my child's need for a relationship with the RP.

RP
I can commit to consistency in parenting time.
PP
I can commit to preparing my child for shared parenting consistently.

RP & PP
I will not abandon my parenting time plan at the first sign it isn't working.

RP & PP
I can protect my child from conflict between myself and the other parent.

RP & PP
I will not ask my child to take sides.

RP
I am prepared to discuss my absence/behavior with my child and with my coparent without blaming.
PP
I am prepared to support the RP in the discussion about his or her absence/behavior with my child.

RP & PP
I am willing to participate in counseling either individually or with my child to facilitate reunification.

RP
I have remedied past unsafe behaviors; improved my parenting and coparenting skills; and taken responsibility for my part in the challenges in my relationship with my coparent and with my child.

PP
I have taken responsibility for my part in the challenges in my relationship with my coparent and with my child; and I am prepared to move forward in a positive way.

RP & PP
I can set aside my personal feelings for my child's other parent.

This process can be incredibly rewarding for your child. They can emerge a better adjusted child with the ability to have love and guidance from two parents.

From the Therapist's Desk

BUILDING A PLAN FOR RESTRUCTURING YOUR FAMILY AFTER PARENT-CHILD ESTRANGEMENT

Anticipate that you both will need to develop a plan that starts with short, brief amounts of time and gradually builds. Trust must be established between Mom and Dad. Trust must be established between the child and the returning parent.

it is best to develop a plan that will unfold in phases. It will be necessary to evaluate if the pace is too fast (or too slow) for the child to manage and make adjustments.

When the returning parent spends time with the child, all of the focus should be on the child and getting to know who they are rather than trying to catch them up on your life since you've been gone. The primary parent can help with this process by sharing information about the child with the returning parent and supporting the relationship.

Plan activities that engage the child both mentally and physically.

Do things side-by-side to develop a stronger connection.

Don't use electronics to baby-sit your kids.

Don't use electronics to avoid contact when you are together.

Make your shared time interactive!

Learn about each other's interests.

Don't try to "buy" your way back into your child's life. Spend time not money. Bring healthy snacks not candy.

Do introduce your child to new experiences or teach them a new skill.

Do encourage them to share their artwork, their school work, sporting events, hobbies -- everything that can help you learn who this child is!

From the Therapist's Desk

Losing a Parent During a Family Breakup

In the years following a separation or divorce, 33-40% of children lose contact with a biological parent. Loss of contact with a parent can deeply impact the child emotionally, developmentally, socially, and academically throughout the course of their lifetime. At the very least, children abandoned by a parent can be haunted by a lifelong feeling of emptiness and may experience a number of life challenges:

1 Feelings of shame, guilt, rejection, anger, sadness and confusion

2 A belief that they are somehow not worthy of the absent parent's love and presence

3 Poor school performance

4 Difficulty forming intimate relationships

5 Increased use of alcohol and drugs

6 More aggressive, acting out behaviors

7 A need to create a story that explains the parent's absence from their life

8 A deep desire to know that they are missed and thought about by the absent parent.

Divorce or separation create tremendous challenges for the parents. Depending on the quality of the couples relationship pre-breakup, the transition to living separately can be more or less difficult. In general, the more conflict and unresolved couples issues that exist before the breakup the more difficult it will be for the family to find peace afterwards.

There are many reasons parents and children lose contact:

1 Ongoing conflict between the parents over parenting and custody issues

2 The inability to provide good caretaking due to mental illness, alcohol and/or drug abuse

3 The child's and/or parent's difficulty adjusting to the separation or divorce

4 Relocation of a parent more than 60 miles from the child

5 Safety issues such as domestic violence and/or child abuse

6 Alienating behaviors by the other parent

7 Lack of knowledge by father that a biological child exists

8 The choice of the parent to not be involved due to immaturity or concerns about child support obligations

9 Incarceration

Once the issues that led to the loss of contact begin to resolve, a parent often wishes to reestablish, or perhaps establish for the first time, a relationship with their children.

Children who are able to enjoy a warm and loving relationship with both of their parents fare better over time than children who lose one of the parents.

If you are a parent who lost a relationship with your child and are ready to invest the time and energy (and patience) required, contact Transitions Family Program at Hannah's House about our Comprehensive Family Restructuring Therapy process. It may be a good solution for you.

What Are Factors in Determining Best Interest of a Child

Moms and Dads who enter the Family Court system quickly hear the phrase "best interest of the child." The meaning is easy to understand but figuring out what is truly best for any given child can be quite complex. An assessment of the following factors may be helpful to you in determining the best interest of the child:

1  The age of the child;
The developmental needs and important tasks are different from Birth to Teen. The first place to look for information about this factor is in the realm of basic child development knowledge. Search for "developmental needs and tasks of a child age ____ and then read, consider and talk with someone you trust to help you make sense of the information for your child.
 
2  The relationship of the child's parents and any other persons who may significantly affect the child's welfare;
If parents cannot cooperatively coparent a child with each other then the child is at risk. If the extended friend and family network is hostile to one of the coparents the child is at risk. If it's your fault or your family then fix it. Do what you need to do to protect your own child,

3  The preference of the child, if old enough to express a meaningful preference;
This is a tough one because parents consciously and unconsciously manipulate their children to "choose" one parent over the other all too often in custody disputes. The reason? It's usually one of 2 things: money (child support) or ego/insecurity (unstable parent).  If the parents can't listen to their own child and take the child's preference into account, then experts will probably need to get involved to prevent influence from one or both parents.

4  The duration and adequacy of the child's current living arrangements and the desirability of maintaining continuity;
Children need routine. The breakup of the family disrupts routine and, depending on the parents, may create a chaotic environment for a long period of time. Again, if parents are unable to work together to preserve routines or create new routines quickly, experts will probably need to get involved to protect the child's basic need for routine and consistency.

5  The stability of any proposed living arrangements for the child;
Children need routine. If one of the parents will be moving frequently or travelling frequently or has lost his or her job, or housing, these issues must be considered in terms of the child's primary living situation.

6  The motivation of the parties involved and their capacities to give the child love, affection and guidance;
If parents are not able to trust each other to give the child love, affection and guidance then the parents will probably end up with recommendations being made by a child custody recommending evaluator at Family Court Services, a division of the Family Courts in California.

7  The child's adjustment to the child's present home, school and community;
This is difficult to determine if the parents are not engaging in cooperative coparenting. Children suffer when parents forget how to be friends and their behavior shows it. Don't be quick to blame the behavior of a child on one parent or the other. It's a good idea to look first to the cooperation between Mom and Dad and address that before assuming a child needs a change of primary home, school, or community.

8  The capacity of each parent to allow and encourage frequent and continuing contact between the child and the other parent, including physical stress;
Parents who share a child between two homes must be able and willing sacrifice time with the child and endure inconvenience for the sake of their child. If a parent's position toward the other parent is blame, revenge, criticism, and withholding the child then the child should be primarily with the other parent.

9  The capacity of each parent to cooperate in childcare;
Childcare is not only a necessity for most parents, it is good for children! Children need a balance of time with parents and caregivers (childcare, preschool, grandparents, etc). Childcare is usually a shared expense between parents when childcare is required for a parent to be able to work. There are many aspects to cooperation in the area of childcare that must be considered.

10 Methods for assisting parental cooperation and resolving disputes and each parent's willingness to use these methods;
Regular coparenting meetings with a coparenting coach is an excellent and cost-effective way to resolve disputes when coparents have a disagreement. Parents who are quick to litigate but resist cooperative problem solving are usually not a good choice for a primary parent.

11 The effect on the child if one parent has sole authority over the child's upbringing;
In some cases it is critical that one parent have sole authority over the child's upbringing. This is the case when a child has been diagnosed with special needs and one parent refuses to accept the special needs of the child.

12 History of Domestic Violence
There is a presumption in DV cases that the identified perpetrator of the violence should not have legal or physical custody of the child.

All other factors having reasonable bearing on the physical and psychological well-being of the child will also be considered.

Cooperative coparenting is in the best interest of the child. Cooperative coparents do not talk through their attorneys. Cooperative coparents ask for an in-person coparenting meeting not an Ex Parte with the judge to discuss an area of disagreement. Parents dealing with the pain of a family breakup can learn to coparent cooperatively with the help of an expert in child development and family breakup. Find someone to help you learn the skills for cooperative coparenting - that is in the best interest of any child!

From the Therapist's Desk

The foundation for trust and a basic sense of safety in the world is the secure attachment of a child to a parent/primary caregiver. It's like home base when you are playing tag, or the side of the pool when you jump in the deep end. That base is a place to rest and feel safe. Of course the child needs to leave home base or the side to play and explore but can safely return. That is the function of the secure person.

Some children are lucky enough to have secure attachments to both parents who have shared parenting since infancy. You can see that sense of security when a child first begins to be able to move on his or her own. The child is sitting with a parent, crawls away, and looks back for reassurance. Mom/Dad smiles and claps and encourages. The child continues to explore and play.

Sometimes the young child will come back to Mom/Dad for a hug or a touch and then off again to explore the world. School age children may not touch base as often but want to know that Mom/Dad is there when they need them!

A child with an insecure base may have a hard time leaving Mom/Dad. The insecurity is an outgrowth of the style of parenting and the needs of the parent, not innate within the child in most cases. Mom/Dad is either anxious and afraid too much of the time; distracted by his or her own emotions and adult concerns too much of the time; or fundamentally uninterested in or incapable of placing the needs of the child above the needs of the parent.

Parents who are anxious and insecure tend to create children who are anxious and insecure. Parents who are distracted and preoccupied with adult concerns tend to create children who are insecure because they don't get adequate nurturing and feedback and reassurance. And parents who consistently place their own needs as the highest priority tend to create children who are chaotic and who often lack empathy.

When families break apart parents often become anxious, insecure, distracted, and preoccupied. Unfortunately some parents feel wounded, become angry, and pursue revenge against the enemy. Children can handle this stress for a while, but there is a limit!! Get support when you are going through a life change that is challenging. If your normal coping skills and support system aren't working then reach out and find more! Find someone in your life who will tell you the truth and who understands and values the need for children to have both children in their lives. If your intent is to create a battle plan and win a war, the children will be left behind.

Your child needs a secure base in Mom's House and in Dad's House as quickly as possible after the families breaks apart. The best way to accomplish that is cooperative and shared parenting for coparents who can be respectful to one another; or parallel parenting with little coparenting contact when the adults are not able to be respectful.

Transitions Family Program at Hannah's House offers FREE support groups for Moms and Dads every week - Wednesday 600 pm for Dads and Friday 530 pm for Moms. The groups are open to any coparent in San Diego county who is family-court involved, or coparenting children between 2 separate homes. Transitions also offers therapy services; parenting and coparenting classes; facilitated coparenting meetings and can help coparents draft effective coparenting plans. Bridges Family Program offers in-home services like home safety checks, home studies, parent coaching, supervised visitation, and safe exchanges. 2 Home Kids Program offers agency-based services including supervised visitation, safe exchanges, monitored phone, Skype, and text contact between parent and child. 

Good-enough parenting is what is required to ensure a secure base for your child. Just good-enough. Not exceptional, and certainly not perfect. If you need some support to get back to good-enough, email HannahsHouseSD@gmail.com today to learn more about the services we offer to help 2 home families.