“Parents sometimes lose sight of the fact that they’re divorced as a marriage but not as a family. They’ll be co-parenting for life through events such as birthdays, weddings and graduations. When they know they’re in this for the long run, they’re much more motivated to have good communication.” (Therapist Irene Schatz Ph.D. who runs a co-parenting mediation practice, Collaborative Divorce Consultants in South Florida).
The reality is that although you are no longer spouses, you remain co-parents. The separation does not change the fact that you are both parents to your children. You have an obligation to create a stable co-parenting relationship allowing your children to enjoy the only childhood that they have. My mother said something to me a very long time ago that has stuck with me throughout my practice: Children don’t ask to be born. We make the choice to bring children into our world and in doing so, we have not only a responsibility but an obligation to provide them with a healthy and safe environment and to give them the opportunity and permission to enjoy their childhood.
A separation may mean rules and boundaries and most certainly means a commitment to healthy and productive communication. It is important to be consistent and clear (with each other and with your children) in your schedules, your commitments to one another and your children and your communication. There will be mountains and valleys in your co-parenting relationship. It is critical to remember that your children are along for the journey as a result of your choices and as such their best interests ought to be at the forefront of each of the choices you make along the way.
Anyone who knows me personally or professionally knows that I am not a fan of text messaging for a variety of reasons. I far prefer face to face communication or a phone call.
TEXT MESSAGING: BEST FOR CONVEYING INFORMATION ONLY – NOT FOR CREATING UNDERSTANDING
It has long been established that communication is 93% nonverbal. 7 percent is verbal while 38 percent is vocal and 55 percent is visual. According to the psychological studies, this means that relying on communication by phone leaves 55% open to misinterpretation and communication by email or text leaves 93% open to misinterpretation. (Journal of Consulting Psychology, Dr. Mehrabian and Susan R. Ferris). Research data also suggests that the more you use texting for communication, the more difficult face to face communication can become. Texting reduces conversation to rapid-fire informal exchanges and frequently surface level communication. You are far less likely to have a meaningful exchange if you communicate via text.
Texting also creates an impression that communication is urgent and or that responses need to be immediate. The expectation is frequently that if you send a text, the response will be sent within seconds not just minutes. How many times have you sent a text and not received an immediate response only to have sent another text within minutes that says “Hello???” or “?????” This type of need for an instant response can lead to impatience, misunderstanding of content and tone, increase in conflict and in some circumstances can escalate family violence and lead to aggression (verbal and emotional abuse via communication or increased conflict and risk in person). Ultimately this type of communication can lead to communication shut down as it causes an escalation in the conflict, anxiety, and avoidance type behavior in communication.
Text communication with abandon can also make you feel that your time and other social boundaries are not being respected as it provides the ability to interrupt you at work, during personal time or time with your children and or on holidays. Rules and boundaries for communication are essential to a respectful co-parenting relationship.
Given these facts, it is not surprising that text communication is not the most effective way of communicating particularly when the communication is intended to do more than convey basic information. For instance, text messaging may be appropriate if you are providing the following information:
A. Confirming a previously agreed date or time for a transition, arrival, departure. It is not appropriate to dictate times or use text to initiate a new conversation about proposed dates/times. This likely requires a more expansive discussion and consultation. If communication is already difficult, tone and other communication cues including body language can be important. If this is an important issue, it is better to have this conversation in person even if this is with the assistance of a neutral third party or a parenting coach or a parenting coordinator. Having the conversation by video may also be preferable to a phone call due to the fact that nonverbal communication is an essential component to productive communication;
B. Yes or no answers to day to day transactional questions;
DO’S AND DON’TS FOR COMMUNICATION
A. No swearing, name-calling, exclamation marks, bolding, underlining, red font. These all can convey anger, bullying, intimidation, aggression. Pursuant to the provision of the Family Law Act, these can be at worst forms of family violence (emotional and verbal abuse) and at best indicia of same and very poor behavior. If you are in litigation, this also provides the lawyers with ample evidence for argument which can only escalate conflict and legal fees;
B. Listen to understand, not to defend. Listen to gain insight into your co-parents concerns and perspective. If the communication triggers you, let the co-parent know that you will need more time to respond. Neuroscience tells us that when emotion kicks in, rational thinking kicks out. It can take up to 72 hours for your brain to clear from emotional flooding. Give yourself the time to provide an emotionally regulated response and avoid the collateral damage that can come from emotionally-charged communication;
C. Be clear and consistent with your co-parent and children in your communication about routines, schedules, and what you can commit to and what you cannot;
D. Take a page out of Bill Eddy’s Book on High Conflict Personalities and put his communication guidelines into practice (BIFF): “Brief, Informative, Firm and Friendly”;
E. Do not try to recruit your children into the conflict or onto your “team”;
F. Do not disparage or insult your co-parent and or his/her extended family, partner or friends;
G. Use your children as a conduit *(middle person) for your communication EVER regardless of age;
H. Make assumptions about your co-parent or children’s perspective, thoughts, positions, messaging. If you are unclear OR if it communication appears clear to you or consistent with historical problematic communication, request confirmation or clarification and or ask for a time out and or propose a session with a parenting coach or parent coordinator as appropriate;
I. Use absolutes like “always”, “only”, “forever”, “solely”, “never” in your communication;
J. Do be honest, considerate, respectful in your communication and your discussions/negotiations;
K. Do not use the word “ex” in referencing the other co-parent. Do revision your characterization of your relationship to one of being “exes” or separated individuals to one of being co-parents. This maintains the focus on the children and endorses a positive characterization of your relationship;
L. Do remember that notification is not consultation.
When in-person communication is not practical or possible, communication tools can be effective alternatives. There are a number of cost-effective tools available for separated parents which include:
A. The Our Family Wizard website and app (www.ourfamilywizard.com). OFW says that their tool is meant to protect the children by allowing parents to share information without putting the children in the middle; eliminate miscommunication by maintaining impartial and accurate record to avoid costly “HE SAID SHE SAID” disputes; avoid arguments by establishing and maintaining peaceful communication in a private online setting; reduce stress by saving time, money, and energy that you can apply to other areas of your life in more productive ways and improve parenting. This tool offers a calendar, expense log (approve expenses and make electronic payments), a message board with a tone meter option; journal, info bank for emergency contacts, immunization records, etc. The cost is approximately $120.00 CAD per year although the tone meter is an additional charge;
B. We Parent App; The founder of this app who has a Ph.D. in Psychology says psychological research was used to create an app for “stress-free co-parenting”. This app helps you manage events, appointments, documents, expenses, parenting schedules and messaging. The app is available for download on Android and iOS and the cost is approximately $9.99 per month with a 14-day free trial;
C. Cozi App: This app was not initially specifically designed for co-parenting but it is an effective, free co-parenting app. Just as with the 2 apps above, this app allows you to use a shared calendar, create to-do lists, share information and photos. You can download this app in either Android or iOS and in-app upgrades are available;
D. FamCal App: This app is not exclusively for co-parenting but can be an effective tool. It features a shared calendar which similar to other co-parenting apps can be color-coded by family members for important dates, events, notes etc. This app can be downloaded for Android or iOS with options to upgrade;
E. CoParently App: This app features a number of tools for scheduling, tracking expenses, sharing important information. Similar to other apps, you can add children (preferably teenagers) to the account to empower them in contributing to the scheduling, making respectful requests etc. (although I do not recommend that children be added in high conflict parenting relationships). Some apps, however, do allow you to set permissions for what the children can see and engage in and what they cannot (eg scheduling, sharing of photos etc). The cost of this app is approximately $10 per month and they do offer a 30 day trial period;
F. Custody Connection: This app is based on a centralized calendar with its primary focus being scheduling. It allows you to make “trade requests” which if accepted or denied is recorded by the app and updates the parents’ calendars. It is available on iOS only at this time;
G. Parentship App: consistent with other co-parenting apps, this app has a dashboard that sets out upcoming events and reminders; there is a synchronized calendar, document centre for uploading of identification and other important documents; and a profile for each child. You can also choose to integrate the calendar with your Google Calendar. This app is free for the first month, then approximately $3.99 per month/$40.00 per year and available on both Android and iOS;
H. 2Houses App: Like many of the other co-parenting apps, this app has a synchronized schedule, tool to manage expenses; centre for uploading documents and photos. There is a messaging service and there is also online mediator access. The cost is on a per-family basis and a free trial is available. The app is free on both iOS and Android with in-app purchases/upgrades available.
Although these tools can be an effective tool to assist with productive, low conflict communication and more organized and effective co-parenting, these should not be relied upon as a wholesale replacement for direct communication save and except in extremely high conflict relationships where efforts to improve communication through counselling and or coaching have not yielded improved outcomes. These tools should be a baseline, a parachute or an add on to health and productive direct co-parenting communication.
If you and your co-parent, need education and support to improve your communication, look to resources including collaborative law groups who can refer you to coaches and child specialists; parenting co-ordinator websites; counsellors who have education and experience in co-parenting therapy. Consider your part in improving communication. If need be, access personal therapeutic resources for yourself as an individual.
Finally and always, although communication with your co-parent may feel like paddling through cement, focus on the positive outcomes of healthy communication for your children. If you can move it forward in a positive way and keep the channels open, this is without question a huge net positive for your children and your family as a whole.