When parents part ways, they often encounter challenges that can make the co-parenting relationship difficult, whether it’s a difference in opinions, over-parenting, a diverse set of values, or even variations in household operations, bedtimes, vaccinations, and so on.
One tool that’s available to help many parents encountering these kinds of challenges is to bring in a parenting facilitator or parenting coordinator. Kathleen Scofield has a practice in Dallas where she works with families on matters like these.
If you don’t have time to watch the entire video, the following content highlights the key areas and questions touched upon, slightly edited for easier reading.
- How did you get started working with families who are going through divorce or separation?
- Can you give us a brief description of the roles of parenting facilitator and parenting coordinator, and how they differ?
- How do you help parents, and/or their lawyers, decide whether it’s better for this family to have parent coordination or a parent facilitator?
- How does your role as a facilitator differ from a mediator?
- In your role as parenting facilitator, what are the most common issues that people are having a hard time making decisions about?
- How do you take two people who are polar opposites (because opposites do attract) and help find the resolution?
- From the perspective of a therapist, what are children experiencing when there is a lot of conflict between the parents?
- What does success look like in working with parents as a facilitator?
- Are there some actual pathologies that make it impossible to co-parent?
- If both parents aren’t willing to show up for parenting facilitation, is there still value in at least one parent participating in the process?
- What is your message of hope for co-parents who are in that space of conflict or are living with heartache?
How Did You Get Started Working With Families Who Are Going Through Divorce or Separation?
This is my second career. I was fortunate to meet probably the first parenting facilitator in our area many years ago. I worked with Carrie for about five years—all the way through graduate school—and I got a glimpse of the service she provided. It’s a very interesting intersection between law and therapy. Over the years, I’ve done a lot of training with different individuals, but I’ve also done some of my own studies into why we fight and why we have conflict, and, importantly, how these entanglements are perpetuated.
You and I know about the role of a parenting facilitator and parenting coordinator, but a lot of parents may not be familiar with these terms at all.
What Are the Roles of Parenting Facilitator and Parenting Coordinator, and How Do They Differ?
A parenting facilitator is a neutral professional who has received specific training in basic mediation, advanced family law, parenting facilitation and coordination, and domestic violence. We are included in a court order, whether it’s a temporary order, an immediate settlement agreement, or a final decree, and we’re put in place to help stabilize the co-parenting core.
We try to improve communication, specifically to make it more business-like and professional. We provide accountability regarding the court order, and sometimes we need to substantiate that everybody is adhering to agreements that have been made. We also provide documentation of what’s transpiring between two parents that can be helpful later on down the road.
We’re trying to exact a change, trying to make things better and more productive and help navigate that rocky period that sometimes exists prior, during, and after divorce and separation. We want to make things a little better for the children.
What I’m hearing you say is that, first of all, there’s a court order in place which gives the structure and accountability as you help the parents navigate through some of the issues that they’re having.
That’s correct. We also have the ability to send status memos to the court, and, if necessary, we can be called to testify in court to provide additional information about what’s transpiring between these two individuals.
The role of parenting coordinator is similar to that of parenting facilitator in that I’m going to engage in the same therapeutic approach and style. I’m going to work to help them communicate, come to agreements, and mediate decisions. I really want to keep everybody out of constant litigation as much as I can, but the parent coordinator is a confidential process. So, I can be called to court. I don’t release the file. I don’t send status memos to the court. This is for parents who want to keep this process confidential, but they also want the weight of the court order as part of the coordination process.
How Do You Help Parents, And/or Their Lawyers, Decide Whether It’s Better for the Family to Have a Parent Coordination or a Parent Facilitator?
That’s a difficult point. I think if there is future or pending litigation, I will work with parents before the divorce is finalized because they’re struggling to co-parent.
Also, if there’s significant issues with adherence to the court order or problems with both parents sticking to agreements, the facilitator is definitely the role that needs to be utilized.
A lot also depends on what’s transpiring within the family. For example, if the children are starting to become the center of the conflict, they’re aware of it. They’re hearing a lot of adult information and they’re getting caught in the middle. In such an instance, we might start to see the children suffering from some psychological or behavioral issues. At that point, a neutral party needs to come in and work with the parents.
But you know, sometimes people divorce pretty well, and then a year or two down the road, we encounter some issues, and the parents decide, “Hey, we’ve really got a lot of conflict. We’re not working well together. We need to come to someone who will help us stabilize.”
How Does Your Role as a Facilitator Differ From a Mediator?
Another term that gets used a lot for helping families reach resolution is a mediator, and you talked about mediation training.
The mediator is just utilized for one session, and then it’s done. As the parent facilitator, I’m going to meet with the parents as long as I need to—until that co-parenting core and communication is stabilized.
So, is one of your goals, then, to help find resolution to some of those burning issues?
Yes. The Texas family code is pretty clear about what a parent facilitator’s boundaries are, so we’re never going to have an opinion or position on some of the bigger rights such as primary residence, rights and responsibilities for decision making, parenting time, custody, and access. But on some other matters we definitely can help to kind of say, “Hey, look at it from a different angle.” Or we can ask, “How is this affecting your children?”
In Your Role as Parenting Facilitator, What the Most Common Issues That People Have a Hard Time Making Decisions About?
Most recently, a lot of it surrounds COVID and vaccinations, what quarantine looks like, masks, and things of that nature. It’s not uncommon for parents to have differing positions. For example, if a child is exposed at one home, but two or three days later is supposed to go to the other home, what do we do? So those are things where I try and orchestrate some type of compromise. If one parent is going to miss some time, where can we make that up?
And, frankly, sometimes it’s just something as minimal as haircuts and sports equipment and decisions about extracurricular activities. So, it really kind of spans the board.
How Do You Take Two People Who Are Polar Opposites (Because Opposites Do Attract) And Help the Find Resolution?
I always stop and say, people need to understand going to a judge is only one means of resolution. You can have a third party making the decision who won’t know all the ins and outs of your family. So, how does it work?
You just made a really interesting point about the judge because when you go to court, you have a limited time. And often when people come and see me, they feel like they’ve never been able to really flush out and share their story. So, the first thing that I do is meet with each parent individually to hear the relevant history. I want to establish a rapport and trust because a central part of parent facilitation is challenging each parent. There’s going to be points where they like me and times when they don’t like me. And that’s okay because I’ve earned their trust. When I do challenge them, it’s in the best interest of their children. So that’s kind of the first thing that I do is say, “Hey, I want to meet everyone.”
Once I’ve done that, I bring them back together for joint sessions, and those usually occur every couple of weeks where I like it to stay very agenda driven and solution focused. We’re learning different ways to communicate. I think that’s the hardest part—pulling them out of that cycle of conflictual or poor communication that doesn’t lead to any deeper understanding or solutions or agreements.
I think the other big piece outside of challenging them is we need to provide people with education and some understanding about what I think is happening to help them into a workable co-parenting relationship.
You mention the cycle of communication. Help us understand this because when you decide to have children, nobody gives you the handbook that says: Here’s how to be an effective parent with the other person. We’re probably operating off of how we were raised in many circumstances. You have two people who are coming from completely different world experiences, so help us understand what some of these cycles are.
I think the first one that I talk about is the triggers of what I would call conflictual communication. I draw a triangle on a whiteboard in my office that demonstrates what was said, what was heard, and what was meant. A lot of times, between two people—especially two people who have been arguing for a while—there’s a lot of assumption of intent. So, what one person said was not necessarily what the other person heard; the meaning behind what is being discussed is lost and, frankly, different between the two people. I help people by saying, “Okay, parent, tell me what you just heard or tell me what you just said or meant?” I encourage them before they escalate and react to ask more questions. This is what I heard you say, is this what you meant? Or I’m watching you escalate and get upset. Tell me what you heard me say? Then we start to understand the nuances behind what people are hearing. We get them to always ask for more information before reacting.
I tell people that, in communication, we need to avoid three things: Escalation, defensiveness, and accusations. The minute one (or all three) of those come into our conversation, we’ve lost our ability to be productive.
(Playing Devil’s Advocate): But why should I listen to understand? I know what he or she has been saying for all these years, and I’m done. I don’t want to understand. How is that beneficial for me? I understand it might be good for the other person, but what’s in it for me?
I think you just hit on a really important point, which is that we have to remove the focus between the two parents and put it back on the children. That’s the problem. Everybody comes in with a very fixed narrative and story about who that other person is and the intent behind what they’re saying and doing.
I’ll listen to that to a certain extent, but then I’ve got to push them out of that narrative. I tell them they need to ask themselves two questions: 1). How is this going to affect my children? 2) How are my children going to feel?
I’ve got a pull the narrative away from that exclusive husband and wife umbrella, and we’ve got to put it under the co-parenting hat. The parents need to do what’s in the best interest of the children, not what they’re feeling in that moment.
From the Perspective of a Therapist, What Is Going On With Children Who Are Experiencing a Lot of Conflict Between the Parents?
Talk about that for a minute because it’s something that I’m very aware of, and I think for any lawyer who’s worked with families and conflict, we see what happens with kids in the midst of conflict.
We see a couple of different things. We see anxiety, depression, and some behavioral issues. They may be acting out in school. They may be struggling with their friendships. Maybe they’re not sleeping or having some issues with eating. But then, if we dig a little bit deeper, there’s these traps that children will fall into, especially when they start to get old enough to understand adult information and they think in terms of black and white and right or wrong. They may want to fix the issue. They want to manage their parents’ emotions. They may want to figure out who’s right and who’s wrong. They may take sides. All of these things not only have devastating effects on children in that moment, but they also reverberate into later years.
I work a lot with children of high conflict divorce, but they’re adults now in their twenties or in their thirties, and they’re falling into some of the same patterns. They’re engaging in some of the same conflict. They’re also having some trust and attachment issues in their adult relationships, whether that be intimate or friendships. So, the things that parents are doing now that are affecting the children, they need to remember that they will have long-lasting effects much later into their adulthood.
As I’m listening, I’m also thinking about how very natural it is that, without education, our default programming is to create an environment that can be so damaging for children.
I know as a parent there are things that I believe are right for my children. If I’m going to see you, I might have to hear that maybe what I’m thinking about isn’t right, and if I don’t change my way of thinking about this, then the risk is that my children are going to pay the price. So, I can be right all day, but if it’s hurting my children, then what’s the value of being right?
I hear that a lot. It’s that rigidity…that black and white type of thinking.
I actually subscribe to conflict existing a little bit more in the gray. Outside of just the normal stuff that we have conflict about, I think parents actually fight about two different concepts. The first one is unmet expectations, and where that really hits home for divorce and high conflict families is “Well, I thought things would be so much better when we separated and got divorced. I thought we’d be parenting so much better.” However, the fact of the matter is that you’re still the same people, and you still probably have the same dysfunctional communication style. So that expectation is unmet. When it’s not, it can leave people with a lot of anger and resentment and frustration.
The other piece is this idea of intent— that someone is purposefully doing something to hurt us, or to hurt our feelings, or to make life difficult. I like to pull away from this idea of right and wrong to say, “Hey, let’s move beyond that to ask, ‘What’s in the best interest of the children and how can we compromise?’” Because the resolution of conflict is always going to be better for the children.
So, to really be able to find that resolution, I have to be willing to let go of the need to be right. This is just like human nature. It doesn’t have to be a spouse. It could be a colleague. We really have to realize that there’s something more important going on here, which is really to try and understand.
That’s the difference between passive listening and active listening. Passive listening is listening with the intent to respond. That’s where we engage in that verbal volleyball where we go back and forth. We’re not really leading to any sort of agreement or solution; we just want to be right. In reality, that’s where a lot of that escalation happens in a conflict, and we’re going to lose our ability to be productive.
Alternatively, active listening is listening with the intent to understand, to have empathy, to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and to understand what they’re trying to tell me. When we talk about success in this, it isn’t necessarily that I’m the right parent, it’s that my children are going to be okay. My children are removed from the conflict.
What Does Success Look Like in Working With Parents as a Facilitator?
I’m not necessarily looking for the absence of conflict because raising children is really hard, and I feel like it’s harder now than it ever has been. There are a lot of demands on parents. What I’m looking for is: Can you navigate a conflict? Can you communicate successfully and come to an agreement without placing your children in the middle of World War II? I think success is, “Hey, we’re doing the business of co-parenting, and we’re doing it well. We’re not escalating to the point where we can’t come to any sort of agreement.
Are There Some Actual Pathologies That Make It Impossible to Co-parent?
One of the things I hear often whether it’s from my clients or just in general is we’re labeling pathology. For example: “He’s a narcissist. I can never co-parent with him.” Does pathology play a role?
I’d say yes, but I think a lot of times when we’re labeling pathologies we’re labeling features, and research shows that we do this as early as six months prior to the separation to as late as two years after the decree is signed. That’s a very ambiguous window, and it’s also the most conflictual time for those parents, so we see features of personalities come out in that period of time where, after the fact, parents go, “I can’t believe I did that. I can’t believe I said that. What was I thinking?”
It’s this tornado, it’s this hurricane of a storm that they’re in the moment. So, yes, there are pathologies. Yes, it’s difficult to work with a narcissist or a borderline personality disorder, but that needs to come from an actual licensed evaluator. I do see people present features of certain personality disorders because I think some of this situation brings some of that out. I just reserve that diagnosis for someone who has actually done a very thorough assessment.
So just because somebody is exhibiting features of a personality disorder doesn’t mean they have a full-blown disorder, and it could be that if we can kind of stabilize the moods and the emotions, we may be able to move through that.
There is a caveat to that. Whenever I’m approaching a case or working with parents, my first direction is always to try to exact a change in the family system, and I will work very hard to do that. However, there are points where what I’m actually doing is providing documentation about what’s transpiring and really being able to say to the court, “Hey, this is what one or both parents are doing, and it’s very, very concerning or needs additional interventions. I need more therapeutic support.” So, there are times when we do see mental illnesses and substance abuse that accompany some of these high conflict cases. And it’s just knowing that accountability and documentation are needed.
I think one of the realities that people need to understand is that, even if the other parent does have a diagnosis, substance abuse, or whatever, this is still the parent of a child. Somehow, if their role is going to be minimized because they can’t control their impulsive behaviors and it’s damaging to the child, and you’re the parent who doesn’t have the diagnosis, it’s still going to help your child to learn to navigate that relationship because this person is a part of the child’s life.
I think it’s also important to remember that a child is half of one parent and half of the other. Even if we do have one parent that has some sort of diagnosable mental illness, we still need to help the child manage that.
But then also we don’t want to throw the child into any type of identity crisis, so we don’t want one parent bad mouthing the other parent because, ultimately, the child’s going to recognize, “Well, wait, that’s half of me. Do I have that? Is that part of me?” One parent will anecdotally say, “Oh, you’re just like your father or your mother.” That can be a very damaging statement when delivered in such a negative context.
If Both Parents Aren’t Willing to Show Up for Parenting Facilitation, Is There Still Value in at Least One Parent Participating in the Process?
That’s an interesting question. On the parent facilitation front, both parents are court ordered to participate until the facilitator states that they can go on an “as needed” basis. So, if one decides to not participate, then that would be something that I would notify the court about in the status memo.
Let’s be honest, the majority of my clients do not want to come and sit in the room with their co-parent. In fact, they’ll have individual sessions with me and say, “Hey, this process is really hard. I get upset. It’s difficult for me.” But there is so much value in sitting together and communicating and trying a different way to navigate some of these issues. So, if one parent doesn’t participate, that’s a problem.
One thing I have noticed in my practice—I used to think I needed both people in a room to work through some conflict, but I actually do not. If I have one individual involved in voluntary, private counseling, I can give them some tools, and there’s at least a foundation of some decent communication there. They will even share it with the other person, whether that’s a partner or a family member, they’ll share what they’re learning in session. And they’re bringing something different to the table, which hopefully will prompt the other person to respond in a meaningful way.
Have you had success with parents? What does it look like?
When you get to a good working place, parents do start to release that tension.
I will be honest, it’s harder when there’s active, pending litigation. I get a lot more success when things are kind of done and they’re settled, and it’s like, “Okay, let’s put everything back together, and let’s go down a different road.” When there’s pending litigation or we’ve got something that has really escalated, then that needs to be resolved before I really start to get us into the active working phase.
And it sounds like from what you’ve been telling us, it’s really focused on the children.
There’s a very dangerous and tricky narrative that a lot of people just naturally engage in—this cycle where we justify our actions and our communication and our behaviors as a response or reaction to the other person. And what I hear a lot is, “Well, but they did this, so then I did that.” Or… “I never would’ve done that if they hadn’t done this” It’s an attempt to quickly absolve oneself of that accountability and responsibility. We have to break that justification cycle and say: You are responsible for your behavior and your communication and how it’s affecting the children—whatever your co-parent is doing.
And really, when you do that, you restore somebody’s power because it’s a really miserable place to live when the other person is controlling your behaviors and responses.
We kind of get triggered by the co-parent, and then we justify our communication and behavior as a reaction to them, but then our reaction and response becomes their trigger. So now we go round and round where each person is always blaming the other person. It’s always the other person’s fault. And again, when we remove the focus from the parents and put it on the children, we can have more success.
And in the process, you get to reclaim your own power and your role and your relationship with your children. The other parent can be who they’re going to be, but no longer does that sideways glare or the heavy sigh have to trigger you.
I think it’s also really confusing for children. If there was conflict before the divorce, and now there’s conflict after, well, what was the point of all this? This was supposed to make it better. If you have conflict before, but you’re able to achieve a good working co-parenting relationship afterwards, that’s actually an improvement. Hopefully, the children will watch you go into healthier relationships. That can be very reaffirming for the children to say, “Hey, I understand both of my parents are good people. They just weren’t great together. And that’s okay; I get that.”
And that is a wonderful thing. I have many peers who will say that about their family’s divorce (granted, not enough). In the midst of the conflict and the pain of the transition is an incredible opportunity to learn some new.
Yes. And I think you hit on something really great before when you said some of these are learned reactions or responses, maybe going back into our own childhood. I don’t think we did divorce real great many years ago. In the 80’s and 90’s we split kids up and things of that nature, and we didn’t have the therapeutic support that we have now.
I do see a lot of parents who were products of high conflict divorce back then, and they become very emotional. Meanwhile, our ability to be intelligent and to use critical thinking tends to go down when we’re emotional. We tend to reach for learned behaviors and communication patterns either from childhood or from past experience.
So, there’s opportunity in the midst of one of the most painful times in life to really take back your power, stop blaming the other person, and really pave a future for you and your children. I love that.
I think one of the best things that we can do for our children is set the example of, “Look, we had conflicts, but we worked it out. Both parents contributed, and both parents apologized.” There’s so much value in demonstrating that to your children.
And I think it’s also amazing for your children to watch you grow, to watch you work hard at something, and to watch that resolution. I think that is something that would stay with them and be a wonderful example for years to come.
What Is Your Message of Hope for Co-Parents Who Are in Conflict or Are Living With Heartache?
I would say that it’s a chunk of work to navigate going from a relationship of exes to the relationship of co-parents. But if you’re in the middle of that high conflict situation, I know that it takes a toll on your mental and emotional health. I know it takes a toll on your ability to navigate relationships in a healthy way. I know that stress, anxiety, and depression is way up. But when you start to work through this in a productive way, some of that will resolve and come down. You’ll feel better because it doesn’t feel good to be in the middle of this tornado or in the middle of this hurricane; it really does take a toll on us mentally and emotionally. But there is some peace on the other side.
I love that. Thank you so much for your time.