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Overcoming The Challenges Of Co-Parenting – with Brad Craig

“Opposites attract”, they say and this can make parenting difficult, especially when you and your partner can’t agree on anything. Then you throw in a divorce or a separation and that makes co-parenting all that much more challenging.

Brad Craig knows all about the challenges of co-parenting. He is the creator of a program called Children in the Middle and also the author of Between Two Homes. Braind joined Dallas Family Law Attorney Jennifer Hargrave on her podcast to talk about the challenges parents face, how they can overcome those challenges, and what decisions they can make for their children’s best interests.

Jennifer Hargrave:

Thank you so much for taking the time today to come to visit with me.

Brad Craig:

Thank you, Jennifer. It’s so great to be here. We haven’t had cases together in the past. I was really excited to be in your show.

Jennifer:

Excellent! Well, I want to start off and just ask you what led you into this field of work? You are a mental health professional. So tell us a little bit about your credentials and why you’re focused on helping families.

Brad:

Okay. So I’m a licensed social worker and a certified Family Life educator here in the state of Texas. Licensure is an important thing to have if you’re a mental health specialist working with families. That’s the board that I answer to. I think what really makes me an expert in this area occurred long before I ever became a professional. I’m a child who grew up between two homes. My parents separated and didn’t have the best co-parenting relationship, didn’t have the worst co-parenting relationship either, but I think it gave me some insight into what really is important for children. So many times in the legal process, best interest boils down to parenting time, and that has so little to do with really the quality of life of a child growing up between two homes. For me, what I remember is how important peer relationships were, and extracurricular activities, and those types of things, things that so often get overlooked in even the legal process. We look at rights, duties, and privileges. Rarely do we look at, well, let’s keep the parents in unless there’s a domicile restriction. What about the children’s right to go to extracurricular activities, and just hang out with a best friend on a Friday night independent of whose parenting time it is?

That really was my motivator, I think, for getting into this field. It was improving the quality of life for children growing up between two homes, and looking at services that were a little more empowering for families that are raising children between two homes, instead of being a petitioner or respondent on how to continue being parents –mom and dad, or two moms, or two dads, or grandparents, or whatever that role is between the two homes.

Jennifer:

I want to talk about the whole idea of co-parenting. We talk about that a lot. I think everybody knows ideally parents should get along, they should be able to make decisions, and they should agree. The reality is, I think all parents think they’re acting in the best interest of their children — most parents. But they have very, very different ideas of what that is.

Brad:

Right.

Jennifer:

And so is co-parenting really a myth? Is it a reality? How do we begin to lay the groundwork for the best possible relationship between the parents post-separation?

Brad:

Okay. So it’s definitely a reality. I thought about that question of, “Is school a reality?” Yes, but some people fail, some people need extra help, and then others are quite successful. So I think about that when it comes to co-parenting. I think sometimes we put co-parenting into a box of successful co-parenting and really, at least professionally, there are three different degrees of co-parenting. There’s cooperative co-parenting. That’s the best in the world. That’s where moms and dads are still moms and dads even though they’re not lovers or husband and wife. Whatever that situation is if it’s same-sex, or even if it’s grandparents with children residing predominantly with grandparents but spending every other weekend with parents, those are all co-parenting relationships. Cooperative co-parenting means that they’re getting along to the best of their ability. They have a very businesslike relationship. They’re inviting each other to parent-teacher conferences. They’re seeking each other’s input before enrolling them in extracurricular activities. They’re really engaged and then they have that business relationship.

Then there’s parallel co-parenting. Parallel co-parenting is really designed for families where there’s a lot of conflicts, and one or both parents have an inability to disengage from the conflict. And so parallel parenting is really very much what it sounds like. We’re both going to parent but we’re going to do it on more of a parallel streak. So we will be communicating about a few things that we need to but in general, the rules are going to be one way in one household, which may be different in the other household. But at least we’re not engaging in a conflict where the children are exposed to parents saying bad things about each other, fights during exchanges, and some of those behaviors.

Then conflicted co-parenting is what we want to protect children from. Conflicted co-parenting is where parents are screaming, yelling, cussing each other out during exchanges, have multiple attorneys involved, the judge knows them on a first-name basis because they’re repeat offenders through the court process. Those are those high-conflict families. Cooperative co-parenting is the goal and then parallel co-parenting is safe. Conflicted co-parenting is not safe.

So, when you look at that spectrum, or when you look at those different compartments of co-parenting, we definitely co-parent. Most people don’t successfully 100% cooperative co-parent, even if they’re the best of co-parents. There’s a small percentage of their relationship that’s going to be parallel where it’s, “Okay, the child is going to a Catholic Church the first, third, and fifth weekends. Then in a Baptist Church the second and fourth.” That’s a more parallel structure but there are some agreements in place. We’re not going to disparage each other’s religious beliefs. We’re going to make sure that the child understands that they’ll be in an age where they’ll determine their own path. So that’s a safe parallel plan, and they may cooperatively co-parent in all other areas, or just about all areas.

Jennifer:

So when you have the conflict — thank you. That’s so helpful because I’m going to tell you that when I think of co-parenting, I think of it as the healthy context of something that is kind of a unicorn. It isn’t. It’s very much real, but it is helpful to look at it that there is co-parenting. It’s just conflicted, or parallel, or cooperative. Do you ever have families who come to you and they start off in a conflicted co-parenting relationship and they’re able to adapt to change and move into a much more constructive co-parenting relationship?

Brad:

Absolutely. Most of my work, fortunately or unfortunately, however you want to look at that, is with high-conflict families. My services like my co-parenting class and online services are for all families, but I think a lot of the courts around this area have forgotten, “Hey, Brad likes working with warm and fuzzy cases. He likes those . He likes mediations.” Most of the families they get referred to me or high-conflict families. So through that type of model, some families will — you’re moving them from conflicted co-parenting. It may be safest for them to be parallel and they may stay that way. But for an awful lot of the families that I work with, once we start giving them tools or things that they didn’t know about before, how to look at situations differently, how to communicate better with each other, it can evolve to higher levels of cooperative co-parenting.

Jennifer:

It is interesting because I know just in the work that I’ve done with families and as a parent myself with a co-parent, there are these things that we do instinctively that we think are best for children, but actually can make things much more difficult for them. The example I think of is when a breakup happens. A parent may feel like it’s best for their children to know why the breakup is happening, but as professionals we know that’s terrible.

Brad:

Right.

Jennifer:

So sometimes people just don’t know. They haven’t been educated and they don’t have the tools. What kind of tools or tips do you have for somebody who is right now facing the breakup of a relationship?

Brad:

So tools and tips. I probably have a lot.

Jennifer:

Yes, the whole class.

Brad:

Yes, a portable version of the class and a book. I think the most difficult thing is transitioning from that previous intimate relationship into a business relationship of co-parenting where you have a co-parenting alliance. It’s hard to transition. It’s hard to remember a bad spouse doesn’t equal a bad co-parent. Maybe they make their affairs, maybe there are some other things that occurred, but that doesn’t mean that they’re in a poor quality co-parenting relationship. It just means we need to move on. That’s yesterday’s business and that’s really hard. I think during the initial separation period, whether it’s a cooperative family, or collaborative law case, or a high-conflict case, it’s that transition period, and often you find the parents at different levels. You have the parent who’s, “I’m done with it. I’m ready to go. I don’t see why my co-parent can’t get over it.” And then you’ve got the other who’s like, “I thought we went to marriage counseling. We just found out.”

So even in collaborative law, I use a chart when I’m working with families to measure where do you think you are, and where is your co-parent? We look at the intimate divorce but we also look at the legal and so on. What we often find is one parent still kind of had almost shocking denial and anger, while the other is that acceptance. I have to remind the one with acceptance, “Look, a year ago you were doing these things. You remember digging through their phone, digging through their trash. You were doing some of these crazy things.”, “Oh, yeah. I was doing that.”

Jennifer:

Yeah, yeah. I think that the idea of divorce readiness is really helpful because usually, the person who’s initiating the divorce has probably lived with that decision for a long period of time before they finally took the step to initiate the divorce, and the other parent can really be caught off guard.

Brad:

Yeah, I find this process — I really want to improve the quality of life for children growing up between two homes, but part of that to me was about empowering and educating families. The number one complaint we get whether it’s the live class or the online class is, “I wish I’d taken this class earlier.” or “I wish I’d taken this class sometimes before I hired an attorney.” because sometimes these families just don’t know what they don’t know. So as you mentioned, they make some mistakes along the way like the secret agent child, or the messenger child, or they just don’t even know what alternatives are available.

One year, we tab the results of our pretest and post-test. And one of the questions that we asked is what are the forms of alternative dispute available in Texas? Now, this is about 10 years ago. A very small percentage, I think about 23% from the tab we’re able to list mediation, there was 1% of any other forms and that included collaborative law and all those others. So at the end of the class, 97% scored the answer to know about mediation, and collaborative law, and other options that they don’t have. Of course, a big complaint tends to be when I teach the class and talk about collaborative law. It’s like, “Hey, that’s a great idea. We’re going to do that. We already have attorneys.” Well, that may be something you needed to explore with your attorneys. They just simply don’t know.

I don’t think we opened that door very well or make it very inexpensive for them to get that information. They can meet with me for $200 an hour or they can take a class for $40, or they can read a book for 10.95 if you’re on Amazon.

Jennifer:

I love the idea when you’re talking about empowered parenting. I mean, giving parents tools and educational resources. What are some of the biggest mistakes you see parents make early on because they’re not empowered? This isn’t somebody whose malicious and really trying to hurt their children. There are those parents out there. Hopefully, not many.

Brad:

There are.

Jennifer:

But for the most part, people just don’t know what they don’t know. What are the light bulbs that go off for people?

What’s the grief process for Co-Parents?

Brad:

I think a big part of that is that grief process during the separation, or even if the co-parents’ scenario is grandparents — a maternal grandmother who realizes, “My daughter’s not safe around my grandbabies. And I raised my daughter.” That in itself is a whole grief process. There’s a study done and I wish I could cite it because the language is so perfect. I read it early in my career. At a time when children need their parents the most, during that divorce process or separation process, is the time that the parents have the least faculties to give them. It makes sense. They’re going through grief. They have no idea what the grief process is all about. They’re hearing things like, “You need to get along with your co-parent.” At the same time, they’re hearing things like, “You need to be prepared for court. If you give them that Tuesday, they’re going to fight for those Tuesdays in the future, so you better not give up those Tuesdays now. You can in the future.” They’re being asked to wear kind of two different hats. The “I’ve got to defend myself and defend myself in court” hat. At the same time where I’m being pressured, you got to get along with this person whether you like them or not.

Jennifer:

I’m just thinking, I haven’t really thought of this before but the fact that when we’re preparing for court, “I need a timeline. I need a written — every bad thing the parents did, every bad decision.” Right?

Brad:

Right.

Jennifer:

But that’s the same time that we’re asking them to be cooperative, to be flexible in their thinking, to be forgiving, to let go of all of this anger and resentment. Those two things do not fit very well together.

Brad:

They don’t. I think that’s what I… one of the things about writing this book that I didn’t realize would occur is I now have attorneys giving copies to their clients. Sometimes, they’ll buy bulk load to give to their clients because what they’re starting to realize, I think, is that empowered clients are empowered clients. If they know a little bit better — even if they take the online class, they have assumptions about what happens in court. Then they get to actually hear from a Tarrant County judge or a Dallas County Judge about things like domicile restrictions. And so, they leave a class like that going, “Oh, I had a preconception. I’ve been watching Judge Duty or divorce court and I thought that’s the way it really happened.” So I find that… you’re right, that they’re wearing these — even when I’m doing parenting facilitation with my really high-conflict families, I acknowledge to them in that first session. It’s like I’m going to be telling you and holding you accountable for being cooperative with your co-parent. The divorce isn’t even finalized so I know you’re getting some advice that says, “Don’t give up this Tuesday even if grandmother’s in town because of the conflict.” It’s a really hard place for them to be. So I think the main thing that I see, is the difficulty of wearing the litigation hat and wearing a co-parenting had at the same time.

Does Collaborative Divorce help in co-parenting?

Jennifer:

What benefits do you see? Because you just mentioned “collaborative.” So cases that do opt into a collaborative divorce process, how do you see that supporting the co-parents and the children?

Brad:

If nothing else, the determination is left to the parents instead of the court. I love the concept of getting away from fighting for the rubber stamp, and that’s what so many families in litigation are fighting for. They’re fighting for best interest and again, best interest tends to boil down to the schedule between the two homes. Is it going to be 50-50 or 225? You know, all these different plans that we have. That’s what it so frequently boils down to. In collaborative law, you need to be creative.

In my collaborative cases when I’m the child specialist or the communication coach, rather than again charging them $200 or $300 to meet with them, they get to take my class for free, they get a copy of my book. I think that’s really, really empowered. So when they actually do have that separate session with me to design the parenting plan, they already know what a parenting plan looks like, how to empower yourself, about the stages of grief, and where you are in the emotions. So I think it’s really, really empowering. I love that collaborative law says, “Be creative.” There have been so many creative solutions parents have reached, whether in regards to the schedule, or between the two homes, or even child support or anything. They’re empowered and we look at their goals. What’s your goal? Where do you want to be in your co-parenting relationship?

Jennifer:

You know, as we talk about empowerment, one of the things that I think — and tell me if I’m wrong here, but one of the things that are so difficult in a divorce or separation is fear, right?

Brad:

Exactly.

Check out the rest of our conversation on our Youtube Channel!