Mindful Co-parenting During Marital Tensions – Five Ways to Ensure Success
Mindful co-parenting involves thinking about how you want to bring up your children, putting it into words, sharing it with each other and planning a strategy of implementation based on nurturing the children – rather than about winning or losing points in the marital game of disharmony.
Mindful co-parenting Challenges
Preoccupation with surviving within the marital relationship
It’s hard enough for parents to be mindful, rather than impulsive when faced with a defiant child; or to be on a mission to behave like the parents they never had; or to avoid being the parents they did have. Imagine what it’s like if you as parents are preoccupied with the pull-and-push of a marital relationship that is not safe given these fundamental goals. So much space in the mind is taken up with surviving in the marriage, that there is no room for mindful co-parenting.
Parents focus is on feeling devalued and undermined
Mindful Co-parenting is tough when you and your partner are uncomfortable with each other and feel devalued or undermined. Your mind is less tuned into what your children need and more on reacting to your partner’s hurtful comments or calling into question your parenting skills. So it takes both parents to make a conscious choice to separate out their relationship stuff which can trigger insecurity, and focus on the emotional security of the children.
Parents don’t trust each other and fight battles in the parenting arena
Mindful co-parenting is enormously difficult if you are unsure whether your partner respects or trusts you. Partners who have a pattern of arguing and shutting down – living in an atmosphere of uncertainty, feel unmoored. Since they don’t get anywhere in the cycle of fighting and withdrawing, they take their issues and put them in the parenting arena. That place is somewhere they feel entitled to make their voices prevail. It’s hard to conduct mindful co-parenting when each parent wants to win their case.
Parents feel unloved by their partner and use children to fill that gap
Mindful co-parenting is almost impossible if you feel rejected and demeaned by your partner. So many of my clients in these situations cry out in pain, wondering if their partners even like them! When partners are needing proof that their partners merge in their views, and maintain an interested, affectionate stance – and don’t get it – their whole worlds are upside down and they cling to their children for validation, unconditional love and stability of connection.
Five Steps to Mindful Co-parenting When Marital Tensions Are High –
Avoid Using Kids to Validate Your Position
Errol a 42-year-old marketing manager was used to feeling belittled and demeaned when he talked with his 7-year-old daughter about her relationship with her cousins. His 40-year-old wife Arielle usually pecked at him by asking, “What are you doing? What are you telling her? You shouldn’t be talking to her in this way!” Errol often took the bait and responded by saying that their daughter wanted him to talk about her cousins and enjoyed it; he put his daughter on the spot, “you liked it didn’t you?”
- Mindful co-parenting does not involve the child in this marital interaction. Both parents must signal to the child that they are not expected to take sides or validate one or other parent’s views of the other – and that the parents will survive without the child rescuing them.
- Mindful co-parenting considers situations such as these and makes a plan to not attack one another in front of their children. In other words, acknowledging your propensity to react and redirect it outside of the marital tussle and outside of the parent-child interaction. In a mindful co-parenting agreement the child’s need to feel safe, and secure involves accepting that children want to and make efforts to love and attach to both parents equally.
- Mindful co-parenting involves making a conscious choice not to act out conflicts regarding who is the boss; who controls who; male versus female dominance or submission. That can only be achieved if parents set aside time and participate in an ongoing dialogue about these issues that are ingrained and modeled for them by their own parents.
Tune into your child’s body language and mood shifts as marital tensions persist
Kevin and Charlotte, both in their mid-thirties struggled to address their 10-year-old son’s temper tantrums. Nate often hit out, threw things and destroyed furniture when his rage got out of control. His parents often argued about how to handle Nate when he became aggressive, each wanting to feel that they had the magic touch, while simultaneously wanting the support of their partner. However, they were unified in the experience of overwhelm and fear that they had a monster for a son, who was scaring his sister into becoming a timed recluse hiding in her bedroom. Nate became the scapegoat in the family, shifting the focus from the unstable marriage to a ‘bad’ child.
- Mindful co-parenting reflects on the way Nate’s outbursts bound up the otherwise frayed marital connection.
- Mindful co-parenting takes account of the Nate’s willingness to be the ‘bad’ thing in the family so that his parents would see good in each other and come together in a more compassionate way.
- Mindful co-parenting takes the burden off Nate to hold the family together when he makes them pull together against him.
- Mindful co-parenting owns the joint parental fear of not being able to make each other happy rather than let Nate carry that label.
- Mindful co-parenting pays attention to child’s body language, that provides you early warnings of how they are reacting to your marital tensions.
Avoiding eye contact, hunched positions, turning into a ball, and or isolating themselves suggest fear and anxiety about their safety when parents escalate their battles.
Whereas screaming, acting out and demanding behavior is indicative of a dread inside – a terrible sense of being left adrift because the parents aren’t providing a platform of safety and security.
- Mindful co-parenting is curious and serious about the messages their child sends out about the precarious nature of the family that isn’t a viable institution.
Talk together about the emotional changes and emotional needs of the children as a function of the marital disharmony
Remember how you felt when your parents weren’t getting along – when they lost their cool or when one gave the other the cold shoulder? What was it like for you when you were a kid? How scared and off balance were you in those days? Didn’t you want to get your parents on an even keel? Didn’t you want to get a sense that they knew you existed and weren’t absorbed in the marital dramas?
Sharing your experiences with your co-parenting partner and learning how each of you dealt with your parents discord will help you identify, understand and get inside the experience of your child. That is being mindful of them and mindful of your younger selves – by being more attuned and nurturing co-parents.
4.Watch, listen and be receptive to all the subtle cues that indicate that your children are trying to take care of you in an effort to establish harmony
When you were a child you probably did a ton of things to help your parents stay connected and provide you with stability. Maybe you became the house clown making everyone laugh as a distraction. Maybe you were the comforter in chief, giving everyone hugs. Perhaps you tried to excel at school to bring joy and pride to your parents as a way of unifying them.
Some children become more parent like – cooking, cleaning, tidying to help take care of their parents who are raw with bitter or painful emotions. Other’s try to make excuses for one or other parent. Many anticipate the physical needs of their parents and present them with thoughtful gestures or favorite things. Often children want to sleep near you to ensure you aren’t lonely and have comfort. Kids often invite you to do things with them if they sense you are feeling rejected or belittled by the other parent.
Some children sense that you may want something to turn to that will offer unconditional love. These children regress and become more infant like; evoking those early maternal and paternal urges to hold and cuddle – where the child becomes a “fill in” that is at your disposal when their partner is emotionally distant or the couple are deliberately avoiding one another. Becoming sick is a common way kids get parents to refocus. Attacks of constipation, allergies, skin rashes, sleep disruption, toileting problems, nightmares, and acts of self-harm (in-pre teens) including eating disorders are manifestations of your child attempting to take your mind off the marriage and bring you together with worry and care for them.
Be mindful of your position of a role model to your children and what they will learn from you
You probably don’t realize it, but the manner in which you as co-parents address each other in coming together – fighting-separation- coming together again, is exactly what you picked up from your respective families and are in danger of role modelling it for your children. That’s the opposite of mindful co-parenting.
If you deal blows by name calling, bringing up years of resentment and pain by making your partner the bogey man and you the angel, then you are sending a message to your children that there is only one person who is right and good and the other is always wrong and bad. That goes against mindful co-parenting.
If you slink off and disappear without resolving hurt with your partner, take to the bottle, substance abuse or getting lost in your smart phone – you are doing what your parents did – causing worry; initiating anger that you have gone AWOL, and setting up norms of irresponsibility that your children are going to have wired into them. Mindful co-parenting goes out the window.
If you take the children and run to your parents for a while, depriving them of contact with the other parent, you are giving messages that you are going to use the kids as leverage. How did it feel if that was done to you when you were younger?
If you threaten to take things away or do things to constrain your partner (whether you do it in front of the kids or not – they sense it acutely!) they will get a message of marriage being a system of oppression and suppression. But if you want your children to have a sense that everyone has a part to play in disharmony and everyone has to share in the consequences, you give your kids hope and models of resolution – that scary situations are survivable and will pass. Now this is excellent mindful co-parenting.
If you ignore the discomfort of marital pain and just keep leaping from one emotional drama/explosion/denial to the next; then you provide a model of incapacity to manage normal human interactions that are often hurtful – anything but mindful co-parenting.
Mindful co-parenting provides a model not of helplessness and resignation but one of proactively reaching out and being interested in your partner’s feelings. That helps you as co-parents be interested in the feelings of your children. These interests forge bonds that provide resiliency through all the coming storms.
The important thing in mindful co-parenting is to be ready for the bumps and the chasms of hurt and despair that come in to a marital relationship and model for your children that it is normal, is manageable by talking, sharing and empathizing rather than by blaming, shunning and threatening – then you set up the foundation for being good (not perfect) role models and give your children a wonderful chance of being mindful co-parents themselves.
Copyright, Jeanette Raymond, Ph.D. 2020
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