02 - Co-Parenting Strategies to Help Your Kids Thrive, with Karen Bonnell
Have you ever wondered how some divorced couples make their co-parenting so seamless and cooperative? Christina interviews renowned Co-Parent Coach and author, Karen Bonnell, for tips on achieving co-parenting success.
Christina Vinters is a nationally designated Chartered Mediator on a mission to inspire and facilitate healthy family transitions. She is an “ex” Divorce Lawyer (Non-Practicing Member of the Bar), Author of Pathways to Amicable Divorce, and the DIY Divorce Manual, and Peacemaking Business Consultant.
Karen’s work as a Collaborative Divorce Coach spurred her determination to write “The Co-Parenting Handbook” “ with Kristin Little, Child Specialist.
Karen has over 30 years of experience working with couples and families facing transition, loss, growth and change. A graduate of the University of Michigan, Karen has been board certified and licensed as an Advanced Registered Nurse Practitioner since 1982. She served on the faculty of University of Michigan, Eastern Michigan University & Seattle Pacific University before beginning full-time private practice in 1984. She regularly writes for, speaks to and trains healthcare and legal professionals.
As a certified Compassionate Listening trainer, Karen utilizes this heart-centered approach to authentic speaking and capable listening used around the world in high-conflict situations such as Israel/Palestine. Her deep listening skills make all the difference working with co-parent pairs in conflict as they find their way through the pain of divorce into a future with optimism.
Modern Separations Links:
Christina: Today I have the privilege of talking to Karen Bonnell, one of the leading experts in North America on co-parenting. Karen is a registered nurse practitioner, as well as a mediator, divorce coach, and co-parenting coach. She's the author of the widely-read and respected Co-Parents' Handbook, which is recently been republished as The Co-Parenting Handbook. She's passionate about helping parents be the best co-parents they can be. I think you'll find she's incredibly warm and encouraging, and you'll get a lot out of this discussion. Here we go.
Christina: Good morning, Karen! Thank you so much for being here with me today.
Karen: Christina, it's my pleasure.
Christina: I am really thrilled to have you here because I love that your focus is on helping parents focus on the best interest of the children. Why don't you start by telling us a bit about yourself – how you got in the field of divorce, and what exactly is a parent coach?
Karen: Wow, OK. Kind of a big question. So, Christina you might already know that I'm a nurse by training, and one of the hallmarks for nurses is really looking at a person's health, a family's health, or community's health holistically. And so my background really set me up for looking at families who are going through transition enormous lies on change, in a very holistic way. Which is to say that in order for a family to be healthy, all members of the family need to be tended to. So as I went through my own two-home family, family restructuring many, many years ago, before co-parent coaching was available, I realized that without that support, without that education, that understanding, it made that transition much harder than it needed to be. So shortly thereafter, I got involved in a collaborative law community which is where I cut my teeth on divorce coaching, which led me headlong and heart-full into co-parent coaching. So a co-parent coach is someone who walks alongside parents from the moment they realize they may need to separate through their divorce and then hoist their divorce process to ensure that kids are well cared for; they become the strongest, most skilful parents they can be. Even as they come to a close with their intimate partnership.
Christina: That makes so much sense. The systemic approach that you've taken and how that transition from nursing happened and make so much sense in this context. Yeah, I agree. You can't have a family functioning well if one or two parts of it are experiencing trauma or just stressed in general.
Karen: Well, our floundering in the fear of uncertainty or really encourage to be adversaries in this system wherein the end of the day, we still need a parenting team to raise healthy children. So that whole risk of that litigation model for families is very real.
Christina: For sure, and I will be doing an episode specifically on collaborative law, but for listeners who may not have a chance to listen to that particular episode, can you give us just a brief summary of the collaborative law and how you fit into that process?
Karen: Oh, sure. So I mostly work as a mediator, Christina, just as you do. But there are times when a family... depending on the complexity of their situation or their emotional needs or just their particular orientation, would prefer to walk through their divorce process with attorneys at their elbows. And in a collaborative process, those attorneys are there truly as counsel; everybody is in the same room, it's fully transparent, it is a respectful process, not necessarily easy. But respectful process where all parties, all the professional people – the attorneys, the mental health professionals, like the coach, the financial neutrals sort of circle the wagons for the couple as they figure out their property settlement, as they come to decisions about how to raise their children in two homes. So it's a non-adversarial process that just ups the support from what might otherwise just be mediation.
Christina: OK, and within that process, you're broaden as an expert to help with the co-parenting pace, and help them workout the logistics and communication around that?
Karen: Correct. Typically, helping them go through their parenting plan worksheet and preparation for creating their state-mandated parenting, you know, contract – their parenting form. And I'm also typically helping them prepare for their financial meetings, really helping them unpack difficult emotions. So that when they walk into those business meetings, they can do that with a strong mind and a calmed heart. So, kinda both of those worlds in a collaborative process.
Christina: OK, interesting! And so what are the issues that you encourage people to think about right upfront? What are the types of things that you would address at the very beginning?
Karen: Right at the very beginning, I work with parents to bring their children into the room. One of the conversations that I know I can engage parents around is “Tell me about your children”. And I ask them specifically, “Tell me about being a parent to your child,” “So, what it's like to be a mom to Lucien?” “What is it like to be a dad for Michaela?” Depending on the configuration of the families, by the way of two moms, two dads, or a mom and a dad. And that way, I can really help them anchor, and I tell them specifically, everything we do from this moment forward is in the service of those little beings that I know are the center of your heart. And that includes how you learn to treat each other, how you bring this relationship – this intimate partnership or a marriage to a close. And how you renegotiate and strengthen; how you'll be a parenting team “until death do you part”?
Christina: And a lot of parents I find it takes them a while to acknowledge that there will be that ongoing relationship. It seems to me quite difficult for a lot of people to wrap up the intimate relationship. But at the same time acknowledge that they really do need to work on having that constructive parenting relationship for the sake of their children.
Karen: That's exactly right, and part of their resistance is often oriented around feeling forced to move too quickly into, what we might call friends as parents. And I'm very, very clear with intimate partners who are emotionally distraught, bereft, hurt, betrayed – that they may never be friends with their co-parent. And I don't need them to be friends. I need them to be respectful, and I need them to be civil and that will take time to find their way through their grief, through their hurt, through their pain. That will then allow them to be those things. In the meantime, what I want them to do is respectfully to separate. So less is more in this situation. Less communication, less back and forth, things that do need to be talked about haven't talked about in a guided setting, in a facilitated setting. Where someone can help manage the trauma, so that we're not re-traumatizing very, very tender hearts, very, very hurt people. Right? So our first step is how do we really separate so we can heal, grieve what we need to grieve – what we lost. So that we can begin to form a future where we can parent our children.
Christina: Now, what will you say are your top tips that parents should really have at the forefront of their minds – specific tip? So being respectful is absolutely key. I'm thinking more tactical or strategic tips that will help them move towards a successful co-parenting plan.
Karen: Step one: Choose your professionals – the people who are going to support you through your separation and your divorce. Choose professionals who are going to support you as a member of a family that's in transition. In other words, your allies don't need to champion you in this, on your co-parent. We don't need to feed that adversarial energy, OK. So choose professionals who can hold your pain while at the same time not pouring gasoline on a fire. Okay? Number one. Number two: Self-care. Self-care. Can I underline that enough? I want you to make sure you're sleeping. Please cut back on your alcohol use. Try an exercise everyday. Do what you can to be a good enough parent. Don't worry about falling apart from time to time. There are so many strong emotions that go with the losses of an intimate partnership and these changes in the family. We gotta be gentle with ourselves. So allow for that healing process. Know that there's gonna be grief. Try not to fight it. Try and work with it. OK? So that's number two. Choose your professionals wisely, do your self-care, acknowledge that there's grief. Right? The third piece, the third step is as your nervous system begins to settle down, then it's time to educate yourself about what it would mean to be co-parent. “How would I do that?” “How do I show up at curriculum night in two weeks when I know my other parent, you know my children's other parent, is gonna be there as well?” “How do I do that?” “Very practical. I can walk in the room, here's how I'll choose my seat, here's how I'll greet my co-parent, and then I'll step away.” So just recognizing that there are literally steps for how to do this that will help you heal, while simultaneously help you move forward.
Christina: And I'd like to pick up on some of the terms that you used there. So you mentioned “other parent” and “my co-parent” – I'm curious, are those the words that you recommend people use to refer to each other? Using the term 'ex' which is so common in our culture is so negative. That has so many negative connotations attached to it. What are the terms that you recommend or that you find people use that sit well into.. that doesn't feel awkward?
Karen: Right. So one of the first things I teach my parents who come into the office is that we're gonna begin a very active process of separating their husband-wife relationship, their spousal relationship, their intimate partnership, from their parenting. And the language that we choose really helps with that separation. You know, what we talk about is ending here is an intimate partnership, a marriage. What's not ending is that two people who became parents seven years ago, six months ago – whenever that occurred – eighteen years ago. And so I wanna help them get clearer and clearer about what are we closing up, what are we ending, what are we grieving? And what are we actually still engaged in? So I do ask my co-parent teams, don't use the term ex. How about, if you wanna identify your former spouse, how about former partner, former spouse? How about, you know sometimes we joke about 'wasbands'. But terms that are, are more endearing and less pejorative. Then some of the other terms, you know, jerk for example. Let's not use “I'm not co-parenting with a jerk”. “I'm co-parenting with my children's mother or father.” I also encourage them to reclaim just terms 'mom' and 'dad'. How many times did children of parents who are divorcing start to hear instead of “Go ask your dad” or “Go ask your mommy”, “Go ask your father” – with a big 'your' in front of it. As if I've de-zoned that relationship, and that puts you over in a 'that' category; in “another camp”. “Your father”, “Your mother”. And so parents actually practice that. What is it like to say “OK, when you're at home with dad...” as opposed to “When you are at your father's house...” Notice that it's not just my intonation, but my word choices that are gonna impact children. So, we start to practice. It's awkward, it's new, it's not what people do in the culture. But you know, we're helping parents reframe what their children's experiences which, over time, is much more enriching than feeling like they live in a divided home.
Christina: It's amazing what a big change just one word can make. I actually hadn't heard that before and that's really eye-opening. My concept of 'dad' rather than 'your dad'. Even if you say it in a nice tone.
Christina: And so, what is your process for working with clients?
Karen: Well, they know how to get to me... most people email and say, you know, 'we made a decision to separate, we'd like to meet with you'. They come in, we spend an introductory session just to make sure that they are clear about my process and that there's a good match – there's still a chemistry. I don't care who you are or how expert you might be. There's still chemistry you need to work with people that you feel comfortable with and feel like I can provide a trusting environment. Then we do many of the things that we've just talked about. You know, they introduce me to their children, they often bring pictures. I begin to lay the groundwork for separating, the intimate partnership from their parenting pair, their parenting team relationship. And depending on their readiness, we actually begin to talk about things like, “So if you're still living in the same home, when do you intend to make that a two-home family?” “How do you imagine you might share your children?” So this is my language – share your children across two homes. “What are the skills you think you might need to keep their lives integrated and problem solved on their behalf?” That is part of what we'll be working through. I actually use a worksheet, it's available in the Parenting Plan Workbook, where parents talk about with each other the different options and 'why you might choose this one versus that one?', and ''how might we do the holidays in this first year too, but in yours three and beyond?' That might look quite different. So all of these is part of the psycho-education about how families adjust to a change of this magnitude.
Christina: Now do you ever come across situations where one parent is interested in working with you and figuring out how to structure a positive co-parenting relationship, but the other spouse doesn't wish to participate? And if so, are you able to work with just one? Or how... do you have ways of trying to get the other parent interested in participating?
Karen: Yes, I do. So just recently, I had a co-parent let me know that her co-parent's attorney didn't want her to see me. And so in that case, I ask if there was any chance that both of the attorneys – mom's attorney and dad's attorney – will get on the phone with me just to talk about... My thought was that dad's attorney was uncertain or just simply didn't know what went on in my office. And so that would be one trick of the trade. The other is I usually can get a parent who wants to work with me to hook their other parent in by saying “Hey, she'll talk to you for free, give her a call, you can email her, here's her website, she'd be happy to give you a copy of her book, if you wanna contact her.” Like there are just things that I'll do to kind of say, Give me a chance. Just give me a minute, you don't have to work with me. Just come once. I mean that's my really big deal. Just come once. I don't need you to ever agree that you're gonna come back or that your'e gonna mediate your parenting plan with me. That's not important. But my experience is if I get them to come in once and find that out that it's actually safe, that's it's really about their kids, about that I really am neutral in terms of... You know I think sometimes dads are still afraid that working with a woman that I'll be biased toward a mom. And the fact is I have a very strong bias and I tell both parents that with these children need both their parents. And that what we know in terms of outcomes is that kids do better physically and emotionally when they have a strong and engaged relationship with both parents. It's not a competition about who's the better parent. Kids just need two good enough parents. That's what kids need.
Christina: And parents must see once they go to that first meeting, they must see the immense value just right off the bat. I'm sure most people, once they realize what it's all about they go, “Oh, OK. I can see that this is gonna be really great for my kids going forward.”
Karen: You know, there's a huge relief. Sometimes I have to slow down. Your listeners might not know, but I live in the Silicon Valley of the North. You know I live in the backyard of Microsoft and Amazon. And so sometimes my software engineers simply just need to be slowed down. They're all about efficiency and bullet points and box checking, and I sometimes need to spend a little time to say, “You know this is probably the most important contract that you will ever design. And you'll be living with it for, you know, however many years until their children are through college and although the contract expires in high school, at the end of high school, I really support my co-parents to really live inside a parenting plan structure until their kids are into adulthood, for their sake. So they don't fall into feelings of 'How can I meet both of my parents needs now that I'm in college?'. So sometimes it's about slowing dad down or mom down. Efficiency is really important – I know your time is extremely valuable, and just above your kids. And we're gonna find your way through it in the most efficient way possible with no corners cut. Because they deserve that. Most of the time I can get them to settle down.
Christina: You've of course written the very popular book in the field, The Co-Parent's Handbook. And I see that you're now writing a new book about dating after divorce. So I'm wondering what advice do you have for parents on that topic?
Karen: The new book will be out in the Spring, hopefully, that's the plan. It's called the Step-Family Handbook, and it's everything from first dates, as co-parents, to creating a step-family. And it's very, very important; a data point that most parents don't know is that the adjustment to step-family for children is actually more difficult than the divorce. And so as much as parents worry about their children during the divorce process, I really want them to understand that the transition to step-family is also an enormous, enormous adjustment. And although we, as parents, are often just so thrilled, so happy, so relieved, to be in love again, to have found a partner that's gonna walk forward with us – that's not necessarily our children's experience. And so recognizing the fears and trepidations that kids have really help guide how we introduce a new adult into their lives right from the beginning. So, that's what the new book will be about is that walk in that journey and how it skillfully pace, allowing children to recognize that we're now dating, that... what dating means, who this person is, how to build a relationship with the new adult who's not a parent? And who may be around our household in a parent-like capacity? Those are all skills and as a parent and a potentially soon-to-be-stepparent, learning that architecture and how it works is really important.
Christina: Well thank you, Karen so much for sharing your wisdom with us today. What would be the best ways for our listeners to get in touch with you?
Karen: The best way is by email. Just go to the website, which is coachmediatecounsult.com. There's a, you know, way to email me directly to my email address or through the website itself. Of course my phone number, I'm here in the States. People are welcome to call as well, email is a little easier. And you can follow me on Facebook and Twitter, and you know, Pinterest. So there's lots and lots of ways and I invite people to connect in any way that makes sense for them.
Christina: OK, perfect! Well, Karen, thank you again for today and for all the really important work that you're doing for families.
Karen: You're welcome. Thanks so much, Christina, for having me. It's really been my pleasure.