Co-parenting with a difficult parent?

Every family faces its own challenges; however, many high conflict divorces share the same dilemmas and woes. One that I frequently see, is “gatekeeping behaviour”.  Gatekeeping is when one parent displaying traits of a high conflict personality e.g. constant criticisms, arrogant statements, preoccupation with themselves, disparaging remarks about their ex-partner’s parenting or demands for admiration of their superior parenting style.

Research shows, that the most crucial protective factor for a child’s psychological and physical wellbeing is to maintain a stable relationship with both parents in the face of divorce.  However, excessive and on-going conflicts between parents are often seen in court, usually involving the children being caught in the middle.

It is always painful to lose a spouse, but when you divorce as a result of a betrayal or an affair you often find one parent is incredibly hurt, feels betrayed, guilty or self-doubt. For some parents, the trauma of the separation or divorce could trigger an earlier trauma or a narcissistic hurt, which can result in extreme feelings of anger.  All these instances can potentially blindside their ability to co-parent effectively and fairly, by putting their needs above their children’s. 

When this occurs, I will often refer to an experienced individual or family therapist to give all members of the family a chance to work on unresolved issues in a safe environment. Family therapy can also help your co-parent channel their hurt feelings in helpful ways and become a conscious ally in co-parenting.

Parents have often relayed back to me that it was in a family session that for the first time they were able to really see the effect of their open conflict or contempt for each other on their children. Seeing how their children’s heart rate drops or rises in a family session could be the much-needed catalyst for even the most challenging parent to recognise his or her role in causing harm to the children. 

Whilst it is incredibly difficult to co-parent with an individual who is displaying gatekeeping behaviour, it is hoped that at least one of you will able to make a purposeful mental shift, or at least see the common co-parenting traps and learn how to prevent triggering your co-parent and in order to potect your children from conflict as much as possible.

There is wisdom in recognising that you need your co-parent as your partner – a different type of partner.

Action Plan:Try to imagine that you and your co-parent are working on a start-up project; you do not trust each other, you might dislike each other, but developing a new business relationship that is courteous and respectful, with clear expectations and boundaries is essential to set the stage for a relatively smooth business venture.  If you think of your co-parents as exactly that, a co-facilitator or colleague, you will find it much easier to engage in a civil partnership without emotional rollercoasters and with clearly defined roles and expectations.

About The Author

Lora Lee

Lora is a Registered Psychologist, practicing a combined Cognitive Therapy and Psychodynamic Psychotherapy approach. Lora’s approach stresses the importance of the unconscious, past experience and family dynamic in shaping current behaviour thus undesirable behaviours is learnt and can be modified. Lora has over eight year’s clinical training and experience with children and adolescents in a variety of settings, e.g. private, non-profit, social work and school.