Coparent Academy Podcast

#98 - Treating the Custodial Parent

February 05, 2024 Linda VanValkenburg and Ron Gore
Coparent Academy Podcast
#98 - Treating the Custodial Parent
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

In Episode 8 of our series on domestic violence and coparenting we discuss the kinds of treatment needed for the custodial parent to assist them with the possible reintroduction to the children of the person who abused them. 

If you would like to participate in our domestic violence series as a guest, please contact us and let us know. We are interested in all perspectives and backgrounds for our conversations.

Thanks for listening!  If you have questions, comments, or concerns, please email us at podcast@coparentacademy.com.  To learn more about becoming the best coparent you can be, visit coparentacademy.com.

Speaker 1:

All right, welcome everybody. This is episode eight of our Domestic Violence and Co-Apparenting series, and today we're going to get into talking about how to treat the custodial parent, and that's a lot harder than it sounds, I think, in Atlanta.

Speaker 2:

Yes, actually how to get them ready for the child to have individual treatment or joint treatment with the abuser.

Speaker 1:

Right, yeah, and so again, there's a lot more to co-parenting than just having the child see the abusing parent, and I'm sure we'll touch on some of the just co-parenting aspects also. But our focus in this primarily because we're always kid focused is focusing on this process of reunifying, or attempting to, the child with the abusive parent, and so we're primarily within that context. So, linda, what's the number one step for the custodial parent when they're faced with the idea of the child being reunified with the abuser?

Speaker 2:

Well, reconciliation work is a family process and it really requires a lot of active effort on the part of both parents. So it's important that the abused parent gets around therapy for their abuse trauma and they should continue that individual therapy in order to support the child while they're going through the joint sessions with the abuser.

Speaker 1:

Yeah, and it's one of the things that you see when you look at Instagram. If you look at Reddit, there's always this focus on my narcissist ex and all the different ways in which he abused me, or my bipolar ex in all the ways in which she made life difficult. But part of part of the reality of a court process is the goal is to treat, rehabilitate and reunify, typically, if possible, so that the child has both parents. And if the custodial parent who started off having done nothing wrong is not prepared to help facilitate that process, the court will eventually start to look at that parent as the problem.

Speaker 2:

Exactly. And so that parent and I just do not understand that because they're just trying to quote protect their child, as they usually were not able to do very well when they were being abused themselves. Right, but I've tried to help probably hundreds of them through the years understand that that serves to make them look bad in the eyes of the court.

Speaker 1:

Yeah, and we're saying that the way that I mean it is and I know the way you mean it too is not that we care about how anyone perceives us individually. Why it matters is, yeah, why it matters is, if you wind up making the court think that you're the problem, then that abuser who came into Linda's office and said, okay, I'm out of prison now I'm going to get full custody, you could help them do that. If you don't have your individual counseling, if you're not prepared to co-parent in the way that the court expects you to with even an abuser parent who has seemed to be rehabilitated in some way, you could wind up having things flipped around on you and that's not protective. So ultimately, it can be really counterproductive to be overly gatekeeping when everyone else in the system is telling you they've made some progress and it's time to take baby steps to see where this can go.

Speaker 2:

And I know it's hard for the abused parent to accept that there are types that they even need to genuinely examine themselves and be dedicated to changing anything that might be unhelpful with their behavior or attitudes. That might even, kind of unsubconsciously, just bring on a different reaction with the kid. The kid may not be, for example, really fearful right then, but if they are recognizing that the custodial parent is fearful, they can wind up appearing to be fearful.

Speaker 1:

Right, so could you walk through with us if a custodial parent and I know every situation is different, but if a custodial parent is doing things perfectly, what would that look like?

Speaker 2:

Well, I don't really ever require perfection, but there are some basics that I do let them know off the top that they really need to do, like it's important that they refrain from questioning the child about their individual session with me or individual sessions with another therapist that they're seeing individually, or about the sessions that they're in with their parent. Just like I said, the attitude, fear, anxiety, whatever feeling they're having with the custodial parent can definitely splash over to the child. The same thing happens at the end of a session if the parent acts like the child just exited a burning building or something and the poor child survived it. That kind of thing is real obvious to a child and I've watched their demeanor change dramatically from enjoying being with the abuser parent in my office to returning to the custodial parent and everything about the demeanor change. It would be important, too, for the custodial parent to make sure the sessions are kept as scheduled, because the continuity of services is really crucial. I try to get a rhythm going in how regular we do the sessions so that the child has that to depend on, because part of what they may be experiencing is a lack of continuity, a lack of structure or able to depend on the parent. Any kind of frequent or long interruption in attendance is going to undermine the effectiveness. I can tell you once again that's something that the court pays attention to. Attorneys know to email me and say hey, are you hearing back from this parent? I heard that she canceled the last session as she rescheduled that kind of thing.

Speaker 1:

Yeah, and from the litigation side, what that does is it creates causality questions in my mind. Let's say that the reconciliation isn't going well or progressing as smoothly as maybe one would hope. Is it because the custodial is because the formally abusive parent is the problem, or is it because the custodial parents the problem? And the more that the custodial parent does things that interferes with the process, the the murkier the causation becomes, and it also creates the opportunity for the abuser parent to create the idea that there is this alternate, perfect reality in which the reconciliation would have gone smoothly and well if, if not for the interference of the custodial parent when, and that takes the onus off of the abuser parent to do the hard work.

Speaker 2:

So you're actually doing the very good point yes, very, very much so, and I've explained that to them many times too.

Speaker 1:

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Speaker 2:

If both parents are hopping up and down with their behavior, nobody knows who the bad actor is. Right, you know.

Speaker 1:

Yeah, the most. What you might see is that the person who everyone says can't control their temper and is rude and whatever, if they handle that well, then all that custodial parent has really done is given that person a chance to be annoyed and they weren't. So you know, they come out looking better anyway, when maybe they just didn't care enough to be upset. It just creates so many issues that are hard to untangle, when what I would think the abuser parent or the custodial parent would want is a very clear board that the court can examine and say, oh, I see the problem and it's the abuser parent.

Speaker 2:

If there's enough space, if they're really as bad as you said they are, or the police report says they are, let them show that, because they probably will Right.

Speaker 1:

Right.

Speaker 2:

And it's important too for the custodial parent. Many, many times I just thought of this and he would say that many times the custodial parent will email me or the guardian had lied him. I'm sure you've probably gotten these kinds of emails about the child's reaction to the therapy, the reconciliation, joint sessions. And there's no way any of us especially if we have seen the amount of fear and resistance coming from the custodial parent towards us or our staff or, you know, in the office around the child we don't know where that reaction with the child came from, right, and I think it's probably true that there was one, but what caused it? Right, because the child's been with you for the last ever how many minutes or hours, and now we're having this problem.

Speaker 1:

Right, this is, you know, being more on Instagram recently because we're trying to put our presence on Instagram and so I'm seeing a lot of the um, the providers out there and the and the different influencers I guess in the space. So many of them are being so extravagant and they're labeling of the people in the situation. So my narcissist ex you know my abuse ex and all that does is tend to other the other person and make it easier for you to treat them with complete disregard and and to do whatever you want, because you know it's it's punch Nazi time, it's always okay to punch Nazi and so that does such a disservice to the custodial parents out there who are in this kind of situation, because it makes them feel as if they can act with impunity because, oh well, that's why everyone knows that's my narcissist, abusive acts. But that's not the reality of how the legal system works. And so I get so fearful for these parents who are subscribing to that kind of extravagant labeling and othering, because they're going to get themselves in such a world hurt and ultimately, what you and I care about is that it's not going to be what's good for the kids.

Speaker 2:

Right, totally. I was always worried that a child is going to follow, log on to stumble into, you know, into the parent talking like that about their other parent.

Speaker 1:

Yeah, yeah, and we'll talk maybe more about that in the next episode about treating the child.

Speaker 2:

So the parent that's, the custodial parent with the child often feels like that the process is advancing way too quickly, especially if there is some valid discomfort or stress around the visitation with the abuser, and then the abuser always feels like the process is going so slowly and it's my fault.

Speaker 1:

Oh for sure I mean I do too. You know I send out recommendations and gardening and a lot of cases for how to do stair step visitation and typically the first response that I'll get back that's negative is from the custodial parent. You know I may set out a four or five month stair step and the parent who's going to be exercising the stair step to rebuild the visitation is typically not super happy about it but kind of accepts it, and the custodial parent is the one who often is very aggressive in saying that. You know I just don't understand or I'm not looking out for the child's best interest.

Speaker 2:

Oh yeah.

Speaker 1:

And it's that fear.

Speaker 2:

And, of course, the main line I've heard is no one's listening to my child.

Speaker 1:

Right, Right. Which always prompts in me the question well, what conversations are you having with your child?

Speaker 2:

Right, yeah, and it's real common for kids to be reluctant or resistant to do the reconciliation process if the abused parent is blatantly opposed to it. And even in addition to that, I've actually seen where the individual therapist for the child, who doesn't understand any of this process, who would not do any of this kind of therapy, is secondary, that it may be reinforcing that custodial parents' opposition. Yeah, so well, that's. I've even had a couple of them that came along in the same vehicle with the mother and child to my office.

Speaker 1:

Yeah, that's why individual counseling is contraindicated and that's why, whenever I have a case that involves reconciliation counseling and there's an individual counselor for the child, I always have put in my orders that the reconciliation counselor confers with the individual counselor, and if the reconciliation counselor determines that the individual counseling is obstructing the process, then the individual counseling needs to be paused, because if the individual counselor can't work together with the reconciliation counselor, then the whole thing's just going to go nowhere.

Speaker 2:

Right, because I promise there's nothing at all in our 65-hour masters to be licensed therapists. That prepares you for this court war.

Speaker 1:

I'm sure.

Speaker 2:

There's nothing at all that compares you for any part of it, and so it looks like it's something that would probably be hard on a kid, but let me just share with you some of the potential benefits for the child participating in it. That needs to be an educational part of it for the custodial parent, as I do, is it can actually reduce their distress and anxiety and conflict management skills. I mean I am modeling for the child how to approach things that are very difficult conversations to have with somebody, their improved critical thinking skills, improved insights into family relationships and dynamics and a much better understanding, hopefully, of how to set boundaries and avoid getting caught in parents' issues and becoming that target or pawn.

Speaker 1:

Yeah, and you're also protecting them against their imagination of thinking what it would be like if they were back with their parents, letting them get a dose, especially if they're young enough and they haven't seen them for a while. Letting them get a dose of what that person actually is like, which the custodial parent should appreciate, because the child, ultimately, is going to turn against them if they feel like the custodial parent is keeping them from this other parent that they haven't seen for a while and maybe are shorting to forget how bad it was.

Speaker 2:

Right, oh, I've had kids that I had one little boy and it was not anything to do with the mother. She was supportive of this child in every way and I'm sure if the father had not been at prison she would be allowing visitation, but the father was in prison, would be there for life. And the child told me and this was one of the most precious little boys ever. But he told me that when he turned 19, he was going to do something bad enough that he would be locked up with his father and that way they could know each other and spend time together. That's pretty serious.

Speaker 1:

It's a primal need. Yes, that we don't give enough credence to. Now we don't, can't just brush it under the rug. You can't just put that primal urge to know your biological parent in a closet and forget about it. You have to deal with it one way or the other.

Speaker 2:

And for the parents. The potential benefits are, you know, a reduction in your stress and conflict, and you know we've talked a lot about how frequently I'd have stress. You can maybe slip a little on your parroting abilities and so this could actually help your parental abilities to improve healthier, more balanced family relationships in general, and it's so. It's got a lot of. I mean, just because you do a cut off in a relationship, it doesn't mean that that just goes away, that your child isn't going to think about them. It's a grief process that if you're not talking about the person that's not there in positive ways, so the child is allowed to, they're going to be thinking about them and you just won't know about it.

Speaker 1:

Oh, that's interesting. If you make it unsafe for the child to talk with you about their feelings, they're still going to have them. They're just going to keep themselves.

Speaker 2:

Exactly, and probably the last point there for the custodial parent is just to be prepared for your child to externalize some feelings towards you. You're the safe person, unfortunately, that's there to receive it. If the child is simply unable to engage in or tolerate the demands of the work, and or if the abuser parent is re-offending it anyway, the process will be stopped instantly in the last case. But if I could just tell the child is either not personality wise or, due to some issue, able to continue, or they're really not old enough to get into the kind of emotional work that's necessary, then it will be terminated within a reasonable amount of time, and it's nothing that I can ever. People always want to know upfront. Many times the legal people ask you know, how long will this take, how many sessions does it take? And there is no way to predict. I have a basic framework, but it just depends on what comes out of people's mouth, what their behavior is and what their verbiage is.

Speaker 1:

Yeah, I answered a question like that for someone today and they asked how long this process is going to take and I said well, you're telling me that the other party is unreasonable and acts unpredictably and does all sorts of crazy things, and you want me to predict how long the process is going to last with someone who you're telling me is unpredictable? Since I can't control what they do, I can't tell you how long the process is going to last.

Speaker 2:

Exactly Like I just said a few minutes ago, if custodial parent makes it very difficult to schedule with them and no shows for those appointments that are finally scheduled, you know I can't make them show up, but it is something that hopefully you know they'll get the point after one time and we can go forward. This process is about benefiting the child, not just benefiting the abuser, and that's something that's hard for the custodial parent to always keep in mind.

Speaker 1:

Yeah, and I can tell you by having had lots of hearings and lots of conversations with judges and other attorneys, typically we're not doing any of this to benefit the abuser. You know, none of us. Typically I would say no-transcript. Any rational person does not appreciate or tolerate abuse, and so we're not thinking that the abuser deserves something or has a right to something, right? So I know that's a misconception that a lot of these folks on social media have. It's really not about that. It's about doing the hard work before it gets to a point where the damage is increased by failing to do the hard work.

Speaker 2:

Right.

Speaker 1:

And my heart goes out to a person, because I've had many clients whose children were abused or witnessed abuse, and I understand the absolute terror that they have in envisioning that their child is gonna be back with their abuser and they're never gonna be able to let go of that terror. So what they have to do is they have to get the counseling so that they're not the same person that they were when they were in the abusive relationship, so that they're prepared to be able to be the support system for their child as they attempt to reintegrate a biological parent into their life.

Speaker 2:

That is so true. I've even had mothers tell me that if they would have thought this day would ever come, when they would have to release their child to the abuser for hours, a weekend, whatever, of a visit they would never have left.

Speaker 1:

I completely yeah, I understand that, completely understand that, and I think, like I told you in the past, maybe a few years ago, when my mother had a visitation my father had custody in the 70s and my father would wait. He would sit in a McDonald's with an eye shot of my mother's house all day while I had visitation, my sister and I watching down the street to catch sight of us to see if we're okay. So I completely understand that. It is very difficult. Okay, anything else before we wrap this one up? Nope, okay, all right, everyone, thank you. This is definitely. I mean, we feel the emotion of this conversation. I can only imagine how the custodial parent, faced with having to work through this process that they didn't create, they didn't, they're not the reason that it has to happen how they feel going through it. So, if we feel the weight of it, just having this conversation, I can only imagine how they feel. So, to all of you custodial parents out there who are trying to step into this process, our heart goes out to you. Please have courage, please make sure that you're doing as much self-care as possible, getting as much therapy as possible to be there for your children, and we appreciate and just really value the work that you do. So that's it for today. We will see you next week when we talk about treating the child and preparing the child for this process. Hope you all have a great week.

Speaker 2:

Bye.

Co-Parenting and Reunification in Domestic Violence
The Challenges of Co-Parenting After Abuse