In Episode 1, host Jaime Davis discusses issues related to co-parenting with Dr. Lori Thomas, a licensed psychologist with Wynns Family Psychology. Dr. Thomas offers tips and suggestions for how parents can continue to successfully co-parent their children despite a separation or divorce.
Note: Our Podcast, “A Year and a Day: Divorce Without Destruction”, was created to be heard, but we provide text transcripts to make this information accessible to everyone. All transcripts on our website are created using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers and could contain errors.
Jaime Davis: Welcome to the first episode of A Year and a Day. I’m your host, Jaime Davis. Before we get started, I want to tell you a little bit about myself and what you can expect from this podcast. I’m an attorney and North Carolina board certified specialist in family law. I’ve worked with the family law firm of Gaylor, Hunt, Davis and Taylor for more than 16 years. I represent clients who may be contemplating marriage, going through a separation divorce or who are dealing with child custody issues.
My practice incorporates all areas of family law, including child custody, child support, alimony and equitable distribution cases. I also represent clients in connection with family law related tort claims, such as alienation of affection and criminal conversation. As part of my practice, I also prepare family law contracts, including premarital post-nuptial and separation and property settlement agreements, and I have experience representing clients with complex financial assets such as closely held businesses and deferred compensation plans.
I’m also a certified parenting coordinator or, if you’re like most folks, you may be wondering what a PC is. Well, in a high conflict custody case, one or both of the parents can ask the court to appoint a parenting coordinator. The role of the PC is to reduce conflict between the parties by helping them implement the terms of their custody order. Among other things, the parenting coordinator can help address issues such as the time of custody exchanges, sharing a vacation and holidays, discipline of the children and extracurricular activities. One of the requirements for being a parenting coordinator is that you attend a peer discussion group and it was in this group that I first met today’s guest, Dr. Lori Thomas. Dr. Thomas is a fellow parenting coordinator and licensed psychologist with Winds Family Psychology. Check out the show notes for her contact information.
Welcome, Doctor Thomas. Thanks for being here. Please tell us a little bit about yourself in your practice.
Dr. Thomas: Thank you. Jaime, I’m really excited to be here talking with you today. Well, my practice is I work as an associate at Wynns Family Psychology. I am a psychologist who is licensed in both Pennsylvania and North Carolina. I began working here about two years ago, but my background includes working as a psychologist, treating families and children, as well as doing some work with mediation and parent coordinating, as you mentioned at the practice. We are a child and adolescent practice. They’re part of our work includes things like treating families who are going through a divorce process. And so we handle a complement of services along those lines.
So I am involved with doing custody evaluations. I work with children whose parents are divorced and I’m part of that work also includes working with parents who need some assistance with their parenting relationship after they’ve separated. So we do. I also do co-parenting therapy there.
Jaime Davis: Well, as a family law attorney. I have to tell you that I am incredibly excited to have the opportunity to speak with you as a psychologist about some of the issues that I see come up more often than not. In my cases particularly, I’m often asked by clients how they can possibly continue to parent their children with a former spouse that they no longer trust or get along with. Dr. Thomas, is there anything that can be done to help separated parents be able to work together to raise their children?
Dr. Thomas: Well, yes, Jaime. I think that one of the key factors is that creating boundaries between the personal relationship issues that the couple had prior to their separation and, you know, creating that boundary between that relationship and their co-parenting relationship is really important. I think effective co-parenting requires them to set aside their differences in their previous relationship. I know, unfortunately, often that, you know, they’re at the point of separation. So that relationship tends to be strained.
However, part of what helps the co-parenting relationship be successful is that they need to put those differences aside and create boundaries and begin to think about solely working on parenting their child. They need to have a joint investment in their child and being able to, despite their differences, to create that kind of respect for each other. Even if didn’t fully exist prior to their separation.
Jaime Davis: And I heard you mentioned the term co-parenting at a very basic level. What is co-parenting?
Dr. Thomas: Well, co-parenting for our purposes today. So, of course, you know, prior to separating, people are parenting their children together. And for our purposes, we’re talking about the relationship that exists post-separation where people are presumably no longer in a romantic relationship and they’re still pretty invested in sharing joint responsibility for the parenting of their child or children.
Jaime Davis: Is there a way to learn effective co-parenting?
Dr. Thomas: Well, yes. That’s what we do – a large part of what we do there at Wynns family psychology – is that we work together with parents who are aware that maybe they might need some support in moving forward after they have decided to separate because they and they sort of have the sense that things are gonna be different in how they work together. They want to, you know, so we work together with families from various points in the separation process to help them develop key tools and communication or just being able to foster a different relationship. You know, sometimes different than they had prior to, you know, immediately prior to the separation.
Jaime Davis: You mentioned that you work with folks to develop key tools that can help them with co-parenting. What sort of tools are you referring to?
Dr. Thomas: Well so, some of, you know, just, ah, include better communication. I think parents are going through – couples at that point, or parents, are going through a really difficult time post separation. I mean, there’s a lot of probably a lot of history that led up to their separating. And so, you know, even if they had some semblance of good communication prior to the separation, there’s a tendency to want to withdraw from that communication once they separate. So part of what we are working on in the therapy is, is building some basic communication dos and don’ts for once you separate. So, you know, things like when you’re communicating with each other, keeping your focus, you know, focusing on just the issues relating to the child and not, you know, what your partner or the parent did, you know, 10 years prior to or in the events leading up. So focusing just on the communication related to their children and how do they, you know, manage simple things like simple tasks like taking a child to a doctor?
Jaime Davis: Do you find that a lot of folks participating in co-parenting therapy want to rehash the marriage?
Dr. Thomas: Well, certainly I think, you know, divorce or separation is a process and it’s almost it’s a loss for many people. And so there are different phases that they go through. Now, there is some evidence to suggest that, you know, people and particularly particularly who are invested in the marriage prior to getting separated. Meaning that they gave it their all they were invested in working together. But those folks tend to have more conflict between them initially after the separation and have a difficult time co-parenting because it’s like they put their all into it and it still didn’t work. And so they have they feel like they have a lot to lose. And so there might be some initial tendency in that early stage for them to want to withdraw from communication. And so part of what couples need to understand when they’re going through this, or I should say parents need to understand what they’re going through that’s going to be different, they’re going to be different phases in the process of they’re being able to communicate with each other. Now, those couples who had more commitment with each other and investment in working together prior to the separation, they are more likely over time to show better ability to parent together.
Unfortunately, folks who had poor quality relationship prior to they both in the short term, in the long term, they struggle a lot with communicating about their child. And so I think both parties need to have just a place that they can go, you know, where they can have conversations. I kind of sort of think about it as rebooting a little bit so that they are able to kind of go back out there and communicate about their kids. So that’s what we do in our work. You know, parents come in. We talk about we try to find some common ground where they can communicate things that they are. You know, I think about some of my mediation training. We start where they have some common agreements about what they want for their child and we help them to build on that common those common values in terms of thinking about how they move forward and their communication and relationship to one another.
Jaime Davis: Is there anyone who you do not think would be appropriate for co-parenting therapy?
Well, so here the only such as research helps us a little bit. You know, one of the things that there are many factors, it seems, that support successful co-parenting. One of those factors includes how much of a relationship the parents had prior to separating. So for when? During the process of having children, they separated. So if the couple was together for a long period of time, maybe not married, but they were together and or and then they may have had a child and there or there was a step or they were married and they had a child and there was a separation right after the birth of the child or soon after.
It’s a little bit more difficult for those people to these two to have some successful co-parenting only. At least that’s what the research tends to show, because they don’t have enough of a commitment in terms of working on their relationship and working together sometimes to develop that. However, another key factor that sometimes impacts it is sort of the how both parents feel about the personality or the way that their child interacts. So, you know, sometimes you might have a child who may have some serious behavior problems or they may have some key difficulties in their behavior. And that sometimes makes it difficult for parents to successfully co-parent because they’ve got the strain of their relationship, plus the strain of managing. Maybe some of the difficulties of which of a child.
But in general, I think that many people can benefit from coming in if they’re able to come in together and really think about some key things that help the development, the long term development of their child’s, just things such as reminders about, hey, don’t go the other parent under the bus when we’re talking to each other or when the child is with me or, you know. And also, don’t let my family know the child experience under the bus when they’re with me. So there’s some basic one or one kinds of things like that that I think parents can benefit from hearing and working on together. And even if they may not ever be the best communicators with one another, at least if they can get them focused and thinking about the child and having their communications be about the child for the benefit of the child of this reorientate, reorienting their thinking in that way, then I think that the child has a better chance of some adjustment. I think, you know, one of the concerns is that sometimes when you’re dealing with traditional families and parents that the non-custodial parent or the in many cases we use the stereotype of the. Father sometimes will bear investment or their connection to their child can be affected if there is not some successful co-parenting between the two.
Jaime Davis: And correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m assuming that folks generally attend co-parenting therapy together. Is that right?
Dr. Thomas: Well, there are some models for co-parenting that don’t involve parents being in the same room together. You know, you’ll see a variety of co-parenting classes that parents can take and things like that. However, you know, I think that it works. I think that if parents can manage to come in together and and work together, I think it sets the foundation for them being able to work on longer term problems and gives them some tools. There. You know, here we have this recent memory of us sitting in the same room together, even though it was difficult and figuring some things out. And so now when they’re on their own, they still have these recent successes to build on together. I think when they take the classes separately and they try to do it that way, I think that there’s something that there’s still something missing from the cohesiveness and the collaboration.
Jaime Davis: And what do you do if you have folks who really aren’t even at a point where they can talk on the phone? Yeah, I mean, every conversation devolves into who did what wrong during the marriage or there are things those folks can do to still co-parent their children.
Dr. Thomas: Well, I think that there are some starting points. And I mentioned before that it’s a process. I think that parents need to be able to understand that there is a process for them in terms of their dealing with the separation. So they just have to be open, I think, to learning new skills and open to the possibility of doing things differently. So, you know, I think that there are some good resources out there that parents can use. You know, if they if the only way that they can do it is really taking these co-parenting classes and making sure that they both do it. I think that’s a good start.
You know, I think that there are resources online, such as at the AFCC Web site (https://www.afccnet.org/). There are some specific communication tools that they provide parents in terms of how to send an email, what you should say in the email where you’re sending it if you’re not communicating how to just use some of those more. I call them passive communication tools in a more effective way so that they can begin to build. You know, I often say to couples or families, you know, hey, you know, we have to start somewhere right now. You’re not in a place where you trust each other. So we have to build trust. So each time we communicate with each other, you have to think about it, not just about this individual communication, but what kind of trust are you building in the long term with this other person?
So when you’re attempting or attempted to say something snarky that, you know, you think for a moment about how is this short term positive feeling that I’m going to get for being right or besting the other person going to affect our long term communications with each other about the child? I’ve seen too often where parents may be going along. You know, they’re managing they’re managing the communication, the difficult to be between one another. But then someone says something or does something that, you know, is really related to something that wasn’t really that important in their child’s lives. And then it just sort of undermines the work that they’ve done, the progress that they’ve made together.
Jaime Davis: You mean you have divorcing clients who say snarky things to one another? I can’t believe it.
Dr. Thomas: I know it’s hard to believe that that would happen, but it does. You know, surprisingly often happen in their relationship and communications.
Jaime Davis: Do you ever review your client’s communications before they send them to a co-parent? Is that something that you all do?
Dr. Thomas: You know, I have done that. I have oftentimes it’s not something that’s prompted by me. But often what I find is that parents will come in with some kind of communication that they’ve had with one another and they’ll read it to me, because I think part of it is that, you know, I find that when when they come in, they’re looking for some validation that they’re doing the right thing or that the other person are better. Yeah. That the other person has done the wrong thing. And so there is a little bit of element of trying to tell on each other when they’re working together.
So they will read their communications. And I will often sort of say, well, you know, I’ll challenge them like, well, what was the purpose of that statement? Like, what were you what were you trying to communicate there? In other circumstances, parents have asked me if I’m ever so often I’ll have people who want to do co-parenting. They’ll try to engage the other parent to do co-parenting with me. And the other parent will say, no. I just can’t do it. I’m just not ready.
Jaime Davis: Any idea why? Like, why are folks resistant to co-parenting?
Dr. Thomas: Well, I think it is an emotional time. And as I mentioned before, you know, they, particularly if they’ve been really invested in the relationship and the relationship is now ending usually, you know, I mean, sometimes separation happens mutually, but there’s usually some person who feels like the separation was not what they wanted. And so I think that it can be really difficult then to be in the same room with with the person who has hurt you.
Jaime Davis: Is there ever an issue in your experience that happened during the marriage that makes the co-parenting more difficult, like adultery or abuse? Or is there one issue that jumps out to you?
Dr. Thomas: Well, I think both of those issues that you mentioned are really critical and important and I think infidelity in a relationship obviously reduces the amount of trust. And so it makes it difficult for the parties to trust each other in parenting decisions. I think another thing that I’ve encountered is sometimes the mental health or mental health problems of one party can affect the relationship before and certainly may impact the discussions after.
In terms of parenting, I think that there are many things that couples accept while they’re together. Again, I’m talking about a traditional sort of couple who’s married. There are some things that couples will accept about one another when they’re married, but once they get separated, it’s becomes more of a emphasized issue.
Jaime Davis: So they changed the rules. That’s what it sounds like.
Dr. Thomas: I mean in a fact, and I think it may be changing the rules or it may just be an attempt to get to an ideal that maybe didn’t exist prior to the relations strip dissolving. I think that when they’re in the relationship, there’s a certain amount of hope that comes in to saying that things will change. And then I think the separation process. You know, this is just my anecdotal thoughts, but I think this separation process then sort of puts a hard line on the heart. And and so some of that hopefulness now turns into some idealism. What I ideally want to have from my child now that we’re separated because I wasn’t able to provide that or we weren’t able to provide that prior.
I think domestic violence is a particular challenge. And, you know, we could probably spend a whole next interview session talking about the challenges that that brings to a post-separation relationship because it brought a lot of challenges prior to that. So I think that, you know, while we’re talking about domestic violence, we have some other special safety considerations that we need to think. And there are some there are some parties who would say that if there’s been domestic violence, that this process can’t really work because they’re not on the same level.
Jaime Davis: So if you have a couple who shows up and it becomes apparent to you that there were domestic violence issues in their relationship, how do you handle that?
Dr. Thomas: Well, I mean, I would have to say that generally when I’ve worked with couples, if there is a domestic violence issue it comes up before we even get into the room together. So I think one party, usually the party who feels some violation of safety will bring up that, you know, I can’t meet in the same room with this person because I just don’t feel safe. And so we’re out. So I think. I have not really encountered a situation where domestic violence was not brought up first and mentioned as an issue before doing any kind of couples work. So I think good screening ahead of time too helps, you know, when you’re asking parties why they’re coming in.
Jaime Davis: So as part of your intake. Maybe that’s something that you…
Dr. Thomas: Yeah, well, generally we know we ask some basic questions when people call, but it’s it’s not uncommon that there’s domestic violence that comes up before us. I’m not actually at this point. Done work with folks who are who are actively saying that there is a domestic violence situation involved.
Jaime Davis: And you also mentioned that the mental health issues of an individual parent can affect the process. If that becomes apparent to you, how do you address that situation?
Dr. Thomas: Well, so, you know, I think when I say affect the process, what I’m meaning is that it influences how one parent views the other parent’s ability to parent.
Jaime Davis: Gotcha.
Dr. Thomas: So that’s when I’m really meaning and oftentimes that parent has been involved in parenting far too, so there hasn’t you know, often, you want to make sure, obviously, that the people that you have before, you know, we’re always when we’re in a session with somebody making sure that people are, you know, oriented and that they they they they know the reason why they’re there. And, you know, that some basic mental status, making sure that we’re dealing with a person who is capable of making decisions and things and in good mental health. And so it’s not come up really as an issue in terms of my work with people. But I think it does.
You know, parents will, sometimes couples might feel that there were things that went on in the marriage that was affected by that person’s, you know, mental health issues and make sure that we cover this for our listeners.
Jaime Davis: What are the benefits of co-parenting therapy?
Dr. Thomas: Well, I think that there are several benefits that I want to highlight. I think the benefits are most going to be for the children. I think that, you know, separation, divorce is really challenging for families in general. It’s it’s it’s challenging because sometimes there’s a change in resources. You’re definitely changing living environments. And so in any event, you know, we know that there’s good evidence to suggest that successful parents can be successful in their co-parenting relationship, that they’re really going to be helping their kids emotional and social development.
We know that it’s certainly research suggests that it certainly helps. And I guess I’m going to be stereotypical here and say that the non-residential father, the father who who’s likely to be living away from the traditional family setting would be more likely to be involved in the parenting of the other children. If there’s some comfort that there’s, you know, less strife between the parents and they’re working together to be successful co-parent.
We know that it tends to decrease the level of conflict between parents if they can again work on some tools to help them move forward and making some of the, you know, challenging decisions that come up with being a parent. We know that it’s been linked to successful co-parenting, has been linked to better behavioral outcomes. Children behave better. We know that academically they seem to whether, you know, there’s research to suggest that in the first year is the hardest adjustment year for kids because there is so much change in transition and so that academics might be affected. But we know that, you know, parents can work on successful copart co-parenting successfully.
Some of those differences are mediated or buffered by them being able to manage their children in a collaborative way. And so I think that there are many benefits, I think, for the children and for the families stability that helps the child overall.
Jaime Davis: And given all of these benefits, if there is a couple who wants to work on co-parenting, but maybe they’re not ready to make that leap into co-parenting therapy, can you give us some basic tools or tips for them that they can begin to work on?
Dr. Thomas: Well, first, I want to say, you know, that we’ve been talking a lot about ways that people can do co-parenting therapy together and that, you know, you’ve asked me some really good questions about, you know, what happens with parents if they you know, they’re struggling a little bit with the idea of co-parenting. Now, I just want to say, you know, you don’t have to be perfect. Parents don’t have to be perfect co-founders. You don’t have to be perfect parents. They just need to be good enough.
There’s some idea that they just need to be able to meet the needs. And so if you’re struggling early on in your co-parenting relationship, I tell parents, please, I hope that you’ll be able to continue. But in general, if you can’t do it, if you can’t get into the same room with the person and just feel like I just, you know, want to take some time, I need some time to regroup before I can move forward with this. You know, just thinking about basic things like keeping your focus on the child, keeping your cool, try not to lose your cool.
And, you know, I say if you think you’re gonna lose your cool by having in-person communications, then try the more passive communication vehicles like e-mail. You know, think about not criticizing the other parent in front of the kids. Probably not, you know, trying to work on not criticizing the parent in general, but certainly not in front of the kids. You want to try to reduce some of the snarks. The jabs that happen in these communications mean they make you feel good, perhaps in that moment. But they don’t help the overall relationship.
Try to think about things as not making demands, but just kind of, you know, expressing needs that you might have in terms of how you move forward. I talk a lot about in my therapy, you know, when parents going back and forth and there’s some you know, they’re they’re barbequing each other to say, I’ll just stop them and I’ll say, what is the request you’re making? I’m having it hard – I’m having a hard time understanding what you’re requesting from the other parent, and I’m sure they are, too.
Jaime Davis: Right, the issue is just so clouded by all the other stuff that I can’t even tell what they want.
Dr. Thomas: Yeah. Exactly. And so they walk, you know. So in some of those times they walk away from the communication, not really being sure what the other person wants because it’s been so mired with all of the other things because. And also to the other party might not actually be making a request. It just all falls on to the idea of criticism like this is just more of the same old stuff that I’m used to and this relationship with this person. So try to be clear, try to remember, I tell folks, remember, whatever it is that, so sometimes what parents get caught up in is that the kids are making or favor one parent. And the separation. And you know, the parent who’s being favorite feels really good. And then it makes them feel justified in all the requests and things that they’re making. And I’ll say, hey, remember, you know, at some point the shoe is going to be on the other foot and you’re going to need this other co-parent to support you, to back you up with whatever is going on the kids. So right now, I know it may be hard, but try to back them up right now, you know, as much as you can.
Jaime Davis: So really, are you saying they just need to continue parenting? What they still have to be parents even though they’re not getting along?
Dr. Thomas: Yes, absolutely. You know, their relationship has changed, but the fact that they are parents to these children will not change. I mean, I say to parents, you know, think down the line, like right now, it seems really difficult. But we need to get to the place. You’re going to be attending graduations together. You might have dance recitals or other sporting events that you need to attend together and you need to work these things out because otherwise you’re just really setting your child up for these weird interactions where they don’t really know where to start or who to go talk to.
Jaime Davis: Well, it seems to you know, children can be manipulative even when you are living in the same house. And so when parents were living in two different houses, I would think that’s, you know, amplified. And so if the parents are not backing each other up, they’re just empowering that child to get their way with both of them.
Dr. Thomas: Yes, certainly. You know, as children grow and they become better negotiators and better understanding, you know, they become more a student understanding how relationships work. Yeah, they do. Even when they’re not Aso’s. Do they do try to you know, it’s just human nature and kids want to get what they want. And so. Yeah. Parents aren’t communicating it. I mean, this is true whether you’re married or not married or in a relationship that’s committed or not with kids. If you’re not communicating well, then kids have a wide area of being able to get their needs met in very convincing ways.
Jaime Davis: Well, Dr. Thomas, this has been very informative. Is there anything else you would like to add?
Dr. Thomas: Yeah, I would just like to add, you know, for parents who are going through this process, listen, you know, we’re expecting a lot from you. We’re expecting you to manage our emotional concerns while also parenting your kids. So I would say very first and upfront, get help for yourself, seek support. You know, it doesn’t have – you know, I would obviously say that sometimes you need professional help. But before that or, you know, in addition to that, seek out, you know, support from your community, whether you’re a person who’s involved in that church community, you know, and they have resources for divorced couples or separated couples, seek them out, you know, make sure that you have a strong group of support to help you emotionally, because the emotions are going to get in the way of your ability to parent.
You don’t, when you’re a parent, you don’t have the luxury of maybe checking out while you manage all your emotions. So seek good support is what I would say. You know, be kind to yourself. We’re not expecting you to be perfect. We just need you to kind of work on managing some of the hard parts while still continuing on with parenting. And I think those are the key points. I think that, you know, we expect ourselves to do a lot. And so sometimes it’s it doesn’t see, you know, it doesn’t seem like you want to get help and also be admiring other children and seek help for them if they need it.
There’s a lot going on. You are struggling with this transition as an adult and you have all the resources of being adult, meaning you’ve had many years of trying to work on your emotions and managing them. Your kids don’t have as much experience, so that help for them so that they’re able to manage some of the things that are going on.
Jaime Davis: Well, thank you again for taking the time to speak with us today. If someone is interested in co-parenting therapy, what is the best way for them to get in touch with you?
Dr. Thomas: Well, thank you, Jaime, I’ve enjoyed being here. I think that you can find me at WynnsFamilyPsychology.com. It’s our Web site. And you can look under the tab about about our doctors. You can also call our main number at 919-467-7777. And you can speak to one of our receptionists and they can get you connected to me.
Jaime Davis: Wonderful. Thank all of you for joining us for our first episode of A Year and a Day. Today, we were speaking with Dr. Lori Thomas about co-parenting issues. Moving forward my goal is going to be to release a new podcast at least once a month, so stay tuned for next month’s episode. As a reminder, while in my role as a lawyer, my job is to get folks legal advice. The purpose of this podcast is not to do that. This podcast should not be used as legal advice and is specific to the law in North Carolina. If you have questions before you take any action, you should consult with a lawyer who is licensed in your state.