Knowing when your coParent needs to seek professional help will, not only, keep you and your children safe but also help your coParenting relationship as well as their relationship with the kids. When a coParent is abusing drugs or alcohol or has a newly diagnosed but untreated mental issue, your child’s safety is compromised. You must urge your coParent to seek professional help for the wellbeing of your children. Here are some potential scenarios and how to cope with a coParent that may exhibit these issues:
Violent or Abusive Ex:
Violence against you or your children should never be tolerated. Even if the violence has ended, you and your children may still be scared and anxious around your ex. This is when it would be wise to hire a parenting coordinator who may suggest separate, or “disengaged”/ “parallel” parenting. You would limit your in person communication and instead be using online calendars and online messaging to communicate about your children for yours and their safety.
Substance abuse can be another tricky issue. Some angry parents accuse the other of substance abuse to get even. The ex may have had a problem in the past with drugs or alcohol, but be clean now. Or the ex may have started drinking or using drugs during the divorce process. The parenting coordinator or therapist will check court records for DUI charges, rehab, or detox. The professional may refer the parent in question to a therapist who specifically treats substance abuse. When one of the parents abuses drugs or alcohol, safety steps must be put in place. The court may order the abuser to have a urine screen before each contact with the children. Supervised visits may even be ordered. These steps are for the safety of your children.
Having a mental illness does not mean a person cannot be a good parent. It depends on how well controlled the illness is. Just like diabetes or other treatable illnesses, mental illness can often be controlled with medication and behavioral change. A diabetic learns to check her insulin levels regularly, eat certain foods, avoid other foods, and take her medication on schedule. In the same way, a person with a mental illness may control their symptoms by taking medication regularly and following certain behavior plans. Mental illness that affects parenting is a roadblock in many cases of divorce. Care of the children is the main issue and the parenting coordinator may ask for mental health treatment records to see how the parent has done in the past. However, the stress of separation and divorce can cause a person with mental illness to have problems adjusting and coping. Sometimes a simple change like switching medication can be a problem.
I worked with a mother who was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Many people who hear this diagnosis assume that this mother could not possibly care for her children. But she was a good parent. She took medication regularly that controlled any problem symptoms. After several months of working with her, I noticed one day that she was confused and thinking slowly during a session. Knowing her history of mental illness, I asked whether she recently had a change in medication. It turned out that her doctor had just changed her prescription. She had not yet adjusted to the new medication. Her ex-husband, who had known about her mental illness when he married her, agreed to a temporary change in their parenting arrangements. There was potential risk to the children with their mother’s prescription change and the ex-husband had to travel out of town on business. We made arrangements for Grandma to stay with his ex-wife and their children for a few days. He also took the children for some extra time when he returned from his business trip. This gave his ex-wife time to get used to her new medication, while ensuring that the children were safe and well cared for.
Editor’s Note: From COPARENTING AFTER DIVORCE: A GPS FOR HEALTHY KIDS by Debra K. Carter, PhD