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  • Writer's pictureClaire Edwards

Book Discussion: Co-Parenting with a Toxic Ex

Co-Parenting with a Toxic Ex: What to do when your ex-spouse tries to turn the kids against you by Amy J. L. Baker, PhD, and Paul R. Fine, LCSW.

Before I start the review of this book, it’s important to note that I wasn’t able to make it through this book at all this time two years ago. I actually wrote the first draft of the following this time last year, and I'm only comfortable publishing it now, in 2023.

When I first got the book in 2021, I would start reading it and would begin worrying whether I was raised in an alienating manner, such that my mom said bad stuff about my dad and tampered with my relationship with him. At one point I cried before I could read any more of the book. So I put the book down. However, in fall 2021 I enrolled in The Kitchen Table Coaching classes, and I started doing lots of work on me and my story of origin. As a result, I’ve been able to read through the book and focus on the benefits parents can take away from it regarding how to interact with their children moving forward. I've taken Confused/Frustrated-Child-Claire out of the equation. And it feels great!

Let's go:

(1) I love that the book named the difficult emotions: "jealousy, fear, guilt, shame, sadness, loneliness, anger, narcissistic injury." This was reminiscent to me of Jack Kornfield's concept of "naming the demons." In particular, once there is a name to describe a certain feeling of sensation, it's easier to slow down or speed up and best handle the feeling.

These difficult guilt, shame, sadness feelings are regular feelings and parents are allowed to feel these feelings. For example, the authors identify that some coparents experience shame, not just over the end of the marriage, but any way they feel they are lacking as a parent. This allows us, as parents, to slow down and identify what are we lacking at?! For me, my main shame comes up regarding not building some kind of fortune or tangible legacy for my kids to jump to. What part of my childhood brings this feeling about? Probably my mom's dad and my dad's mom- my mom's dad left an amazing legacy in his community as a prominent mentor and community member; my dad's mom left a legacy of connections- knowing the right people by just showing up at a desk job everyday- tied to a legacy of pension that helped her get through the end of her life. When I break this down, will I ever build the exact same kind of fortune or tangible legacy for my kids? No, it's not 2006 or 2008 (the years of their respective deaths) anymore! I've got a different set of circumstances, and it's useless to tie my own parenting shame to my own circumstances.

(2) Back to co-parents. The authors explain that once separated, co-parents may create loyalty conflicts and children may respond. Particular examples include sending poisonous messages, interfering with contact and communication, and creating a sense of distrust. To dive deeper into "creating a sense of distrust," the authors identify that over the course of their development, children are typically taught how to determine their own truth, but if the child is unduly influenced by a parent, their ability to make a decision is taken away.

How can I touch on this issue in a personal way? I've seen it in my office as a divorce/custody attorney. The child feels a conflict between what they experience as the truth and what their parent tells them is the truth. As the divorce attorney, I am separated from the situation so I know what is the truth. I also don't know the exact words of the conversations between the child and parent(s). I can, however, tell when the child's needs and goals are filtered through the desires of the other parent. The authors identify this leads to preventing the child from feeling and experiencing the child's own thoughts and feelings.

(3) Ok, that alienation stuff is deep...what can I do as a parent to not have this happen to my child? Model how to cope with emotions, encourage child's efforts to manage emotions, redirection, polite request, and consequences, as per the authors. This response is directly in line with the TBRI training I experienced a few weeks ago, put on by Crossroads Nola for the Lafayette therapist and professional community.

One of the concepts covered at TBRI included "consequences." This book also describes natural consequences as the direct result of your child's behavior, and logical consequences as those that are made as a result of the child's behavior. Often natural consequences take a while to occur, such as a cavity forming when a child does not brush teeth. Many parents squabble over logical consequences. Personally I find that one parent tends to be more engaged in logical consequences, especially that one parent may shy away from logical consequences and the other parent is willing to be the backboard and/or disciplinarian to the children. When the natural consequences of a problem behavior may not be timely or appropriate parents will need to shape the logical consequences for the children to have.

The authors suggest to have "related, reasonable, revealed, and respectful" consequences as the best way to structure logical consequences. The child should not feel that the consequence is imposed out of anger or spite.

Overall this book offers practical parenting tips. I really think it’s a great book to read to prevent the start of toxic behavior as a co-parent.

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