My State Required Me to Take a Co-Parenting Class With My Ex, Here's What I Learned
"Why are you getting divorced?"
The class instructor directed her question to my husband and me. We caught her attention because we were sitting together, sharing a soda, and intermittently laughing, none of which was (apparently) typical behavior for separated spouses in a court-mandated co-parenting class.
To say that my now-ex husband and I were an anomaly is an understatement: though we were in the early stages of an acrimonious divorce, we were committed to co-parenting and able to put our rancor aside during the seminar. Most of the other parents were attending without their estranged spouse, and the parents who were there together sat as far away from each other as possible. These other parents were no less dedicated than we were, and many of them were in various stages of anger, pain, and grief. It was an emotionally charged room.
We had all come to the Child Impact Program in New Hampshire to learn about the profound impact our separations and divorces would have on our children, and how to navigate the issue of co-parenting in a mature and healthy way.
Though required as part of the divorce process in our state, the class didn't feel like a burden. The instructor explained the laws governing parenting plans and our legal obligations, but the bulk of the class was devoted to learning about how parental conflict may negatively impacts kids, which is the core focus of co-parenting classes across the country.
The laws on attending co-parenting classes vary state-to-state (some don't require them at all) and even county-to-county, and each jurisdiction will have its own course. Some areas allow online courses, and some require parents to attend a live class. Some classes are a few hours, and some can require attendance on multiple days. And some, counter intuitively, don't allow parents to attend together.
Whatever the type of class you attend, it's important to go in with an open mind, and work to ease parental conflict, says Elise Buie, a family attorney, Guardian ad Litem, and parenting coordinator in Seattle. "A lot of the parents I work with are stunned to learn how much their conflict bleeds over to their children. They are having a fight with their partner and don't think this can affect their kid's long-term psychological health," she says. Studies show when parents argue in front of their kids, there can be long-lasting negative effects on the children, including depression, anxiety, insecurity, and even decreased cognitive function.
Do co-parenting classes help?
The effectiveness of co-parenting classes really depends on the class and the parents involved. Take Dawn Dix, who had been separated from her husband for about a year when she attended a court-mandated seminar called "What About the Children?" in Seattle, Washington. Because Dix had read a co-parenting book, she didn't expect to learn anything new, but says she found the class, which does not allow parents to attend together, enlightening.
"I was really surprised to dive deeper into the experience of the child during a divorce," says Dix, who shares custody of her 12-year-old son with her ex-husband. "To a child, this process can be extremely stressful and frightening. I have a B.S. in psychology, so looking closer at how this is affecting the child emotionally and developmentally really struck a chord with me."
Dix says she thinks many parents are surprised to learn how the grief process works with kids during a divorce. "Most people think of the grief process as something associated with the death of a loved one, but it also applies here with the loss of stability and everything a child has ever known homelife to be," says Dix. She believes couples who are divorcing may get caught up in the legal details, and a parenting class can help them re-focus on their children.
Unfortunately, there are cases where integrated co-parenting isn't possible or where one parent chooses not to be involved. But that doesn't mean co-parenting isn't happening on some level, says Karen Bonnell, a collaborative divorce coach and author of The Co-Parenting Handbook: Raising Well-Adjusted and Resilient Kids from Little Ones to Young Adults through Divorce or Separation.
"Co-parenting with or without your co-parent is something you do for your children. You can help your children have an adjustment to their childhood and their lives even if their mother or father is in jail, addicted or suffering from mental illness. You can still be a good co-parent because you know that matters to your kids," explains Bonnell.
In the six years since my ex-husband and I sat in that co-parenting class, our family has gone through many adjustments, and he and I have made many mistakes. At the time, I believed that if he and I could sit cordially in a parenting class, then we could mitigate the damage our divorce did to our children. Initially, that wasn't always the case, and looking back, I wish I had been more thoughtful about the course.
"I can't urge people enough to take the classes seriously rather than just checking off the box. To truly realize that if they can learn some morsels from their class, it can revolutionize the success of their child as they move through the divorce," says Buie.