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  • Angela Clouds

Co-Parenting And Mental Health Issues: What You And Your Co-Parent Can Do

Co-parenting is on the rise along with divorce rates. But when either co-parent is struggling with mental health issues to any degree, it can complicate the path to a positive and effective co-parenting relationship. Broadly speaking, signs of healthy co-parenting include respect, flexibility, effective communication, and always putting the kid(s) first. These are great signposts you can use to determine if you're headed in the right direction. If you find that you aren’t meeting these healthy standards, however, or if anything else feels amiss, there may be underlying problems that need to be addressed. If you suspect your co-parent is experiencing mental health issues, there are a few things you and your co-parent can do to address the problem.

Research And Document

You’ll want to ground your curiosities in fact before taking any action. Using video, photographs, screenshots, calendars, or police reports, document any instances of unusual behavior that impact your co-parent’s ability to interact with you or your kids. Similarly, pay close attention in the event that your kids come to you first to report such behavior. And finally, if your co-parent has previously been diagnosed with a mental health condition, take note of how it may be affecting how you handle your co-parenting arrangement. When either confronting your co-parent about their behavior or asking a professional for advice, all of this documentation and consideration will help you stick to the facts. This in turn will keep conversations constructive and help you to avoid unnecessary tension or arguments.

Talk to your co-parent

When you are ready to talk about the issue, sit down for a one-on-one talk with your partner about your observations if at all possible. First, offer support. When talking to friends or family about mental health, your first steps should be to ask if they're getting the help they need, and express your concern. Stick to the facts and state how you see their behavior is affecting your kids. Focusing on your kids in this way may help them shift their thinking (if in fact they're being resistant), and encourage them to improve for your kids’ sake. They might even volunteer to seek professional help if their behavior has had a significantly negative impact on your kids –– such as by making them fearful of interactions, or guarded about their own feelings.

Consult a professional

The interactions just described represent an optimal outcome, to some extent. Ideally, your partner will be receptive to your observations, and to constructive ways of addressing them. However, the reality is that the stigma around mental health makes it difficult for people to acknowledge they may be experiencing mental health issues. If this is the case, you may want to speak to a mental or behavioral health consultant about your co-parent’s behavior. With their strong analytical skills and emotional intelligence, these consultants can help you definitively determine your co-parent’s mental health condition. They can also advise you on how best to begin helping your partner indirectly — and, if the situation requires it, how to encourage them to seek professional help.

Tell your kids

This crucial step helps ensure that your kids separate the person from the illness. When they’re feeling comfortable, tell your kids about their other parent’s experiences using age-appropriate language. For example, you can try making analogies to physical problems: depression affects the brain in the same way asthma affects the lungs, or poison ivy brings on an itch. This can help establish that mental health issues make up only a part of their other parent’s identity — and ensure their relationship isn’t negatively affected in any way.

Maintain boundaries

Aside from the necessary conversations outlined above, try to maintain your lines of communication as usual. To this end, we’ve previously discussed some crucial boundaries in co-parent communication: Keep it short, to the point, cordial, and business-like. Be firm on any deadlines, but take your co-parent’s situation into account in case they’re feeling down or under the weather. More importantly, use only one mode of communication that’s easy to use and court-admissible. This will make it easier for you to take action if your co-parent continues to exhibit concerning behavior and refuses to acknowledge or act upon mental health concerns.

Know your options

Following up on that last point, it’s important to recognize that you don’t need to keep co-parenting if your partner is behaving in increasingly problematic or disturbing ways. Once there is documented evidence of a co-parent's problematic or disturbing behavior, discuss your options with a family law attorney. Depending on the severity of your concerns, you might be able to petition for custody or visitation changes as your partner seeks mental health help. Your attorney can guide you on which direction to take in more extreme or urgent cases where the children's safety is at risk. In more extreme or urgent cases, child protective services may guide you as well. Co-parenting can be challenging in the best of times, and even more so when mental health issues are involved. By tackling such issues methodically and with guidance from experts however, you can confront the situation in such a way that adheres to co-parenting’s ultimate goal: putting your kids first.

Written exclusively for

by Angela Clouds

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