How do I co-parent an anxious child with someone who causes more problems with the anxiety?

The particular question I received that inspired this episode is much longer and very personal so I’m not going to read the whole thing but I will share that the listener says that the relationship between mom and dad has lots of conflict, not just about anxiety but about other parenting choices and the listener is wondering, and here I WILL quote directly:

“Do we just carry on with how we handle her anxiety in our care despite being different? How does an anxious child cope with split homes? How do we ensure the anxious child doesn’t play the parents off against each other (which currently happens). We are lost and her anxiety is getting worse.”

There is a lot happening here so I want to slow down and first of all address the issue of different parents doing things differently. The fact is that we have no control over how things happen in our children’s other household. In a perfect world we’d be able to talk to our children’s co-parent and come to general respectful understanding if not agreement. But we don’t live in a perfect world so the answer to the first question, “Do we just carry on with how we handle things” is yes. You carry on that way. You do the best you can, you parent in the way you feel is most helpful and healthy for your child, period.

The second question the listener asks, is how does an anxious child cope with split homes. Well, that depends on the child and that depends on the homes. Divorced families, in my opinion as a child of divorce and as someone who has worked with lots of divorced families, aren’t automatically less healthy than intact families. My take is that happy, healthy parents are good for raising happy, healthy kids and for many families that means not parenting together. The issue that I’m seeing in this question is not that the parents are apart physically, it’s that they are so far apart philosophically and aren’t able to be supportive of each other and yes, that can be an issue for any kid but especially for anxious kids.

I have worked with many families who don’t live together and who may not always operate on the same wavelength but if they are respectful of each other’s differences and don’t bad mouth each other I don’t think that has to be a problem. Maybe mom eats meat and dad runs a vegan household but it’s fine because the kids know that the different houses just do things differently. 

Now both parents might have strong feelings about the way they choose to eat, which is fine. People should live out their values. And it doesn’t have to be a problem if they are respectful of each other’s right to make their own decisions in their own homes. 

In a case like that, kids know what to expect. They know they can have pepperoni on their pizza at mom’s and that at dad’s they’ll top their pizza with soy cheese and it’s fine. They know they can talk about the different pizzas in their different homes and nobody will get upset. That shows consistency and care and respect, which matters so much and I’d argue that those kids — with parents who are so far apart in their thinking but so open and welcoming to their child’s other families way of doing things — are lucky. Because they know that if they do things differently, too, they won’t lose the love and respect of their parents. 

They will grow up to make their own decisions and to understand that there’s lots of ways to do things.

Likewise when it comes to trying to co-parent an anxious child, if one parent, for example, let’s call them Jill signs up for my program and recognizes that they need to create exposures for their anxious child and the other parent, let’s call them Bill is unwilling to do this, this may slow things down but it doesn’t need to halt things altogether. Exposure at least part of the time is better than never having exposures ever. 

Now it may be hard on Jill. Jill may feel like she always has to be the so-called bad guy since she’s the one always pushing her child to confront their anxiety and Bill might feel like Jill is being too hard on their child but as long as they don’t interfere with each other, the child is going to learn that the different houses do things differently.

The problem comes if Jill starts telling the child, “Your father isn’t doing you any favors” or if Bill starts telling them, “Your mom is being too mean to you.” Or if they start fighting with each other about it. Or, and unfortunately this happens way too often, start trying to pull in allies whether that be the child themselves or other people like teachers, siblings, and friends. 

For example, when I was doing clinical work with kids, I’d have parents in my office trying to get me to go to court with them against the other parent. There’s a million reasons why this is not ok — starting with if you hire a therapist for your child it is unethical for that therapist to make custody recommendations — and also again, what happens in the other house hold barring outright neglect or abuse, belongs to that other parent.

And if there are behaviors or parenting choices that are a concern, if one parent IS concerned about neglect or abuse then it’s even more important that their household remains as healthy and supportive as possible.

I’m not so naive as to think that if you are concerned about your child’s safety at their other parents house that it’s as easy as going to court or getting a guardian ad litem or calling child protective services to make things change. I know that. And I appreciate how incredibly painful and upsetting that is. That discussion is way beyond the scope of this podcast. But I do want to assure you that your focus on creating a safe home regardless of what the other parent does or does not do, will make a difference. 

All you can control is how things operate in your house so your focus should be on figuring out how to create the most supportive, loving, and healthy environment you can. And in the case of anxiety, that should include learning how to parent an anxious child so you don’t get stuck in the parenting pitfalls.

Your consistency, your care, your safety will help your child feel safe, too. Remember that connection and healthy relationships help to mitigate harm. There is lots we can’t [protect our children from and frustratingly sometimes that includes their other parent.

Back to the original post. There’s something else they said that I want to talk about, which is, “How do we ensure the anxious child doesn’t play the parents off against each other“

Well, we can’t ensure that; we can only focus on how we respond when this happens. I don’t have details here with this family so I’m going to make some guesses and I apologize in an advance to the original poster if I’m missing the mark. 

When we are trying to co-parent an anxious child, we can expect that child to play one parent off another. This is super common whether or not families are living together, it might be helpful to see this through the lens of avoidance. Remember anxiety is about avoidance. When the child plays parents off each other, what are they trying to avoid? when you see the behavior through that lens, does it make it easier to understand? 

Can you unhook any feelings you have about the other parent from this situation? What I mean is,

If you feel defensive or put on the defensive, can you recognize that that dynamic is about the relationship you have with their other parent. If you feel comfortable about how you are handling your child’s anxiety, if you feel confident in your choices, then can you let the other parents’ judgment or anger go? If your child says, “My other parent never makes me do that” can you simply say, “Yes, they do things differently than I do.”

If the other parent tries to get involved and change the way you’re doing things, well, that’s about your relationship with the other parent. Remember, you do not need to convince them. It’s ok that you are doing things the way that you’re doing them.

Sometimes in my clinical work with children of divorce, it would feel like the parents were so focused on what was happening in the other household, were understandably so frustrated or angry or sad, that sometimes they were missing the opportunity to parent well in their own home and to celebrate and feel good about their own good parenting.

I’m not blaming here, I’m saying that trying to co-parent with someone who is not supportive of you, who is making choices that appear harmful to the kids, doesn’t feel overwhelming. 

But ultimately we need to figure out how to let it go. I’m not saying ignore it. I’m not saying pretend like it’s not happening. I’m saying to recognize that we can only control what we can control. If our child’s other parent is a jerk, well, that sucks but some kids have parents who are jerks. It’s not fair, it’s really painful, but for those kids, what they need is at least one parent who is not a jerk. One parent who is going to keep doing the very best they can, who wills tay focused on what they CAN control, which is their own healthy household, and who will create consistency and safety where they can.

If this means getting your own therapy, finding your own social supports, I hope you will do that. As an aside, I will add that this is why the Child Anxiety Support program is built on Mighty Networks, which has a community component to the learning. We know that divorced parents — in fact all parents — do better when they aren’t isolated and when they find a community who will help them deal with the very real, very difficult emotions that come with co-parenting in conflict. And that’s even more true when we’re trying to co-parent an anxious child.

I wish I had better answers to this but I hope that this is validating and that it’s helpful to know that whatever you can do for your anxious child, will make a difference.

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