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E34: Successful Co-parenting

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In this episode family law experts Benjamin Bryant and Heather McKinnon talk to psychologist Michael Hawton about the secrets to successful co-parenting.  Michael is a child and family psychologist who has been working with families in Australia and overseas for over 30 years.  He is also the founder of Parentshop resource hub for parents, educator and child and family specialists.  Michael has written two books: Talk Less, Liston More and Engaging Adolescents and has two children of his own.

We discussed the following topics with Michael:

  • Is co-parenting the right option for everyone?
  • How important is a parenting plan to co-parenting success?
  • How to resolve differences without tearing the kids apart.
  • How to manage changeovers effectively.
  • How to manage special occasions without hostility and resentment.
  • At what should children’s wishes be considered when decision making?


Links & Resources Mentioned in This Episode

Parentshop: Michael Hawton’s company has training and resources for educators, professionals and parents.

Mom’s House, Dad’s House: Making Two Homes for Your Child: This book was referenced several times by Michael Hawton in this podcast episode.

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Full Episode Transcript

Welcome! Successful Co-parenting

Benjamin Bryant:  Welcome back, everyone. I’m your host, Benjamin Bryant. And today we’re going to talk about something every separated or separating parent wants to know: how to co-parent successfully. My partner in crime and family law aficionado Heather McKinnon is joining me. And I know she has some strong opinions on what it takes to co-parent successfully. Welcome, Heather. Are you excited about today’s topic?

Heather McKinnon: Thanks Ben. Yes, I am excited. In fact, I can’t believe that we haven’t done this episode before. It’s so important for so many families.

Benjamin Bryant: Well, I know what you mean. And I think maybe we were waiting to find the right expert to guide us. And, boy, have we found him. I’m delighted that today we are welcoming Michael Hawton, who is a child and family psychologist, a trained teacher and the founder and CEO of Parentshop. Michael has worked with children and families for over 30 years: in his family practise, working with United Nations in the Seychelles and preparing child welfare reports for the Family Law Courts. Michael also founded Parentshop in 2006 as a resource hub for parents, educators and child and family specialists. It has become one of Australia’s leading professional development training organisations and a huge resource for parents. In fact, I purchased a resource from Michael this morning. And if that hasn’t kept Michael busy enough, he has also written two books Talk Less, Listen More and Engaging Adolescents. As one of Australia’s foremost experts in managing difficult behaviours in children, adolescents and adults, he is frequently engaged as a speaker and media commentator globally. And last but certainly not least, he has two children of his own. We’re not quite sure how he managed to squeeze this podcast into his busy schedule, but we certainly appreciate it. Welcome and thank you for joining us, Michael.

Michael Hawton: G’day, Ben. Thanks for having me. G’day Heather.

Heather McKinnon: Hi, Michael. Great to see you again after all these years. We knew each other before we had children.

Michael Hawton: We did indeed.

What is Parentshop and what are you aiming to achieve?

Benjamin Bryant:  Well, you two, let’s dive right in. Let’s start by finding out a bit more about you, Michael. What prompted you to set up Parentshop and what is the organisation aiming to achieve?

Michael Hawton: Ben, we set up parents shop back in 2006. It was, at the time, one of the only other professional development organisations teaching parents in parenting programmes. There was a large university but their programme was much longer than ours and full of graphs and stats and all those kinds of things. Which is fine for some people. But what we found was that it was really important to organise things so that we were able to make it simple for people, make it easy for people to do what they needed to do. So, working with parents over the years, it’s become really clear to me that they want something simple, something practical, something they can do the very next day.

Benjamin Bryant: And accessible and understandable.

What is more important to successful co-parenting?

Benjamin Bryant: And with your background working with the family law courts, I’m sure you have a strong sense of what it takes for co-parenting to work. What do you think is most important when couples start down the co-parenting path?

Michael Hawton: Well, it’s so fraught, isn’t it? I think the rawness of separation sometimes affects people’s ability to make good judgements. What I do think is that people are grieving the loss of perhaps an ideal, perhaps their partner. They’re coming to terms with what they thought was going to be their road. And I think for a lot of parents trying to make good decisions, at the same time working through their own grief about things, can be really tricky. I think most people want to do the right thing by their kids. But what I’ve seen over the years… And you’ve got to understand, I was working in the Family Court where things were the most difficult. There were a whole lot of parents who actually came nowhere near the court, and they made good arrangements between themselves. But when parents were in dispute with one another, it was really clear that they found it hard to make good decisions on behalf of their children. If you asked them, they would say that they did want to make good decisions, but they were handling all sorts of conflict and difficulty in relation to their partner often.

Benjamin Bryant: And Heather, I know that when we see people, there is a big difference when people come and see you a couple of weeks after separation or a couple of months, isn’t there?

Heather McKinnon: Yeah. It’s certainly those initial interviews where you’re seeing people either just before they pull the pin or just after, it’s very clear that they’re not at their best at that time. And I suppose our job is to filter those people that we think are outside the normal adjustment phase, maybe starting to inflict damage on kids and try and encourage them to get some mental health support. So, people like Michael have been critical. I mean, Michael and I have been working in this region for nearly 40 years, I suppose, Michael. And you see intergenerational transfer of chaos. If there’s not interventions where people can reflect on what I’m feeling, why I’m feeling it, and try and limit the damage that they do to their kids, you can sort of hopefully do something to stop this chaos that goes on and on. But the privilege of working in a region is we see it. We see kids that we acted for their parents and even their grandparents. Some families never make the break and they keep those really bad methods of communication going through the generations. So, I think what we’ve seen is a big change. By trying to get people to look at people like Michael to help them learn a different way – that’s really important.

Benjamin Bryant:  I remember learning about the grief curve that we as humans, we generally, go through grief in a particular way. And as we’ve spoken about previously on the podcast, Heather, ordinarily one party’s been sitting there thinking about separation for some time. They’ve already started the grieving process. They’ve already let go of all the ideals, and they’ve started planning and moving forward. And then when it gets to separation, just like, “by the way”, and the other parent was like, well, “I didn’t think things were that good, but I didn’t think they were that bad”. And so then they have to play catch up.

Is co-parenting the right option for everyone?

Benjamin Bryant: And Michael, is co-parenting the right option for everyone, in your opinion?

Michael Hawton: Look, I don’t think it is all the time the best option. I mean, it can be. But I think it’s very important that parents, when they’re thinking about their children and acting in their children’s best interests, realise that they actually… Look, there’s no way of saying this politely… they have to suck it up sometimes. They have to actually put their child’s interests ahead of their own emotional responses or emotional reactions, and that’s a very difficult thing to do. We do make sacrifices for our children in many other ways. You know, we get up at night time when they’re little if they’re crying. We go out of our way to help them in all sorts of ways that require some kind of, I guess, sacrifice, for want of a better word. But I think for parents, it’s really difficult because they’re having to put themselves to the side almost, in order to be the good co-ordinator, the good co-operator with their ex-partner. And that takes some guts sometimes to limit your own emotional responses for that moment, in order to work out the best way to cooperate with your partner that’s going to be in your child’s best interests.

How important is a parenting plan for success in co-parenting?

Benjamin Bryant: And how important is it to set a co-parenting plan up front? And how can couples do that when they are still in the heat of an emotional separation?

Michael Hawton: It’s tricky. Heather, you would remember a woman who wrote a book years ago called Mum’s House Dad’s House by Isolina Ricci and I think she got it. She got it really clear. She said it’s very difficult to put yourself into a friendship relationship with your ex-partner immediately because it’s too hard to go straight back to being kind of like best friends or something like that. And she says there is a bit of a cycle that needs to happen where you need to develop almost a business relationship for at least the first 12 months. And what she’s saying is that if you have a kind of a business relationship, you might have, for example, staff meeting, you might have a plan on a one page where you decide the do’s and don’ts of your business relationship You might say, for example, if I’m going to be 5 minutes late, I’ll give you a hoi on my phone, that kind of thing. Or, at changeover we don’t talk about things like, the arrangements. And like a business plan, you would freeze it for a certain amount of time and then maybe you’d unfreeze it at some point in the future. But I’m a big fan of one page business plan between couples as a way of describing how we’re going to relate to one another. And it’s out there on the plan, if that makes sense. It’s not in my head, it’s not my assumed position, but it’s actually between us. And I think if couples can start with that in mind, that it’s better to have a one page, two page at the most written plan about the arrangements and how things are going to work out. It will really help to reduce the amount of conflict. What do you think, Heather?

Heather McKinnon: Yeah, Michael, you and I were trained by a master, Phil Theobald, who always trained us, even with orders, no more than a page. And it’s really sad to see these production of orders or parenting plans that run to ten pages. And it shocks me how people use…. Like there’s a classic word that all of these lawyers put in that they won’t “denigrate” each other. I reckon hardly any of my clients even know what that means. It’s not in their vocabulary. So classic examples of these template orders that we impose on parents that don’t mean anything to them. But as you said, Michael, just: We will phone each other if we’re late. Both sets of grandparents will be the baby sitters unless we decide on someone else. We’ll go to the soccer games alternate weekends so the kids don’t feel the stress of us. Just really practical, simple things. And as you said, all the research shows that a year after you’ve made those plans, hardly any parents need them anymore. They’ve got through the worst of the grief. They’ve restored a bit of warmth in their parenting relationship, and they no longer need that bit of paper.

Heather McKinnon: It’s also really important for people to understand that you can go and buy a set of orders off your lawyer, but do you really need it? My fallback position always with clients is you don’t need a bit of paper that tells you how to raise your kids. You might need something initially, but you guys will always be their parents and always be the ones that need to make decisions. You don’t need to feel like you’ve got to have some sort of recipe for the next 20 years. You’ve just got to get on with the job of raising the kids. Pull together, don’t pull the kids between you and that’s the key. Just keep parenting. The fact that you’re not living together doesn’t mean that you’re not always going to be making those decisions. But I think as a culture, this move towards everybody having a set of orders is destructive because it disempowers parents to feel that they’re the people making the decisions. And I would discourage people from doing that if they can just get on with a civilised arrangement.

Benjamin Bryant: I agree 100%. Heather. There’s something to be said about that shared understanding and the shared responsibility and empowerment of reaching an agreement or a resolution of the matter, rather than asking for a decision to be imposed on you. That’s what it’s about.

How can parents resolve their difference without tearing the kids apart?

Benjamin Bryant: And now it’s easy for us to sit here and say that we need to co-parent and communicate, and you need to put your children first. But it gets really tough when you can’t agree with your ex about really important issues, like where they should go to school or whether they need an assessment for autism or anything like that. How can parents resolve these differences without tearing their children apart, Michael?

Michael Hawton: Well, I think a good way to do this is to work out the end goal in relation to your child. And for each of the parents to ask, what do I want at the end of the journey for my kid? What do I want for them? And everything should be in the service of that long term goal. Like, I want them to be happy. I want them to be good problem solvers. I want them to do well at school. They’re all important goals to have. But I think in the service of those end goals, parents need to kind of work out what are the small fish and what are the big fish. It may not be immediately obvious, but I think the big fish are things like a calm, cooperative relationship between Mum and Dad. That’s a big fish. Because the alternative is not good for children, which is an antagonistic, angry, conflict-ridden relationship between Mum and Dad. So, when Mum and Dad are thinking about what do we need to actually get on the same page about, I would have thought the biggest fish is trying to work out a cooperative, communicating relationship with my spouse so that the kids grow up in an environment that’s conducive to them developing that, I guess I call it, internal locus of control. How can we help children to develop their resilience, their ability to think through problems for themselves without all the static of Mum and Dad being in conflict? Is that reasonable answer?

Heather McKinnon: Yeah, Michael. I give really extreme examples to young parents, and I tell them to go and read the eyewitness accounts of parents at the gas chambers in the Second World War. And all the eyewitness accounts say overwhelmingly the parents stayed calm and showed no fear. And imagine what that took. But that calmness is the greatest gift you can give a child. And that’s what parents need to focus on. If you can show a child how to self-regulate, how to remain calm in the face of chaos, they will get through life much more successfully than if they model their Mum and Dad dealing with all problems in this heightened state of stress. And get the techniques to learn it. Go and talk to people like Michael. Find out how you can learn to be calm and that’s the greatest message that we who work in the field of conflict can give these parents.

Benjamin Bryant: And I think, Heather, it’s also about having an awareness, whether it’s emotional intelligence or otherwise, about what your actions or sometimes inactions has.  So people just have to be very aware that children see and they listen.

How to manage changeovers effectively.

Benjamin Bryant: Transitions between parents is always fraught with danger. Michael, Do you have any tips on how parents can manage these changeovers more effectively?

Michael Hawton: Well, I go back to the plan idea: at changeovers, this is how we will behave. We will exchange pleasantries, say, hello, how are you? And then we will be on time. In other words, a plan needs to describe how you’re going to behave in the future. So that would be my first tip. Second tip would be that if you’re finding it difficult, maybe you do it in a public place. Because it’s very it’s more difficult for people to go off their nana, so to speak, if you’re in a public place. People do, I get it. But if you wanted to do it in a context where it might happen better than that might be useful. But I think at the end of the day it comes back to that ideal and I know it’s an ideal, but we want to give the kids a good example of being able to work through our grief. Now, it’s not that we don’t have our grief, of course we do, but we can put our grief and our emotional self to the side for the sake of my children having a better go of it. I mean, Heather, you and I have met over the years parents who to me they have no filters. And I think it’s not good for kids.

Heather McKinnon: No. I look at the gifts that my parents gave me and they departed the earth a long time ago. But, you know, I know at times when things happened, even as an adult, my Dad would say, Heddy, life goes off the rails sometimes, but the track will come back in a straight line and the engine will get back. And that stays with you forever. That when you transition in any of the major events of life, death, divorce, separation, illness, the greatest gift a parent can give a child is to learn how to do that transition and not lose their shit. And that’s what we see, Michael, don’t we? That they just can’t put their feelings of hurt aside to give that message to their children. And so if they can learn that I might not have been given the tools by my parents, but I can now, in this modern age, go and be with someone like you, Michael, and you’re going to re-parent me, you’re going to reprogram me, you’re going to teach me the tools that I didn’t get from my parents so that when I’m at a changeover with the kids’ mother or father, I’m going to learn how to model that absolute calmness and break that inter-generational cycle where you solve problems in a chaotic way.

Benjamin Bryant:  This is a great example of what we were speaking about before, where orders cannot cover everything. An order or a parenting plan may give you the changeover location, whether it be at a McDonald’s playground or a courthouse or a service station somewhere near you. But how we affect the changeover, how does that happen? What are our expectations? What is our intention in respect to when it comes to the children at each of those changeover times? Heather, I remember doing a seminar a few years ago and a video was played of a little boy in tears describing what it was to walk up the driveway to his Mum’s house alone. It was a rural property and he said it was the most lonely walk. And that’s what he remembered. That’s what he took with him. That was changeover for him. And there wasn’t parents yelling at each other, but he just thought it was the worst experience ever. So, it is really about, not necessarily just what’s on the paper, but what happens around the orders as well.

How to manage special occasions without hostility and resentment.

Benjamin Bryant: Another tricky time, apart from changeovers, of course, is special days. And going back to orders, we spend a lot of time talking about special orders. And in my view, it’s more about the parents than it is the children. Michael, how can parents manage the special times and special occasion arrangements without creating the hostility or the resentment that could spoil it for the kids?

Michael Hawton: I think a first assumption that’s worth considering is that life’s not always fair. And so it doesn’t have to be tit for tat. It doesn’t have to be always, well she’s got six occasions and I’ve only got five. Because it probably doesn’t work that way. But I think that kind of tit for tat notion of it’s got to always be fair, that probably needs to be put to the side. And I think each circumstance by each circumstance needs to be taken into account. Now that may well end up being taking turns at choosing or sticking to the plan of Christmases alternatively with each parent. We can think ahead. We know that things are going to come up. Birthdays, we know that special celebrations are going to come up, you know, in three months’, six months’ time and again I’d go back to this idea that if you write this down at some review date and I would review something every, say, six or 12 months. We do it in business, don’t we? I mean, I’ve worked in my own business for 15 years. We set a business plan and then we freeze it. And then at some point in the future, six months, 12 months, we unfreeze it. We have another look at it, and then we freeze it again. And I think that’s not a bad way of thinking about change circumstances and certainly how the court works Ben and Heather isn’t it. They set things in train for a period of time, realising that actually circumstances may change in the future. And if and when they do change, we’ll look at it again.

Heather McKinnon: And it’s the only way to do life. I mean, this concept of you separate when you have a two and a three year old and you’re going to make a plan to get them through to the HSC is just a product of not understanding child development and what’s going to happen in both your lives. And it is small steps, lock it down, then come back and tackle it again when you’re stronger for the next six months. And what we can promise you is that if you can do that for a year, it will be very, very successful in terms of the prognosis for the future, because you’ll have adapted a pattern of organisation that you will then make a habit and you’ll get into a stage where chaos is left behind. So just concentrate on that first six-month plan, come back to the table, do the next six months, and then you’ll probably have a system of communication that works.

Michael Hawton: And I think Ricci would say eventually you might get back to being more easy going with one another.  And I think that’s worth striving for. Eventually, the pain and the grief will subside, and eventually you’ll become good partners, in parenting your kids together.

At what age should parents start to consider the wishes of their child when making decisions?

Benjamin Bryant:  And last question, Michael is a bit of a doozy. It’s one that we get a lot, basically on a daily basis. But at what age do you think that parents should start to consider the wishes of their child when making decisions and what’s the best way to handle that?

Michael Hawton: Well, my understanding of the Family Law Act is that there’s actually no age that’s given. But it says when the child is of sufficient age and maturity, we should take more and more of their wishes into account. And I think that’s right. You know, I’ve met 13-year-olds, for example, who are really, really immature. Like I’m thinking for a 13-year-old, you’re like a five-year-old. But I’ve met 11-year-olds who are really articulate, clear about what they want and are clear about what they would like to see happen. So, I think it does depend on sufficient age and maturity. But I, for example, would not be asking a six, seven-year-old if I was doing a family report, where do you want to live? I mean, that would be not right for me as a psychologist and understanding child development to ask a five, six or even a nine-year-old, even a ten-year-old, I probably wouldn’t actually go there. Because I don’t think it’s a fair question to a child. But small issues like, I don’t know, where would you like to spend holidays this year, do you think? Asking them their opinion. But I think the kids feel most secure in a structure where Mum and Dad are in charge. That’s the tricky part when you’ve got separated parents. Where children feel most secure is where they live in an arrangement where Mum and Dad are warm and firm. The old, authoritative parenting ideal, which is Mum and Dad love me, care for me, but Mum and Dad actually provide me with a structure as well. So, I think Mum and Dad being in charge most of the time. By all means, ask your child’s opinion about small fish issues. But at the end of the day, it’s really up to parents to make that decision.

Benjamin Bryant: Absolutely. It’s not a one size fits all solution. And you’re right, Michael, the Family Law Act has not changed. Much the displeasure of a lot of people, there’s still no legislated age.

Heather McKinnon: Yeah, and I think Ben, coming back to developmental ages, do not come in my office and tell me that you’ve got a kid in you ten and you’re going to tell them what to do. So that agency, that sense of when a child is on the cusp of adolescence, adulthood, there’s a changeover where they must be part of the conversation. So, you’ve got the two extremes. You’ve got control freaks who, the kids are going to leave town in 24 months and go to uni in Melbourne, but they’re still working out what days they spend at Mum and Dad’s house. Like it’s just a really interesting sort of set of facts to observe when you’ve got this spill-over when kids are already working in jobs, they’re working in hospitality, at cafes, having conversations with all sorts of people from all around the world. Then they go home and the parents are fighting over which days are going to be at each other’s houses. It’s bizarre. So, we see it all. But as Michael said, I always say to parents, you consult with a kid in year six about which school they’re going to go to for high school. That’s the start of the conversation. They don’t get to choose, but they’re at an age where they’re starting to have a sense of their own agency. And then through year seven, year eight, year nine, you see that real intellectual maturity developing. And you must allow those adolescents to have some sense of control over their own destiny. Because what we see are those adolescents who end up in the mental health units because they feel they have no self-determination, no agency over their own life. So, it’s a very difficult continuum. And parents need to be aware that it is all about that intellectual and emotional development. And some kids get it much sooner than others and some are delayed, but it’s a very fine balance.

Goodbye for now….

Benjamin Bryant: Well, this has been such a helpful episode. Thank you, Michael, for taking the time to share your expertise and experience. I know there will be plenty of listeners, current and future, who will benefit from your wisdom.

Michael Hawton: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Benjamin Bryant: And of course, we’ll put a link to the Parentshop website in our show notes. So, listeners be sure to check that out. And Heather, I think it was worth the wait, don’t you?

Heather McKinnon: Absolutely. But you know, Michael can only take so many parents, but get ready for the phone calls Michael.

Michael Hawton: Thanks Heather.

Benjamin Bryant: And that’s a wrap for this month, but we are back again next month with another amazing guest. Suzanne Delbridge is an extremely experienced forensic accountant based in Newcastle. She will join Heather and I to talk about property and accounting in family law. Accounting really matters in family law. So, this is an episode you will definitely want to check out. If you have any specific questions about property or accounting and family law, please send them to familymatters@bryantmckinnon.com.au or message us on Facebook and we’ll see if we can get some clear answers from Suzanne for you. And please do share this podcast with any friends or family who might benefit from the ideas that we shared on today’s episode. Goodbye for now, and we’ll look forward to having your ears again next month.

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