Implementing the cognitive behavioral approach in divorce and separation contexts.
If you haven’t read from one of my previous blogs, I teach a cooperative parenting class to court mandated cases. If you don’t know what cooperative parenting is, here it is in a nutshell: it is the appropriate and effective engagement with one’s own child in the context of divorce or separation. Although parents in my class are working to improve themselves in the midst of their marital conflict, it is important for them to remain child-focused. The participants are given skills that help prevent their children from developing severe emotional dysregulation. Needless to say, children are way smarter than we think, and they can easily absorb negative energy- especially when both parents put on a show and bad mouth each other right in front of them.
The Cognitive Behavioral Model
The cognitive behavioral model implies that thoughts, feelings, and behaviors influence each other. Essentially, inaccurate, irrational, and distorted thoughts would illicit negative emotions and unwanted behaviors. Alternatively, accurate and rational thoughts as well as thinking through the facts would illicit more positive ones. This is why Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a common practice in the field of psychotherapy: It encourages the reframing of distorted thoughts into alternative ones. Of course, being able to reframe thoughts for every single trigger is easier said than done. It takes time and practice to have it be really engrained in your head.
CBT and Co-parenting
Lets look at a scenario to understand how CBT is implemented in co-parenting.
1) You’ve planned to go trick or treating with your child for Halloween. Given that the child is old enough and has the autonomy to decide, he/she decided that they want to celebrate the holiday at the other parent’s house instead.
Here would be the common initial thoughts:
“Maybe my ex wife/husband told my child something bad about me that made them decide to go there instead. How rude!”
“My child doesn’t want to spend time with me. Am I being a bad parent?”
“Is it because my place is more boring than his/hers?”
The first thought may illicit anger. With anger, the person can automatically act upon the situation in harmful ways. Calling up the co-parent to confront about how rude he/she is might spiral into an unnecessary battle. This can be harmful to the child especially if they watch it happen.
The two other thoughts would make you sad, perhaps even anxious about your parenting skills.
Let’s look at some alternative thoughts:
“Maybe my child’s friends and cousins are in town and would like to spend time with them.”
“I have other holidays to have him/her. I’ll let my child go and then me and his/her other parent will negotiate later.”
“I remembered the fun times my child and I had together, so I’m not a boring parent- it’s just that maybe my child misses the other parent- or like I said, he/she has friends and family there too.”
Rather than anger, these thoughts can elicit neutral and even positive emotions. And what would be the behavior that comes out of this? Perhaps an even more calm one where both parents can negotiate rather than argue.
CBT implemented into co-parenting advocates for the best interest and well being of the child. Furthermore, the parent can utilize CBT to develop skills that help her/himself become an overall better person. Like I said, automatically reframing thoughts after a trigger is easier said than done- but once the skill is developed, it can make a huge impact.