Behavior Analyst, Chris Messina, sits down with us to discuss how parents can tackle difficult co-parenting hurdles this summer and collaborate effectively. The following is discussed in this podcast:
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Disclaimer: Nothing in this communication is intended to provide legal advice nor does it constitute a client-attorney relationship, therefore you should not interpret the contents as such.
Welcome to Modern Family Matters, a podcast devoted to exploring family law topics that matter most to you. Covering a wide range of legal, personal, and family law matters, with expert analysis from skilled attorneys and professional guests, we hope that our podcast provides answers, clarity, and guidance towards a better tomorrow for you and your family. Here's your host, Steve Altishin.
Steve Altishin 0:31
Hi, everyone. I'm Steve Altishin, Director of Client Partnerships here at Landerholm Family Law. Today, I'm here with Certified Behavior Analyst, Chris Messina. So Chris, for those who haven't met you on our broadcast before, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Chris Messina 0:47
Sure. I am a Behavior Analyst, and my focus is family therapy, working primarily with families after the divorce on co-parenting and kind of managing the challenges they face.
Steve Altishin 1:02
Oh, thank you. So today's topic is a kind of a tongue twister: Co-parenting and planning for this summer is going to be hard, so treat your ex spouse like a business partner and choose cooperation over conflict. So having said that, let's kind of start in. The first part of it is, you know, the summer coming up, and as ex-spouses look towards co-parenting through this upcoming summer, there has to be a little bit of trepidation. I mean, if last summer's landscape was unknowable, isn't this year's at least going to be uncertain?
Chris Messina 1:42
Uncertain indeed, that might be an understatement. Yeah, it's hard to believe we're here upon another summer, actually. And yes, so some of the things that I think co-parents are probably considering currently are things like, how much will COVID protocols impact this coming summer? I don't think we know that yet. So there's a lot of uncertainty and probably stress building up around that. And something that I've thought about as a parent, and I'm wondering if other parents have considered too is, can I possibly compensate or make up for the last summer from last year? You know, will there be more opportunities? And if so, how do I make the summer extra special for my kids? But the biggest question I think parents are probably considering is, can a current parenting plan, that we've leaned into and relied on in prior summers, can that handle all of this summer's uncertainty? Whether it's due to COVID, or even things like growing kids, you know, kids who are now maybe adolescence or teens. Things have to change in the summer, for different reasons, so how does that look for families as they try and modify things that may need to look different this year?
Steve Altishin 3:10
So oviously, you know more than anyone that this is gonna be hard enough for folks who work well together. But for co-parents who don't, this could be very difficult. So what advice, or what kind of help can you give them?
Chris Messina 3:27
Well, I think it's safe to say that, for parents and non-parents alike, I think most of us are suffering from major burnout right now. I think COVID burnout is real. And I think as a result, our nerves are pretty frazzled. I know mine are fried. And I think it might be a bit more likely this summer to see emotions running hot as a result, and for the emotions to be dictating our decision making, maybe more than they have in the past, because we're at the end of our ropes. So knowing that that may be likely for a lot of us, my advice is to consider kind of reframing the way that maybe you currently look at your co-parenting relationship, and consider yourselves as business partners,
Steve Altishin 4:21
Business partners! Why in the world would anyone who's in a co-parenting ex-spouse relationship, having got out of one, want to become a business partner with their ex spouse?
Chris Messina 4:33
Right, exactly. You're thinking, I didn't want to be married to this person. Why would I want to go into business with this person? Well, here's the news. If you are a co-parent, that means you share children with this individual, right? So you are partners for the long haul, whether you like it or not. So, you know, finding a framework to kind of lean into as you think about this relationship is going to be incredibly helpful. So looking at yourselves as partners can do a lot for you, not the least of which is limiting conflict. So if you limit the scope of your interaction with your co-parent, you are going to remove, hopefully, the emotional components, the personal issues that have generated a conflict, by eliminating the prior relationship and reframing it in more of a business format.
Steve Altishin 5:29
Well, that makes a lot of sense.
Chris Messina 5:31
Yeah. And, you know, creating results in business is the job of the business, right? I mean, they're looking to create something to bring to society. You've got kids, and if you can develop positive and peaceful conflict resolution, working together in more of a business manner, you're hopefully going to increase cooperation, right? So we're decreasing conflict, we're increasing cooperation, and if you can approach this in more of a professional manner, appropriate behavior on your part will hopefully encourage the same in your co-parent. I can't guarantee tha,t but we could hope.
Steve Altishin 6:15
I was at Starbucks, and I'm behind some people who are arguing like crazy. It's their turn, they turn and they're the most respectful business-like people ordering their lattes. There's something about getting in that business mindset. But you know, at the end of the day, aren't co-parenting relationships and business relationships, I mean, it's a completely different end of the spectrum. They're like, different animals, aren't they?
Chris Messina 6:42
Well, yes, in some ways, and that's the good news, because I think everybody is no longer married for a reason, right? So the differences are positives. But there are actually quite a few similarities between business partners and co-parents. So first and foremost, business partners have some kind of product or service that they create, that they want to nurture, and they want that product to be successful in the marketplace, right? So I think we can probably all agree that as co-parents, we have this very unique and very valuable product, also known as our children. So we are creating something, or we have created something, and we hope that we can continue to nurture that for the rest of our children's lives.
Steve Altishin 7:30
That make sense. So, you know, the feelings that people have that interfere with our ability to work seem to me to be part of the problem. And maybe taking on a business attitude can get rid of some of that stuff.
Chris Messina 7:48
Well, you know, when we were discussing this the other day, you made an interesting point, because I shared a similar sentiment that, let's see if we can kind of get rid of the emotional slice. And I think you responded with something like, it's there, it's inherent, right? We are going to have emotional reactions to our co-parent, based on our history. But we can make the choice, we can be intentional about not allowing those emotions to drive the bus. Right? So I think they're going to be there regardless. But if we keep our eye on common interests and goals, which I think is what most businesses tend to do, and when we look at promoting our children's happiness and well being, I think it might be easier to kind of keep the emotional stuff at bay.
Steve Altishin 8:41
Alright, you convinced me! Co-parents can benefit by treating the relationship like a business?.So how do we go about starting now? What's the first step we do?
Chris Messina 8:52
So I think for any company to be successful, you really need to have some kind of well mapped out business plan. So I'm going to propose that we encourage co-parents to think in a similar fashion about creating such a plan.
Steve Altishin 9:10
Wow. I like that, I like that. These plans are very direct, they've got specific things they kind of lay out. So let's do that. Let's go through a business plan. And we'll do sort of the Model business plan. I'll kind of go through the business end of it, maybe. And then you can let us know how the co-parenting relationship fits in itself. First thing business plans have, every one I've ever seen, have a mission statement. It's sometimes long, but usually pretty short; kind of an introduction and explanation of why their business exists, highlights its place in the community, its vision, its purpose, its values, its goals. Knowing what a a business mission statement is, can you have one for co-parents?
Chris Messina 10:00
Yes, we certainly can. And I think what we want to start by identifying, as co-parents, is an overarching reason of why this relationship is important. Right? So I think that's first and foremost, we must establish that we think this relationship is important. And I think defining for yourself exactly why is critical. Something I've said before is that co-parenting is an obligation. You have children, you have a co-parent, it's an obligation. But doing so respectfully and collaboratively is a choice. That right there, if you want to steal it, that can be your mission statement. Make it clear to yourself, your why. So something as simple as the well being of my children is my top priority. You know, I want to work as a team, I want to work in the spirit of cooperation. So there are a million ways to spin this. But before you actually start to flesh out the details of the plan, and something you and I said together was, it's probably worth writing all of this down. As you're going through and sort of generating these ideas, before you get into the fine details, come up with that mission or that vision that you have. What is your reminder as to why you're going to even make a commitment to engage in a strong co parenting relationship?
Steve Altishin 11:36
So the next thing I know business plans have, every one that I've ever seen, is a description of the business-- what the business is, like, we're a cell phone company, or we sell lattes. Kind of where and what sort of rail that operates, it's makeup, and whether it's a partnership, sole proprietorship, you know, those kinds of things.
Chris Messina 12:02
When I was thinking about the mission statements, ideally, the mission statement would start with 'we'. We feel that our children are a top priority, we want to work in the spirit of collaboration and cooperation. However, I think we know that very often, that mission statement might have to start with 'I', and why. Because if I'm thinking about my business, and I'm going to honestly, and candidly describe it to myself, I have to be clear about the historical relationship that I've had with my co-parent. So if it hasn't been abundant in cooperation, and if I truly think it's highly unlikely that a co-parent would engage in this type of exercise with me, I might be operating as a sole proprietor, right? And that's fine. Of course, we want a very collaborative and highly communicative partnership in a business, but you work with what you have. As you're describing your scenario, be honest with yourself, and know that it is perfectly fine, and absolutely doable, to generate this type of framework for yourself, even if your co-parent is not participating in the process. You can determine and decide that you want to conduct yourself in a businesslike manner, even if your co-parent is not joining you for that, right?
Steve Altishin 13:37
So this works for people, for co-parents, who are not really communicating well. Even one of the co-parents can sit down and write themselves a business plan and follow a lot of the same kind of steps and ideas.
Chris Messina 13:54
Absolutely. And you know, when I think about it in relation to this summer, let's just assume that you're a sole proprietor in this business, and you are starting to think about the summer. Optimally, you and your co-parent would engage in some type of communication; sharing calendars, swapping ideas about what kinds of camps or trips or activities the kids would be engaging in this summer. If that is not possible, and you're on your own, you can certainly generate calendars with proposed camps and ideas and send those along to your co parent, even if they haven't sat down or communicated to collaborate about plans for the kids that summer. So you can make these choices and hopefully model them for your co-parent.
Steve Altishin 14:40
Makes complete sense. Third thing in a business plan, I know, is that they always have a breakdown of their product, their service. What they create and who they serve. I mean,Apple creates iPods and iPads and iPhones and I-this's and I-that's. Service companies serve different people. It's kind of how they're expected to meet, not just the demand today, but meet their demand years from now.
Chris Messina 14:50
Well, I think we can agree children are the product of your relationship.
Steve Altishin 15:16
Chris Messina 15:17
There's your product. And, you know, if you want to work in the best interest of your children, you'll benefit from thinking, or using a framework like this. The kids are going to always be demanding that parents are working together as the children are growing. You're going to have to be modifying how you are meeting their needs. So your product is there from now, all the way through adulthood.
Steve Altishin 15:48
There are those upgrades. That makes total sense. Another thing that businesses do in their business plan, and this is a pretty key part of it, is they'll do a risk analysis. Should we get into this business together? What's the industry like, what strengths and weaknesses do we have? What's our end goal? What are issues that can prevent us from going forward? It sounds like that actually does kind of fit into a co-parent relationship.
Chris Messina 16:22
It definitely does. You have a history with your co-parent. Pause and take stock of the pitfalls of your relationship based on your history together. So if you are looking at the risks, you would want to make sure that you are really clear about the existing patterns in your relationship, because it's a slippery slope. So ignoring those existing patterns would not be prudent. You also want to be careful about making assumptions about your co-parents priorities. That's risky business right there. Oftentimes, if one parent seems less engaged, because they have a very busy and active work schedule, we can assume as the co-parent that Oh, the kids simply are not a priority for this individual. We know nothing of the reasoning behind why this person is working as hard as they are, and so on. Disregarding professional commitments is also a slippery slope. We want to be really clear, and make sure that we are as honest as we can be about the time that we have free and available about our schedules. And yeah, again, I think assumptions can slip in here as well. And I think an overarching theme is that the feelings and emotions can really dominate decision making if we are not intentional about doing otherwise.
Steve Altishin 18:05
That's a risk without question. And we were kind of talking about summer, and that this summer, I think, is going to be emotional, to say the least. It's like you said, we didn't get to do anything; I've still got money sitting in my account for an airplane last summer. And so it's like, I want to do my thing. I want to do my thing. And, you know, I think emotions could be an issue this summer.
Chris Messina 18:35
This has been a very stressful year. I think that, you know, in addition to that, this sort of nebulous cloud in front of us, none of us know what's coming. So I think it's going to be a whole lot easier to fall prey to old patterns this summer. And we all know that in our relationships, we had some kind of dance, we knew the moves, right? And usually they were not very graceful moves. So making this commitment by really carefully considering all of these components that we're discussing beforehand, is hopefully a pretty solid way. It's not surefire guaranteed, but it's a much more helpful way to try and avoid falling into the old patterns.
Steve Altishin 19:30
Anything that helps is good. It's like the old saying, what you fail to plan means you plan to fail. So, the component you just talked about kind of leads to the next one that a business plan does, which is they they describe their management and organization. Who and what's the core team, what are their skills? What are the primary job responsibilities? Kind of mapping out a chain of command.
Chris Messina 20:00
I think it's really easy to sort of carry with us for a long time, our kind of philosophy about our co-parent, right? So presumably, the relationship ended for a reason. So we may not be carrying lots of great feelings with us as we move forward. And if we choose to maintain a philosophy about our ex, that sounds something like, they're lazy, they're unengaged with the children, the kids are not their priority, and fill in the blank, right, I mean there are millions of ways in which we can sort of look back on that relationship with disdain. And that person, if we choose to carry that with us, there is almost no way that we can identify and use their strengths, because whether or not we want to look at them, everybody has strengths, and use those to benefit the kids. So as we sort of look at the management organization, there are many players in your kids lives. But there are two CEOs here, right? There are two. If I think about their strength profile, and my own, I can sort of juxtapose those and make some decisions about Well, hey, you know, my co parent is really good at navigating sports extracurriculars, or really great at identifying camps, or really, and so on. And if we have a philosophy that is strength based, which I know is not easy, but possible, if we have a strength based philosophy about our co-parent, we can really use that to our advantage. I mean, I'm imagining in a business setting, business partners don't have identical skill sets, they're complimentary, most likely. The same holds true, but that is a choice. And it might be a really hard commitment for individuals to make to stop and say, feelings over here, and just look at a little bit more objectively, what does this co-parent of mine do well?
Steve Altishin 22:10
It sounds like it's another skill set, or sort of computation to make, looking forward to this coming summer.
Chris Messina 22:20
I think so. I think that, you know, it's like I mentioned camps, trips, sports things, we've got to be creative. I'm not even sure what's available this summer. So we might have to be ultra creative. But I think that if we have a philosophy, I want to share some thinking of Dr. Ross Greene. So he is a child psychologist who talks about the importance of generating a philosophy about a kid. So his thinking is, if you look at a kid with problem behavior, and you say, this kid doesn't want to do well, right? They don't want to do well. Versus, this kid can't do well, right? It's, you don't want to, or you can't? Those are two very different ways of looking at behavior, right? And if I say that you don't want to, well, that implies that it's volitional, right? That you can you have the skills, but you choose not to engage them. Versus, you don't possess this skill set to self manage, or to transition, or what have you. And I think if we look at some of the areas that really frustrate us with our ex, and start playing around with this idea that there are skills embedded in there, that could be a really helpful way to highlight those strengths.
Steve Altishin 23:50
I like that, because you're right, it seems like sometimes the fallback assessment of someone who chooses not to, you know, volunteer to do this, or are starting to do this is 'Oh, you don't want to do it. You just don't want to do it'. Well, maybe, you know, they can't. Maybe they're not, you know, skilled in every single part of social media and technology. That that really makes sense.
Chris Messina 24:21
Well, let's think about the summer. So if it comes down to planning, and I think, Well, my ex isn't generating ideas, they must not want to. Maybe they just don't care about the children having a great summer. Right? That's one way of looking at it, versus this individual really struggles with future planning. This individual struggles with calendaring. This individual maybe struggles with, you know, thinking creatively about ways to engage kids. So if you assume that someone doesn't want to, the only option you have is to try and make them want to do it. Usually in a co-parenting relationship that comes in the form of badgering, writing unpleasant emailn. There's not a lot of good collaboration that's going to come from that philosophy of someone.
Steve Altishin 25:11
So badgering and writing a lot of uncomplimentary emails or bad communication gets us to our next topic, which is a huge topic in business, and that's your marketing plan! How are you going to sell your product? How are you going to sell your service to your target customer? They kind of go through the methods, the steps to best communicate, and enhance their sales. This just feels, again, like it falls right into the co-parenting handbook.
Chris Messina 25:46
It sure does. Well, marketing is communication, they're pretty much synonymous. We're communicating to the world, this is what I'm selling. So you know, communication is vital to successful co-parenting. And I feel like that's sort of obvious, but it's the hardest slice of co-parenting. I think very often, people start to think about their communication from a reactive posture. Right? So we've had poor communication, or someone wrote a nasty email. So then we might start thinking about well, do I want to take the bait? Do I want to come back guns blazing? We're always sort of in a reactive situation. If at all possible, I so strongly encourage people to think about this early on in the co-parenting relationship and craft some kind of plan. Make decisions about how you're going to communicate, and what format is going to work best. You may have some trial and error, you may not be able to identify that right away, but start thinking, are we going to be emailers? Are we going to have conversations on the phone? Is that a good idea? Does that ever end well? Are we going to use some kind of app? It's making those decisions and really, and truly, creating some kind of communication plan is really, really wise if we would like communication to go well.
Steve Altishin 27:13
There's help they can get, isn't there? Let's say someone has one of the "can" problems. Speaking of technology and my iPhone analogies, there's stuff out there people can access, right?
Chris Messina 27:29
Are you thinking along the lines of apps?
Steve Altishin 27:31
Chris Messina 27:33
Sure. So Our Family Wizard is one that's commonly used. Those are secure, and kind of an all-in-one platform where you know, everything is housed here. And that is the way we communicate. I think for communicating with kids, that's going to look different. You can have more intimate communications doing FaceTime and things like that. But the more honest you are with yourself about the history you share with your co parent, the more likely you are to make good choices about this communication plan. And again, you can make it. Your co parent doesn't have to sit down with you and say, let's write our marketing plan together. That's highly unlikely. But you can decide based on what you know, and based on your own triggers, how you're gonna communicate. Where are your boundaries? Is texting allowed? And so no.
Steve Altishin 28:23
That's absolutely an analogy to a business model that's bad, the people who do that. There's a thing called either sunk cost or a historical cost. You bought something, and it doesn't work, right? And the boss says, We're gonna keep using it for the next 20 years until it's paid for. And they did, and so nothing ever gets fixed. Because you are strapped in the history of some of your mistakes. Interesting.
Chris Messina 28:38
And when I think about this summer, yeah, this summer, if you are intentional and careful about how you, for example, propose some camps or time that you'd like to take the kids on a trip, or ways you think the kids should spend their time with summer, if you're careful about how you communicate that, that can make all the difference. Sloppy communication, hasty communication, communication when we are stressed out at work, and we are in the middle of something that's already escalated us, typically is received poorly by the co-parent. So be careful, be intentional. And I think something that is worth mentioning here, you know, we talked about the formality of thinking like this, like a business plan. There's formal and there's formal. So you know, being careful and intentional is one thing. I think there's also room for some graciousness, and a little sprinkle of warmth as well. They don't have to be, this isn't a 'dear sir, comma' situation. I mean, the formality is not the point of this. It's the structure, it's removing the emotion and, you know, humanity goes a long way as well.
Steve Altishin 29:32
So I guess we won't start this, to whom it may concern?
Chris Messina 30:19
Yes. Because that's also quite off putting, right? So you can be focused and goal oriented, short and long term, and remain on topic without being painfully formal.
Steve Altishin 30:33
Right. Well, the final thing that's part of a business plan is financial projections. Breaking down the needs, the expectations, the market research, managing costs and revenues. Part of that seems like it would apply as well.
Chris Messina 30:48
Well finances are fun to talk about. I think that this summer, finances might be a particularly hot topic, because of what we've just been through-- job losses, salary cuts, and things like that. So the first thing I'd want to say is, be considerate of your co-parents situation. Things may look different, because they have to this summer, in terms of what the kids may or may not be able to access regarding finances. The biggest thing that stands out for me is developing a plan for how to handle costs that are not covered in the court ordered plans. Because we all walk away with everything outlined, but there are certain things that we don't address. So that's where the conversation, when you're thinking about your marketing, be careful about how you broach these topics. I think keeping a log of ongoing child related expenses can also be incredibly helpful, a shared document to kind of make sure that conversation about finances is limited.
Steve Altishin 32:06
Yeah. And I also, again, like you said, this summer that's gonna be a big thing. There could be a lot of really harsh expectation not met situations.
Chris Messina 32:19
Yeah, there may be disappointment on the part of the kids. I think that financial planning is, or lack of financial planning, is probably one of the biggest variables that folds most companies. Right? I mean, most businesses don't fail if financial plans weren't carefully crafted, and projections weren't made. And we mentioned earlier that as kids are aging, and you've got now maybe teenagers, things have to be reconsidered. How are we going to maybe send a kid, because they're maybe no longer going to like YMCA camps, suddenly there are summer trips and things that kids go on with groups and whatnot. So it's important to be as proactive as possible and start these conversations like today. What are we, April something, April 9th, 10th? Start them today.
Steve Altishin 33:19
I swear, I think I'm getting fall clothing things and it's like hold it, summer hasn't even started. But you need to. I just love that idea of doing the plan. And like you said, writing it down. It makes you think of all the things that you don't think about maybe and it makes you, like you said, and you used this word a lot, be intentional, as opposed to reactive. So developing a plan is great. You know, there's still differences between personal and professional relationships. And so you know, what happens after you've done the plan? I mean, how do you keep this operation going in the right direction?
Chris Messina 34:05
I think a whole lot of patience and perseverance. I think flexibility, willingness to adapt with the times. I don't think any business can succeed, and your product is growing children, so that's gonna require a lot of adaptability. So we've got patience, perseverance, adaptability, and recognition that few businesses operate without a hitch on their first day or their first months. There are going to be bumps. It's a commitment that you make to yourself to approach what may have been a bitter or volatile relationship in the past, to approach that in a way that feels goal oriented and child centered.
Steve Altishin 34:51
It makes sense, and just looking forwarad. I mean, you said as we talked about the kids or the product, what do you want your, or Apple I guess was saying, what do we want our cell phone to look like in 20 years? And so I guess you're looking ahead to what you want your kids to look like as adults. Right?
Chris Messina 35:11
You know, you may have an iPhone 11 version of kids, and no longer an iPhone, what was the earliest, six? I don't even know, when did it start? You no longer have an iPhone. Yes, adaptability. And I think some grace with yourself. This is hard. This is really difficult stuff. Some patience with yourself will go a long way.
Steve Altishin 35:35
Oh patience, that is a skill. And everyone needs to work on it.
Chris Messina 35:41
Yeah, very few of us master that skill.
Steve Altishin 35:44
That's right. So thank you, Chris. This was really, really interesting. Once again, a great bunch of insight into a topic that I think just a lot of people are looking at and are concerned about, looking forward to some real uncertainty and fear. How do I do this? And I like the idea of making a plan and trying to take it out of the emotional world and put it in the intentional world. So thank you so much for being here today, Chris.
Chris Messina 36:19
You're so welcome. Thanks for having me. And I think this summer, because it is going to be so topsy turvy, it's a great time, if ever a time were to demand, that we try a really solid framework. Let's try it this summer because certainly it can't hurt.
Steve Altishin 36:36
No, it cannot hurt. So thanks. And I really again want to thank everyone for being here today who tuned in to our Facebook Live . Anyone who has any questions on today's topics, you can post it here, or you can shoot me an email at [email protected] So until next time, everyone, stay safe. Have a great day. Enjoy the sunshine that this week looks like we're gonna have. See you next time.
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