When a Co-Parent Has Addiction or Mental Health Issues

Q: I read your post "Ten Strategies for Co-Parenting with an Uncooperative Ex" which really hit home. I strive to do all those things, but do not believe my ex does.  Why should I keep letting him walk all over me? I believe that teaches our daughter bad self-esteem. Where is the line between negotiating (or giving in) and standing your ground, especially with a co-parent who has addiction and mental health issues?  I tend to think my situation is different than what you were writing about, but part of me thinks maybe it isn't. 

My daughter is a very happy, kind and gentle little girl.  She doesn't seem to be too affected by the divorce.  She has anxiety constantly questioning whose day it is - which I assume is normal behavior due to all the changes going on. The only apparent issue she has is when it is time for her to go with her father.  The anxiety and crying is not diminishing as I thought it would and it's been almost a year. It starts the day before she goes and the exchanges are horrible for her.  He and I don't speak but the tension could be cut with a knife. 

I read so much about how to co-parent with someone who is unreasonable. I have a therapist to help me make sure I see my part in situations as well.  But there is little "extra" help when it comes to co-parenting someone with addiction or mental problems... 


A: Yes, you are right, there is a fine line to walk when we are co-parenting with someone who has addiction or mental health issues. 

At the risk of overstating the obvious, I think it's more important than ever in these situations to make sure you are taking good care of yourself and getting the support you need, because it will be you who is doing the bulk of the emotional work of parenting.  So it's awesome that you have a therapist to help you process and offload the big feelings that will inevitably arise for you, as they would for anyone in your situation.

I understand not wanting to set a bad example for your daughter, and by making that intention clear within yourself, you have already done a lot in
that direction.

Your daughter is a very lucky girl to have a mom who is intentional about wanting to see what part she is playing in these situations as clearly as possible.  That's a rare and amazing goal, and quite admirable, in my opinion.  If that's the only thing you ever model for her (and I know it won't be), you will serve her extremely well!

Hopefully, most if not all of the negotiating you do with her father will be out of her sight and hearing, so at this point you are not going to be a role model for her about how to negotiate with him without giving in. 

The healthy self-esteem that you will model for her will come in other contexts - how you talk to your own friends and family in her earshot, how you handle yourself in the world, etc. 

And although he may not being doing the things in my post, if you are, she will see that happening, and that is what she will internalize - that her mom, in good faith, tried to be reasonable.

You are right that your case is different in some ways from what I wrote about, and similar in others.  There's lots more to your particular situation than I can address here, and you seem to be well aware of that already.  I think perhaps Al-Anon might potentially be a good resource for you in terms of concrete and local support for how to negotiate with him without giving in.

The anxiety and crying in anticipation of transitions does seem to be common, and of course that does not make it any easier for the mama who feels her heart breaking every time.

A few ideas for resources:

Added Feb 2015 : My latest go-to source for information about high conflict personalities and in difficult joint custody situations is http://highconflictinstitute.com/articles/parenting-a-divorce-articles. Tons of free articles there, and also some online training options and books for sale. I've read almost all of them and highly recommend anything written by Bill Eddy.

I cringe at the title, but the book Joint Custody with a Jerk by Corcoran and Ross does have some really useful ideas in it.  I put stickers over the word 'jerk' on my copy, because I just couldn't bear the thought of my kids seeing it and thinking I was disrespecting their dad.

Another resource that I so wish I had known about when my kids were going through all this is www.handinhandparenting.org
They do such a great job explaining how to be with a child who is crying - starting with the fact that crying is a natural and very effective way to release big emotions and cleanse the system, and therefore is not something to be feared or avoided.

Here's a link to an article to get you started.  if you like it, there are many others available on that site under the article tab -- all for free.

You may also have noticed that there are several other articles here on my blog that might be helpful.  Check the categories on the right in the sidebar.  

I don't know offhand of anything specifically written about co-parenting with someone who as addiction or mental health issues, but clearly this is an issue that many divorced parents are dealing with, and there's a real need for assistance.  Maybe you will be the one to write it?  :)

If anyone reading this has resources to share on this subject, please feel free to post them in a comment.

Best of luck to you, and please let me know how you are doing ...


For more information about Karen's parenting consultations, click here or visit www.karenalonge.com


tryingmybest said...

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This kinda loosely reminds me of a problem I'm facing in raising my stepsons.

To start, my boys are 3 and a half and 5 (at the end of this month) years old. Their birth mother walked out on them a couple years ago and hasn't put in the effort to see them at all since then. Even before she left, she put very little effort into building a family with my fiance from the beginning. He has struggled to take care of his kids on his own, but with our rough economy, and not having completed his education, he's been forced to rely on his recently widowed mother for help since shortly after his first son was born. Because of this, grandma has been the strongest female presence in their lives.

When I came into the picture about half a year ago, they took to me as their 'mommy' with little hesitation. The younger child seems to have very little memory of his birth mother and thinks I'm her, while the older one I'm not so sure whether he understands I'm a different person or not.

The problem with our situation, is that grandma was diagnosed with dementia several months ago and the symptoms have gotten bad enough to interfere with my ability to raise our kids. I'm a stay-at-home mom while my fiance is away as a trucker, sometimes for several weeks at a time, and his mother works a regular m-f/9-5 type job. While they're away, I have a somewhat structured household for the boys, including set times for eating and naps, lesson time when they're not in preschool, exercize time, and plenty or free time to play between things. They've gotten very good at learning to clean up when it's time to clean up, and they take their naps and eat what they're given without much more than pouting on occasion.

But the instant grandma gets home, whether she goes out after work and is back late or if she comes home right away, all the rules I give them are suddenly ignored and blown away. She gives them candy and spoils their dinner with snacks the instant they want it. My younger son whines for everything because he's learned that's the fastest way to get her to respond, my elder is demanding and insulting when he wants things. Their behavior is fairly normal at school or when they're with me or their father, but as soon as grandma is home, they suddenly become serious problem children. They throw things, break things, have tantrums, and all of it because she not only will not hold them to any sort of standard, but she refuses to let me enforce anything and only grudgingly backs down when their father tries to enforce something. She treats he and I like children or me like a babysitter/nanny rather than respecting our wishes as parents. She claims 'my house, my rules' as her excuse, and I feel very strongly that she views the boys as her own kids.

My fiance and I both contribute to the home and family, financially/housekeeping/cooking/childcare/etc., but she seems incapable of recognizing our efforts or authority as parents. Right now we're getting ready to move away to our own home, now that his income has increased enough, but with her attitude towards us and the children, my fiance feels we may need to completely separate the boys from her for a while, possibly indefinitly.

I'm trying so hard to keep my household happy and healthy, but the dementia and her own stubborn pride are making communication nearly impossible and she's convinced herself I'm a bad parent that doesn't take proper care of the kids. I honestly don't know what to do to keep her a part of the family and keep my children's lives stable.

If it helps to know ages of the grownups involved, she's 60, my fiance is 30, and I'm 25. Not sure, but I've heard ages can sometimes have an affect and give a better idea of the situation in general.

karen alonge said...

tough situation, tryingmybest. step-parenting is hard in the best of contexts, but there's a lot going on here that makes it even more challenging for you.

I suspect things will improve considerably when you guys get your own place. until then, take comfort in the fact that you are laying a supportive, nuturing foundation for the kids that they will return to again and again. their grandma won't be in their lives forever, and with a dementia diagnosis, it may not be long before she's not capable or interested in this level of involvement.

Based on the little bit of information you provided here, I don't know if complete separation from their grandma is necessary, or even wise, given that they are bonded to her. Kids know the difference between rules and exceptions, and the occasional indulgence from her won't mess them up permanently.

My advice to you would be to keep doing all the great things you are doing for the kids, and to let go a little bit of what happens with her if you possibly can. You are in their lives for the long term. You are doing a great job nurturing them, and any time, energy or attention you devote to trying to change grandma only detracts from what you have left for the kids. Keep focused on them, and taking care of yourself, and things will sort themselves out.

I hope this is helpful. Please keep us posted on how things go for you.

Thanks so much for providing some health care recommendations to others as well!

tryingmybest said...

Oh my gosh, I wrote that out on my notepad and didn't realize I copy/pasted it all. They're actually notes to myself, getting the boys taken care of. *laughs*

But thank you very much for the advise, I'll keep it in mind and keep doing my best for my family.