The Importance of Healthy Co-Parenting After Divorce, An Interview with Dr. Allison Bell
Dr. Allison Bell is a psychologist, parenting expert, therapist (for couples and children), mediator and divorce coach in New York. Dr. Bell’s divorce practice grew out of her initial training as a clinical psychologist. She has been a forensic custody evaluator for over 21 years and is trained as a Collaborative Divorce Coach, Parenting Coordinator and Mediator. Dr. Bell approaches divorce through a child-centered lens and supports her clients by helping them choose the appropriate divorce path that best suits their circumstances.
Dr. Allison Bell was interviewed by Divorceify Co-founder, Sonia Queralt.
Sonia Queralt: What type of professional are you and how do you help people through the divorce process?
Allison Bell: I am a licensed psychologist and specialty trained as a child psychologist. I’ve been in private practice for over 30 years. My practice is in New York and in Western Massachusetts. And it is largely a divorce based practice, meaning I see parents and children in a variety of capacities, both in court-based litigated divorces and in out of court alternative dispute resolution processes, like mediation and collaborative divorce. In the world of collaborative divorce, my role is always as either a coach on an inter-disciplinary team or as what’s called a child specialist, in which case I am the only professional member of the divorce team that actually gets to meet children and speak to them about how they’re experiencing the divorce process. In the mediation, I work with divorcing couples, and in litigation, I am working usually as a neutral court-appointed forensic custody evaluator, or in Massachusetts as a Guardian Ad Litem. In the post-divorce arena, I also work as a parenting coordinator where couples who still have a high level of conflict between them will agree to use a parenting coordinator to educate and police them, and help them stick to the agreements that they’ve made.
Sonia Queralt: What are the age ranges of the children you work with?
Allison Bell: Birth through adolescence.
Sonia Queralt: Do you work with one parent or both?
Allison Bell: I tend to work with both parents as much as possible. Part of what I tell parents is that their marital relationship may be over, but their parenting relationship will continue and they need to figure out a way to create a kind of business partnership so that they can parent together. If they are able to reduce conflict between them, then they can parent cooperatively and collaboratively. If some parents are experiencing a lot of conflict and are having a lot of difficulty managing conflict post-divorce, then with these parents I try to steer them into a parallel parenting model where instead of trying to engage cooperatively, the task for these parents is to disengage but still parent together.
Sonia Queralt: Let’s talk about post-divorce co-parenting, what that looks like, any pitfalls that you tend to see parents make and any tips that you have.
Allison Bell: The number one thing that I teach parents is that they have to lower the level of conflict between them. So whatever ongoing disagreements they may still continue to have, they’re entitled to have them. They need to make a coffee date or an appointment and discuss those things outside of the ears of children. Those conflicts should never be happening in front of kids. How parents co-parent after a divorce has a lot to do with the developmental ages and stages of their children. Different kids need different things at different times in their lives. So for very young children, as an example, I help parents develop parenting plans that they then live by with their kids, which often includes frequent contact with both parents. I try to help parents remember that they have to take care of their own mental health. A depressed parent is not going to be an effective parent in any situation. And a depressed parent post-divorce is going to create for that child a heightened sense of loss and abandonment at exactly the time when they need to be able to rely on that adult. So parents taking care of their own mental health and being able to relate to their children in ways that are warm and engaging, no matter what else they may be feeling toward the other parent or about the changes in their life, those are critical aspects of parenting, particularly immediately post-divorce. Parents often ask me about their kids’ adjustment. And one of the things that I find myself often saying, again, especially with younger children, meaning pre-adolescent and younger, is that the kids are gonna take their cues from the parent. So, if the parents are doing well and feeling secure then the kids are going to feel secure and manage their transitions better. Conversely, if the parent is an anxious bundle of nerves and pain, children have radar for how their parents are feeling, so they too will become anxious and insecure.
Sonia Queralt: What tips do you have for drop-offs and pickups between divorced parents?
Allison Bell: Parents who maintain a state of high conflict, and high agitation and high anxiety approach those transitions and exchanges in ways that only make it more difficult for kids. And then, those parents become very reactive when the kids become very reactive, and that’s how people end up running into court with all kinds of accusations about the bad thing the other parent must be doing to my child. Neurobiologically, kids are not equipped to handle family transitions and the changing shape of the family, and they require a tremendous amount of adult support in order to have the new situations make sense. It’s really important that children are prepared for these exchanges – that there is some sense of predictability and consistency about them.
Sonia Queralt: What tips do you have for divorced parents on how to handle the first post-divorce holidays?
Allison Bell: When parents are getting along fairly well, I’ve certainly seen many families share those holidays, especially, as you’re saying, right after, immediately post-divorce. That first Christmas Eve, first Christmas day, even though they’ve written into their separation agreement something that divides things up more, I’ve seen a lot of families actually opt to figure out ways to share time, partly because it’s so painful to divide time, and it’s partly because everybody is in that transition period. Families in which the parents are still in a lot of conflict, of course, cannot do that and they have to, therefore, really stick to the letter of the agreement and do whatever it is they have agreed to do on those holidays. And so, children find themselves with doubles of a lot of things. It could be that there are two Christmases, or there are traditions that already preexisted the divorce, and so grandparents and extended family, maybe, that buffer the strangeness of not experiencing that first holiday all together. I also tell parents something that is written about in the literature on children of divorce. If you ask most children of divorce, “So, did anybody ever ask you what you think? How’s it working for you,” most of them will say, “No, nobody ever talked me. Nobody told me what was going on. Nobody asked my opinion. Nobody asked me how I felt.” It’s really important to include children, not as equal decision-makers, but they absolutely have voices that need to be heard, because the adults have made life-changing decisions and the children are the ones who are directly affected by those decisions. We know that this has very long-lasting effects for children of divorce, well into adulthood, and we know this because when you ask an adult child of divorce about their number one complaint about the divorce, it’s that, “Nobody asked me.”