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How to Co-Parent with Someone Who Has a Mental Illness

Raising children is difficult. Add divorce to the mix and the necessity of co-parenting — especially if the other parent has a mental illness — can make an already tough situation exponentially more difficult. But there’s reason for hope. High-conflict co-parenting relationships can improve over time, and you can take steps to help you and your children cope and learn resilience.

First, resist the idea that your ex’s mental illness or high-conflict personality disqualifies them from being a parent. Research has shown that having two parents is important for kids, even in high-conflict situations. If the other parent suffers from mental illness but isn’t endangering your children, his or her presence in their lives is important to their sense of security following the disruption created by a divorce or break-up.

When children report problems about their time with the other parent, you can help them cope by:

  • Educating them about their parent’s illness — If your former partner has been diagnosed with a mental illness, educate yourself and your children, in an age-appropriate way, about the symptoms and strategies for dealing with this illness. Reach out to a qualified mental health professional to get guidance and advice on talking with your children about their other parent.  The point here is to help your children understand the parent’s thinking – for example, all-or-nothing thinking of a borderline personality – and avoid unnecessary conflict. It’s also important for kids to understand that a parent’s sometimes confounding behavior is not their fault. An excellent resource is the California site of the National Alliance for Mental Illness, which sponsors support groups and educational programs throughout the state to help families dealing with mental illness.
  • Modeling good behavior — Modeling best practices will teach your children how to have empathy rather than escalate conflict, learn coping skills and ask for help when needed. Even seeing you talking calmly and kindly with the other parent can empower a child to find positive solutions to problems that a child can mine in their own interactions with that parent.
  • Separating the person from the illness — It’s important for kids to understand that their parent has an illness, which only defines a portion of who they are. Calling another parent bipolar or depressed brands them with the stigma of that identity, which could negatively affect your children’s relationship with that parent.
  • Getting help while maintaining boundaries — If your child is reporting concerning behaviors by their other parent, consider talking with your co-parent first. Often a simple conversation can reveal if someone is suffering from severe depression or psychosis. Contact a lawyer whose practice area includes child custody immediately if you have any questions about your legal options or want to petition the court for a change in visitation or custody. In extreme cases in which you fear for your child’s immediate safety, the police and Child Protective Services can help. If your ex is suicidal, call 911, but don’t get involved personally. You want to maintain healthy boundaries and not allow the other parent to manipulate you or your children.

When you have children and your ex has a mental illness, a break-up or divorce can make parenting even more difficult. It’s important to seek skilled legal help to protect your children while trying not to alienate the other parent. Williams Family Law represents clients in complex divorce, child custody and other family law matters throughout the Sacramento area. Call 916-407-0544 or contact us online to schedule a meeting.


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