Olivia’s Story: You Had Me at Hello

(To protect confidentiality, names and details have been modified)

She was conceived on a one-night-stand and her parents never married — not a great love story for the child to remember. Nevertheless, Olivia had adjusted to a 50/50 custody schedule with her parents by the time she was two. I first met her when she was 12. I had begun working with her parents a few months before as their parenting coordinator after a particularly brutal court case. In our joint sessions, they both insisted Olivia was just fine, despite the fact that they had been in court about every other year of her life, revisiting custody, visitation and contempt issues. They felt they were doing a great job of hiding the conflict from her, but I didn’t buy it. In parenting coordination, we focus mostly on the parents, but there is great value in meeting the children to get their perspectives. I met Olivia only one time, but it changed my approach to parenting coordination in a remarkable way.

Olivia presented as a polite, intelligent and respectful middle-schooler. She seemed nervous at first as most kids are when they meet a divorce professional. I explained that I wanted to find out if parenting coordination was affecting her positively, and more importantly, what she thought I could do to improve things for her sake. I promised her confidentiality. Once I had convinced her that I was trustworthy, oh boy! She began to talk and didn’t stop for 45 minutes. Not only was she well aware of her parents’ conflict, she was tired of it. She began to describe what it felt like to be the only child of parents who obviously never loved one another and who resented having to interact because they had a child. My heart broke as she talked about being the reason her parents hated each other and how she tried to manage their conflict so she wouldn’t have to be reminded it was her fault. Yet, surprisingly, she didn’t appear sad or angry about it. Sadly, she had adjusted to the pain over the years.

Olivia was a straight-A student, an accomplished gymnast, and reported having healthy friendships. On the outside, no one would have known she had grown up in this kind of turmoil. At the end of our session, I asked her to tell me something specific she would like her parents to do that would make her life easier. She had only one request. Could you just get my parents to say hello to each other when they are around me? That was not something I expected to hear, so I asked her to elaborate. She said she had never witnessed them acknowledge one another in her presence. In fact, she felt they purposely shunned each other and would occasionally sport a glare or nasty look. She never liked witnessing the obvious hate between them. She just wanted them to say hello! I laughed to myself because I realized I had never seen them acknowledge one another respectfully in my office either. Hmmm….

In my next session with the parents, I didn’t tell them what Olivia had told me (I had promised I wouldn’t). I did tell them that they had an awesome daughter and that they were at a crossroads with her at age 12. She was about to enter the teen years in which she might not be so accommodating about the constant attention to parenting plan details or their neuroticism as separated parents of an only child. She was about to begin her ascent into adulthood and if they were smart, they better get the conflict under control now or they could lose everything they each had worked hard to achieve with her. She would go the way of many teens who get tired of a lifetime of co-parent conflict and she would likely distance herself from both of them, while they conveniently blamed each other for it. They were all ears, eager to see who could be the better parent on this one, as it’s always a competition. I asked them both to leave and walk back into my office. Before they sat at the table, I instructed them to reach out and shake each other’s hand and say hello with a smile. The look of sheer terror on their faces was telling. I was asking them to put aside themselves for a change. Mom refused at first, saying she would not be fake. I said, “That’s sad. Now I know exactly how it feels to be your daughter.” Eventually, mom relented. Every session after that, I required them to shake hands, smile and greet before we got started. Eventually, they reported they were saying hello in front of their daughter.

Last year, Olivia, now age 17, requested to see me. She was having some personal issues and wanted to check in with a therapist. I agreed because it had been a while since I saw her parents and I was eager to catch up with her. She was delightful. The parents were surprisingly respectful in my waiting room (because of course they both had to show up to the appointment). After some pleasant introductions, I took Olivia back to my office and asked her how things had gone in the last few years. I learned her parents had not returned to court since I had seen them last and that she was thriving. Then her next comment made me teary-eyed. She said with a knowing smile, “And they are still saying hello.”

What this case taught me is that co-parenting is simple when parents realize a child’s needs are uncomplicated. In this case, parenting coordination was not a miracle solution, but I believe that without it, the child would never have gotten a simple hello out of her parents. What we do at CNFC for co-parents really does impact the children in a way that reshapes their childhood experiences. This exemplifies our motto: Helping Parents So Kids Can Be Kids.

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