How to Achieve Effective Co-Parenting Through Parenting Coordination

Ask An Expert: Nancy Rohatinsky, MC, R. Psych

By Brittany Koenig, Business Development Manager

Separating from a spouse or partner is never easy – it's an incredibly emotional and stressful time for everyone involved. The complexity multiplies when children are part of the equation. Parents find themselves navigating a turbulent transitional period, adjusting to new family dynamics and the reality of shared or split parenting schedules. These changes can strain emotional resources and when parenting conflicts escalate, disputes can rise to extreme levels, resulting in what is known as a high-conflict separation or divorce. When matters reach this point, it can be difficult to find common ground, making it hard to focus on what matters most –their child’s best interests.

So how can parents caught in high-conflict disputes begin to untangle the complexities and refocus on what's best for their children? One effective avenue for resolution is parenting coordination. This specialized form of dispute resolution combines mediation, arbitration, and parent education with the ultimate goal of improving communication and co-parenting skills to facilitate a more productive and supportive relationship between parents.

To provide clarity on this unique but sometimes confusing form of dispute resolution, I sat down with Nancy Rohatinsky, a parenting coordinator and registered psychologist with nearly 20 years of specialized experience in family matters related to separation and divorce. Operating through her psychology practice, Empowering You, Nancy extends her expertise to help parents overcome challenges and make more informed decisions for their families. In the interview that follows, we touch upon various aspects—from the role and benefits of parenting coordinators in Alberta, to pragmatic advice for selecting the right coordinator for your specific family dynamics.

Brittany: Can you give us some insight into your background? What drove you to become a parenting coordinator, and how did you embark on this career path?

Nancy: Growing up as the middle child in a family of five, I naturally assumed the role of a "peacemaker." I’ve never liked conflict and was drawn to helping people navigate through it, rather than getting stuck in it.

In the spring of 2000, I took a week-long mediation course and was hooked! From there, I further honed my skills by completing the Mediation and Negotiation Program at Mount Royal University. Shortly thereafter, I began mediating a variety of issues with Alberta Justice in what is often referred to as small claims court and expanded my focus to include divorce and separation mediation.

In 2005, I joined Alberta Justice as a Family Court Counsellor where I assisted self-represented parties in presenting their matters before the Court and provided mediation services through their Family Court Services. This position allowed me to mediate full-time and further deepen my expertise in the field.

Fast forward to today, and I have over two decades of experience in mediation.

Brittany: For those who may be unfamiliar, could you explain what a parenting coordinator does? And what situations might lead someone to seek out parenting coordination services?

Nancy: The primary goal of a parenting coordinator is to educate and guide parents. We aim to show them how to successfully co-parent, even after a relationship has ended, without the constant need for third-party involvement. Parents often seek out this service to resolve ongoing conflicts, improve communication, and make co-parenting more effective for the benefit of their children.

Brittany: Could you shed light on some of the common misconceptions people have about the role and process of parenting coordination?

Nancy: One common misunderstanding is that parenting coordination is a "use-it-when-you-need-it" service where clients can step in and out as they see fit. In reality, the process is directed by the parenting coordinator, who serves as the expert. This is a key difference from the mediation-arbitration process. Parenting coordination is a commitment, requiring initial heavy lifting through frequent appointments to address urgent issues and help parents establish a concrete communication plan.

Regularly scheduled meetings are essential, not only to hold parties accountable but also to keep them focused, knowing that there will be another upcoming meeting. The role of a parenting coordinator is also to facilitate necessary conversations that have perhaps been avoided to maintain peace with the goal of addressing these issues upfront so they're no longer problematic in the future.

Brittany: What are some key considerations for families when choosing a parenting coordinator?

The first thing to remember is that you get what you pay for. Opting for a less expensive option might be tempting, but it could end up being detrimental in the long run. It's important to do your homework—ask potential parenting coordinators about their training, their experience, and their approach.

I highly recommend reviewing the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts (AFCC) guidelines for Parenting Coordination. Professionals who adhere to these best practices are generally more equipped to handle the complexities of the role.

Brittany: From what you've explained, it's clear that the practice of parenting coordination can vary significantly depending on the professional involved. Considering your specific approach, could you walk us through what families should expect when they engage with you as a parenting coordinator?

Nancy: My approach to parenting coordination starts with individual intake discussions with each party. In this session, we go over the service agreement, clarify the process, and set expectations. It's also an opportunity for each person to ask questions and for me to assess any potential concerns related to domestic violence.

Following the individual sessions, we move to joint appointments, which are generally two hours long and occur every two to three weeks. In these appointments, we establish a communication plan and focus on skill development. Unlike counseling, the aim here isn't to change anyone's character but to collaboratively find solutions.

As part of the arbitration aspect of parenting coordination, both parties are put under oath from the first session, meaning they are legally required to be truthful and ensures that all agreements are enforceable, which are then issued as Consent Arbitration Awards. All communications are joint, and parties are required to confirm their agreement or disagreement with any proposed solutions within 24 hours.

I ask clients to submit an email 48 hours before our scheduled meeting, suggesting topics they'd like to discuss. While we usually cover these topics, some might be deferred if they're not immediately relevant or more information is needed before fruitful discussions can be had.

I engage both parties in problem-solving by asking questions like, "What do you think is the best approach?" or "Can you think of alternative solutions?" My role is to challenge them to think outside the box.

By entering this process, you're committing to creating enforceable agreements—much like court orders—that both parties are obligated to follow.

Brittany: How would you best explain the differences and unique advantages of parenting coordination when compared to standalone mediation?

Nancy: Where people often get it wrong is even though mediation and parenting coordination may seem similar, they are quite distinct.

In mediation, you're facilitating a negotiation but not acting as the expert on family dynamics or child development. Whereas a parenting coordinator employs mediation skills while also providing specialized expertise in family dynamics and child development. The parenting coordinator’s role is a unique blend of educator, mediator, and arbitrator.

Brittany: Could you elaborate on the key benefits that parents can expect when they decide to work with a parenting coordinator?

Nancy: One of the most significant benefits of working with a parenting coordinator is that it gives parents the chance to shape the kind of co-parenting relationship they aspire to have. Often, one or both parties aren't emotionally ready to establish such a relationship on their own. The structured process offered by parenting coordination helps dial down the emotions, making it easier for parents to focus on constructive solutions.

Brittany: How do you ensure that the process remains child-centered?

Nancy: The focus is always centered around what is best for the child, tailored to their specific age and developmental stage. It's not about what makes the parents happy, but what serves the child's needs.

When I hear arguments primarily focused on the adults, I redirect the conversation towards how a decision would impact the child. Often, this gives parents pause as they realize their initial argument doesn't hold up when considering the child's well-being.

Additionally, it's essential to recognize that a child's behavior can be influenced by various factors, not just the narrative that a parent might want to promote. For example, I worked with a family where the child was resistant to going with their father during a 5 pm transition. Rather than jumping to conclusions, we considered other factors like the child's state of hunger and tiredness at that time. A simple change—in this case, having the father pick up the child directly from preschool—completely resolved the issue.

Brittany: What can parents do to maximize the effectiveness of their time in parenting coordination, both before, during, and after the process?

Nancy: To get the most out of the parenting coordination process, you should always come prepared and with the right mindset.
Before each session, think critically about the issues you'd like to address and send an agenda to help guide the discussion.

During the meeting, arrive with an open mind, ready to collaborate and explore new perspectives. The focus should be on reaching mutually beneficial solutions for the child's well-being.

After each session, take the time to reflect on what was discussed, what agreements were made, and how you can continue to apply these understandings in your daily parenting. An open mind and proactive approach are key in making the most of this process.

Brittany: Can you share some insights or tips on how you help parents understand their role and responsibilities when working with a parenting coordinator, particularly in terms of communication and self-reflection?

Nancy: As a parenting coordinator, my primary job is to facilitate effective communication between parents. I start by laying the groundwork in our first joint meeting, where we discuss the guidelines for a mutual communication plan. This plan outlines what information should be shared, what should be avoided, and when it should be sent. While I provide the initial structure, we work together to tailor this plan to everyone's needs.

Given that emotions can run high in these discussions, I act as the moderator to keep the language neutral. If conversations begin to veer into emotionally charged or inflammatory areas, I step in to redirect the focus. My aim is to cultivate a setting where parents can articulate themselves in a way that is clear, factual, and most importantly, child-centered.

I also take a trauma-informed approach, which allows us to delve deeper into issues without attaching stigmatizing labels. When it comes to understanding the child's point of view, instead of directly involving myself, I recommend consultation with a specialized third-party therapist. This maintains the child's trust and helps us better understand the underlying dynamics.

When it comes to effective communication, I also encourage my clients to:

  • Keep messages short and focused on the child's needs
  • Only include factual and necessary information
  • Ensure the communication could be read by the child without causing any distress
  • Steer clear of any provocative or triggering language.

Throughout the typical two-year contract, my role evolves from an active facilitator to more of a safety net. The idea is to have parents increasingly take the reins, living out their parenting plan with fewer interventions from me - though some families choose to extend their contract with me, finding value in the ongoing support I provide.

Brittany: Can you provide an overview of the typical timeline for the parenting coordination process, and what variables might affect this duration?

Nancy: In most cases, parenting coordination is court-ordered or consented to by the parties for a period of two years. The intensive work occurs at the beginning, during the initial appointments. The more promptly both parents engage and collaborate, the quicker we can address urgent issues, and find acceptable solutions to previous challenges with communication and parenting plan issues, which typically results in a reduction in the duration and frequency of our sessions throughout the remainder of that two-year period.

Brittany: How do you approach the initial stages of engagement with clients to ensure they're comfortable with the parenting coordination process, and what happens if things aren't progressing as hoped?

Nancy: The aim of parenting coordination is not to pit one parent against another in a competitive or adversarial manner, as is often the case in litigation. Instead, the focus is on the children and helping parents work together for the benefit of their children, emphasizing that parenting is not a competition but rather a process best approached from a collaborative perspective with clearly defined structure, boundaries, and parenting responsibilities to which both parents then adhere.

One effective strategy I use to encourage cooperation is proposing trial periods for potential solutions. I've found that parents are more willing to experiment with new approaches if they know there's a set period—typically 6 to 8 weeks—after which we will evaluate the results.

Establishing trust is also very important, which is one of the reasons why I always conduct an initial individual appointment with each parent. This session provides an opportunity to build rapport and ensure that we're a good fit for one another. Occasionally, it becomes apparent that the process isn't working because it is not the right fit at that time or one or both of the parties is not able to participate as needed in our meetings. In those instances, I advise parents of my impression, explain my reasons then arrange a conference call with the lawyers involved to discuss alternatives. I usually find that the lawyers’ assistance is quite helpful in getting their clients back on track so we can resume the parenting coordination process or having them access an alternate type of intervention.

Brittany: Could you elaborate on the regulatory framework—or lack thereof—for parenting coordination in Alberta?

Nancy: Both parenting coordination and mediation remain unregulated practices in Alberta. This means that anyone can present themselves as a mediator or parenting coordinator, without any standardized training or qualifications. Because of this, you'll find a range of approaches and levels of expertise in the field. My approach, for instance, won't be the same as another practitioner's.

Brittany: What risks or challenges are associated with the lack of regulation in this field?

Nancy: The absence of formal regulations can be a double-edged sword. On one hand, it allows for a diversity of approaches; on the other, it means the qualifications of practitioners can vary widely. Parents should look for professionals with a graduate degree, extensive experience, and formal training in mediation, negotiation, parenting coordination, and specialized areas like family dynamics and family law.

It is also important to look for parenting coordinators who have the expertise to educate parents about nuanced aspects of child behavior and development. One major challenge is that parents often misinterpret children's behavior, attributing it exclusively to the parenting situation rather than to age-appropriate development. For example, a three-year-old might be reluctant to switch households not because she doesn't want to go to Dad's or Mom's, but because she's at a stage where she is discovering some autonomy and simply doesn’t want to be taken away from what she is happy doing at that particular moment. This expertise in educating parents to help them understand children's developmental stages can be a game-changer in effective co-parenting.

Parenting coordination offers a unique blend of mediation and educational guidance to assist high-conflict parents in resolving disputes amicably for the benefit of their children. By engaging with a parenting coordinator, families can navigate the complex emotional and logistical challenges that often accompany co-parenting, ensuring a more harmonious environment for everyone involved. With a focus on child-centered solutions, this alternative dispute resolution process paves the way for healthier family dynamics in the long term.

If you're grappling with a high-conflict parenting dispute and are exploring various alternative dispute resolution options such as parenting coordination, we strongly encourage you to reach out to our team at Coach My Case. We offer expert legal coaching and paralegal services tailored to empower you to make informed decisions that serve your family's best interests. Don't navigate these challenging waters alone. Book a free 20-minute consultation with one of our family law experts today to discover how we can support you in resolving your parenting conflicts effectively.