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The following quote nicely summarizes this knowledge:
The current research examining the effects of divorce on children concludes that a constructive divorce in a family with children requires minimizing the psychic injury to children through continued relationships with both parents and an atmosphere of support and cooperation between the parents.1
Thus, it is a well-established fact that a child experiencing the dissolution of the family structure will do better if the parents are able to get along and reduce trauma in an already traumatic experience. Co-parenting can be a viable option when it is implemented by parents who want it to work because they understand that the child’s needs supersede their own self interest, and it can be successful and rewarding for both the child and the parents.
IMPACT OF SEPARATION AND DIVORCE ON CHILDREN
There are many threatening and frightening things that happen to individuals whose relationship ends up in separation or divorce. When there are no children of the relationship, the adults can separate their lives relatively easily, albeit not without pain. For a child, however, the termination of a nuclear family is, most often, highly traumatizing. Children, who go through separation, and/or divorce, experience abandonment. Generally, this is also their primary fear. Younger children do not have the intellectual resources, or older children the emotional resources to understand this as anything other than, “I am being left by my parent!” When asked, “What do you worry about most?” They often respond with, “I am afraid I will never see one of my parents again.” When children of separation or divorce are asked, “What are your three wishes?” most will usually say something like, “I wish my Mom and Dad were back together.”
A central reason that divorce is so difficult for children is the fact that they have little life experience to understand why their parents would separate and what happens when a parent, or when both parents, leaves the family home. They frequently worry, “If ONE of my parents mysteriously left home today, who is to say that my OTHER parent won’t leave home tomorrow, and there will be nobody left to take care of me?”
Often, children are afraid to ask what will happen. They are afraid they may hear that their worst fear has come true - that their parents have indeed, permanently abandoned by their parents. And, if the parents do not explain what the separation means and doesn’t mean for the child, then the child may remain in a state of chronic anxiety. Sometimes, this anxiety gets expressed as acting-out with aggressive and non-compliant behavior, and sometimes it gets expressed as withdrawn behavior, eating problems, sleeping problems, and/or school problems. So, if a child’s behavior has changed from a usual pattern, it may simply be a red flag being waved saying, “I’m having difficulty dealing with this situation. Can you please help me by explaining what is going on?” Your child needs you to take time to explain in detail what the separation will mean to him or her. This is an excellent time to reassure your children that the separation and divorce are not their fault. It is not something they said, did, felt, or thought that made Daddy or Mommy leave. Give the child a simple explanation of why the separation did take place. Present it in a way that does not put down the other parent.
DEFINITIONS OF TERMS
In dealing with a former partner in the joint task of raising children after separation and/or divorce, it is very important, and clearly very challenging to separate the parenting issues from leftover partnering issues.
So how do former partners jointly parent their children? And what is co-parenting? Let us begin by defining some terms and concepts.
Legal custody is a designation of parental authority to make major decisions regarding the health, education, and welfare of the child. Some examples of such issues that need decisions would be as follows: Does the child need braces? What school will the child attend? What religion will the child practice? The typical options for Legal Custody are either Sole legal custody, or Joint legal custody. A parent with Sole legal custody has authority to make all major decisions about the child. Parents with Joint legal custody share the authority to make major decisions about their child.
Physical custody designates the amount of time a child shares with each parent. The typical options are Sole physical custody or Joint physical custody. A parent with Sole physical custody has responsibility for the child the significant majority of the time. Parents with Joint physical custody share responsibility for the child’s time within a more equitable schedule. It is important to note that neither Joint physical nor Joint legal custody necessarily mean an exactly equal time-sharing arrangement. The legal definitions of these terms have purposely been left general and broad by the legislatures, so that any specific application could take into account the particular needs of a given child and his or her family situation. Any and all time-sharing plans should be based on the very broad standard of “the best interests of the child.” It should take into consideration the child’s developmental needs.
Another term to define is visitation. This is generally considered to be the time that the child shares with the non-custodial parent. Notice these highlighted terms -custody, visitation. They sound like the child is a piece of property, or a prisoner.
Rather than viewing the separated family arrangements in traditional legal terms, it is more valid, psychologically speaking, for physical custody to be conceptualized from the point of view of the child. We know that, with rare exceptions, it is in the child’s best interest to have regular and continuing contact with both parents. And, with very young children (under the age of 4 or 5), it is important if at all possible to have frequent contact with each parent. This is because of their very limited memory, which after only several days fades the image of the missing parent. This all is to say the child’s rights have to supersede the parent’s rights. It is the child’s right to have access to both parents. It is the parent’s obligation and responsibility to be available and to care for the child.
Less competitive or “fighting words” and more collaborative terminology would be helpful in lowering the stress of an already difficult situation. For example, rather than using the terms “custody” and “visitation,” I suggest using the more emotionally neutral term, “parenting plan.” This term contains the more normalized concepts of a child sharing time with or living with each parent at different times. In a written parenting plan, sentences begin with, “The child will share time with (or, live with) each parent according to the following schedule:” rather than, “The Father has visitation on alternate weekends.” Even if the child sees one parent only once a year for a few days, the child is still sharing time and living with that parent during that time period.
The time sharing plan should take into consideration what that child has become accustomed to, regarding the parenting style and arrangement during the time of the intact relationship. This is critical for the adjustment and stability of the child during the often chaotic and stressful period following the break up. If, during the relationship, there had been a primary parent carrying out the major responsibility in time and effort, then such should remain the initial basis of a parenting plan. It need not remain as such forever, but it should begin with the status quo from the child’s view, and be modified gradually over time. It is important to understand that no agreement is written in stone. All parenting plans are negotiable, as various needs arise that necessitate modification of the plan.
If a child is to be with one parent significantly more of the time than with the other parent (for example, when the two parents live a considerable distance from one another), I suggest replacing the traditional term of “custodial parent” with the less emotionally charged concept of “the child’s primary residence” and “the child’s secondary residence.” Of course, if the child shares time fairly equitably between the parents, then there is no need to designate either parent’s residence with such title.
Technically, co-parenting exists with any parenting arrangement, regardless of its formal designation. In whatever way each parent is involved in raising the child, the parents co-parent. Most effective co-parenting arrangements contain the following characteristic dynamics between the parents: cooperation, communication, compromise, and consistency. These dynamics often grow over time and typically take a period of years to evolve effectively.
While meaningful co-parenting can only be carried out by parents in a working, functional, parental relationship, parallel parenting is more characteristic of parents in a dysfunctional relationship dynamic. Parallel parenting manifests when there is an insufficient degree of cooperation, communication, compromise, or consistency to carry out co-parenting. Frequently, in the beginning stages of a separation or divorce, parallel parenting may exist as a result of the lack of trust and sense of betrayal. While most parents are able to work through these dynamics to establish a more cooperative relationship, some parents are not and they remain in a power struggle that affects all negotiations between them. Certainly, when post-divorce parenting arrangements are Court-ordered in an adversarial court battle, such on-going patterns are common.
Children in parallel parenting arrangements often experience heightened anxiety during phone calls from the other parent and during transfers between parents. This anxiety results from the child’s awareness of the great potential for parental fights to ensue at these times. It is important to protect the children from this potential for parental conflict to erupt. Minimizing verbal and physical contact between the parents can help. It is often useful to utilize written communication (letters, faxes, e-mail, etc.), or a third party, for communication purposes.
FIVE CATEGORIES OF POST-DIVORCE SPOUSAL RELATIONSHIPS
Ahrons 2 has conceptualized five categories of post-divorce spousal relationships: Perfect Pals, Cooperative Colleagues, Angry Associates, Fiery Foes, and Dissolved Duos. The first two are appropriately referred to as functional co-parenting. The next two are dysfunctional relationships that can manage “parallel parenting” at best. And, the last category, Dissolved Duos, sadly for the children, consists of 100% solo parenting.
Perfect Pals are best friends who were married and have made a mutual decision to go their separate ways. These parents like one another. They usually do all their own legal work and establish a parenting plan that is in the “best interests of the child.” They are flexible and have respect for each other, both as co-parents and as friends. These are the individuals who will be able to celebrate holidays together. Even after remarriage to others, they may, for example, all celebrate Thanksgiving dinner together. When graduation comes, they might purchase one present together for their child and sit together at the ceremony.
While still within the co-parenting category, Cooperative Colleagues have a difficult time when they separate. They most likely have attorneys or require a third party to assist in finalizing plans of the marital settlement. Most often these people did not make a mutual decision to separate. They still do not necessarily like each other, but they respect one another as parents. They can separate their parenting from their partnering issues. They support the child’s involvement in each other’s lives and in the lives of the extended families. They are generally courteous to each other. A few times a year, they may have a disagreement that initially will require third party intervention, but they are able to resolve such disputes outside of Court.
Eventually, cooperative colleagues figure out how to avoid getting caught up in the drama of the former partner. At graduation, for example, they may or may not sit together. Either way, they are cordial and not overtly hostile. They will likely feel more comfortable purchasing separate gifts for their child and one might take the graduate to dinner while the other takes him or her to breakfast. These people have let go of each other. They permit and support the child having a relationship with the other parent. As years move on, each is less threatened by the other. The child has two houses and two families under one large conceptual family umbrella.
Now, we move into the more dysfunctional post-divorce relationship categories. Although many still refer to this as co-parenting, I suggest the use of the more apt term, “parallel parenting,” to describe these dynamics.
Angry Associates do not know how to emotionally disengage from each other. They are “compatible combatants.”3 They fight well together and thus remain in a destructive relationship from which at least one of the parties was truly attempting to leave. At least one of the partners gets stuck in the emotional process of divorce and cannot move on with life. This can go on for years or, perhaps, a lifetime. These parents are in a persistent and continual power struggle with one another. They regularly require third party intervention (mediators, lawyers, arbitrators, and judges). They do not respect each other as parents, nor as people. Their child becomes a pawn in this unrelenting conflict and his or her childhood is sacrificed to the immaturity of the parents. These are the parents who do not encourage the child to share time with the other parent. Involvement with extended family members is not often a real possibility for the child.
Certainly, if looks could cause harm, injury would happen, (and occasionally does) between these parents. They will definitely choose not to sit near one another at any of their child’s events. More than likely, the parent responsible for the child on graduation day will not encourage the child to acknowledge the other parent, in any way. These parents do not understand that, although they have separated or divorced, the child does not choose to divorce either parent. Unfortunately, these parents see things in black and white, win/loose, and either/or. There is no gray, no win-win in their consciousness. This child will grow up walking on eggshells and scanning the environment to figure out the “right” thing to say and do. The child’s base of operation is one of living in a “war zone.” This child cannot be the loving center of his/her parents’ world. This child exists as the “spoils of war.”
The next relationship category, called the Fiery Foes, is one in which the dynamics of the dysfunctional relationship further exacerbate the intensity of the dissolution process. These parents have such disdain for one another that, for example, one of the parents cannot even attend the child’s graduation. Not only does each parent dislike the other, but the child and the eventual grandchild will have to carry the anger down through the generations as to how awful the other parent was as a parent, partner, and yes, human being. The therapist of this child can do nothing more than comfort the child during the therapy sessions. For, after these sessions, the child must return to the family war. The children of these parents suffer psychopathology of the worst order, distress that will assure them of the need for life-long psychotherapy. Often the risks (both physical and emotional) to the child of on-going efforts by their parents at co-parenting are too great. Decisive and sometimes dramatic Court intervention is a virtual necessity with Fiery Foes.
The final category is Dissolved Duos. These parents have reached such an extreme point of pain that one of the parents drops out of the child’s life entirely. The parent typically moves out of state and begins a new family, often never even telling the new spouse that there had ever been another family. This parent would not have even known that their child had graduated. Becoming the departing of the Dissolved Duo is one way to disengage from the emotional pain of divorce, but the price that the child pays in being abandoned is huge.
THE IMPACT OF GRIEF ON SUCCESSFUL CO-PARENTING
Most parents want to co-parent successfully and strive to conduct themselves in ways that would include them in the first two post-divorce relationship categories. What gets in the way?
THE GRIEVING PROCESS
Just as with death, when a relationship ends there is a grieving process. This natural response to loss often contributes significantly to difficulties in co-parenting. It takes no less than two years to bring the grieving process regarding the break up of the relationship to a resolution. This timeline is founded on the notion that a person needs to live through the first year after the break up with all its holidays and occasions, as he or she moves away from the established patterns of the marital relationship. The second year permits the creation of new patterns. It should not be assumed that a new relationship cannot be established during the grieving period. It is just that unresolved issues from the prior relationship often interfere with the new relationship. Ghosts of the previous relationship frequently intrude, unconsciously, into the dynamics of a new relationship and often contribute to its problems. Frequently, the grief process takes much longer than two years. One theory suggests that the grieving process can take as long as one- third to one-half the length of the relationship that just ended.
The grieving process has many theoretical models. One stage-theory that is very useful was developed by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross.4 The first stage is the stage of denial - the disbelief that this is actually happening. The second stage is the stage of anger. This can take many forms, which include conflict, rage, acting out and redefining the former partner in as negative a light as possible. Johnston5 has termed this tendency the “negative reconstruction of the spousal identity.” In this phenomenon, all the attributes that initially attracted one to the former partner are now attributes that are repulsive. It is a way for a spouse to emotionally disengage. As examples: “He is such a good provider,” becomes “He is such a workaholic.” “She is such a free spirit,” becomes “She is such a flake.” “He is so well informed,” becomes, “He is so opinionated.” Sound familiar?
The third stage, of grieving, according to Kubler-Ross, involves remorse or bargaining. In this stage, one is frightened about really losing the other. Promises and deals are made that positive changes will happen if only they can get back together.
The fourth stage is the phase of depression. There is deep pain and sadness about the loss of the dreams, fantasies, expectations, and hopes.
Finally the last stage, acceptance, is one which involves moving on in life. It has been our experience that you know you have reached the acceptance stage when someone, inquiring about your relationship, asks, “What happened?” And, your response, given in less than ten seconds and void of emotional charge, is “We just went our separate ways.”
IMPACT ON RELATIONSHIP DYNAMICS
It is often the case that one parent is at a more functional level than is the other with regard to co-parenting. If this is the situation, then it is more effective for the parent who is at the more functional level to remain rational and empathic toward the other parent. If the more functional parent is drawn to a lower level of functionality, there will be more chaos and disruption, not only for that parent, but, more importantly, for the child. The higher functioning parent would be better off learning effective negotiating skills for dealing with an individual who prefers to be in a competitive rather than collaborative negotiating arena. Do not expect the separation or divorce to magically change the pattern of the other party from how it was during the marriage to being more effective in resolving problems. Without active new learning, it is unusual for such patterns to change on its own. Individual counseling and classes in communication skills are productive resources for the higher functioning parent.
IMPACT ON THE INDIVIDUAL’S ABILITY TO “MOVE ON”
There is yet another concept to address that impacts the ability to co-parent. The emotional process of divorce for one partner is not generally on the same timeline as it is for the other partner. Typically, one of the partners becomes aware of being unhappy in the relationship. That individual may request the other to attend marital counseling in hopes of getting the other partner to change and make the relationship “right.” The other partner may respond with something like, “I don’t have a problem. You have a problem. You go to counseling. I am very happy just the way things are.”
The person attempting to seek professional help is already well into the process of emotional detachment. The less effort exerted by the other partner, the more such detachment occurs. The interesting aspect here is that the first party experiences interactions with the spouse as a constant, daily reality check regarding the unhappy experience. This validates the perception that the relationship is no longer functional. Typically, this internal process of detachment goes on for about a year or two before the decision to separate is made. Once the decision is made to leave the relationship, there typically is little or no chance of reclaiming the relationship. And, on the day that the first partner announces that the relationship is over, the grieving process for the second party begins. It is this timeline disparity that creates turmoil between the couple.
At that point, the person who is being left says, “Okay, let’s go to counseling and fix this!” Frequently, the intent of such a request is to have the counselor tell the leaving party that he or she is in error and should stay and work it out. When this does not happen as hoped, the partner who is left begins the emotional process of divorce. Once separated, the grieving process of the person who was left is somewhat different and more difficult than that of the one who left. Now, the only base of perception is the memory of the relationship, not the reality of the day-to-day experience. And, those memories can rapidly become grossly distorted. Once again, individual counseling for the person being left can be of tremendous help in providing support, and can be a reality check for clearer thinking and more appropriate planning.
ESTABLISHING A PARENTING PLAN: THE NUTS AND BOLTS THINGS TO CONSIDER
For co-parenting to be effective, both parents need to consider the needs of the child above their own needs. A written parenting plan provides the structure necessary to get through a difficult time. It is like a map that gives directions on how the two of you agree to parent your child. This structured agreement offers the basis of security upon which the former spouses can build trust. A parenting plan should be built on a foundation of the developmental needs of the child. It is often useful to seek sound professional advice about the needs of children at different ages in devising a parenting plan.
It should be understood that what is appropriate for a child at a certain age will not necessarily be appropriate for the same child at a later age. The child’s temperament and response to changes should be addressed and monitored. For example, how adaptable is your child? How easily can he or she handle changes? How sensitive to stimuli is he? How much does she need a highly structured routine? How distractible is he?
Also the child’s sense of time is an important factor in considering the duration a child can cope with separation from a parent. For example, young children (under five years of age or so) have only about a three-day memory for an absent parent. After about three days with no contact with the other parent (including no phone contact), these children may begin to show distress, because they have begun to “forget” the other parent, and thus they may feel abandoned. As children get older, they can handle increased time away from each parent. These facts, of course, mean that an agreement cannot be permanent but rather is always only temporary, good and useful only until the child and/or the circumstances change. A parenting plan should include a regular school year schedule, a summer schedule, and a holiday schedule. Consistency, especially in the initial phases of the arrangement is important. Once an agreement is reached the less there is to negotiate and the more that trust can be established between the parents. This is beneficial, since ultimately, it will likely nurture more flexibility between the parties.
The day-to-day parenting plan should take into consideration the reality of the child. For example, if the child is young, and/or has awareness that one of the parents has been the primary source of parenting, then such would be the starting point of the negotiated agreement. Gradual shifts from what is familiar to the child to what is possible are best for children. To alter this too suddenly would be more about meeting the needs of the adults than of the child. The child is then forced to sacrifice his or her needs, rather than the parents more appropriately making sacrifices for their child.
Responsibilities can be negotiated (for example, who will take the child to medical appointments, purchase clothing, etc.). Such responsibilities can be shared or specifically assigned to one parent, but it should be acknowledged in the agreement. If the parents have a comfortable level of communication, the flexibility to modify the agreement can be accomplished through mutual consent. If there is difficulty communicating, then it is more effective to keep the agreement structured, with little modification. Of course, it is helpful to specify how minor modifications can be made when a legitimate need arises (e.g., when one parent is tied up in traffic and does not make it on time to a scheduled transfer of the child; or, for example, when a child is very sick and transfer to the other parent is medically inadvisable).
It is also useful to set out specific guidelines for communication. These may include when, for how long, and how frequently the parents agree to talk business with one another regarding financial matters, legal matters, etc. Also, specified time should be set aside to discuss the children. It is critically important that these discussions NOT take place in earshot of the children. Such negotiations can frequently lead to conflict and even minor conflict in front of the children of separation and divorce can be distressing to the children.
Co-parenting can work more smoothly if there is a color-coded calendar at each home. Each parent is represented by a particular color. In this way, even young children who cannot yet recognize letters can still associate one color with Mommy, and a different color with Daddy. Consistency of the color assignment across households facilitates comfort in recognition for a young child.
Anchoring certain concepts to specific events is also useful for a young child. For example, you can say, “You will be seeing Mommy (or Daddy) after you go to sleep three times,” then “two times,” then “one time.” A young child does not really understand what a “Tuesday” is, nor what “next weekend” means. Young children are concrete thinkers. It helps a child to adjust if there is a picture of the other parent in the room where the child sleeps. That way, the memory of the other parent can be sustained in the child’s mind for a longer time between transfers.
Open phone access of the child with each parent is helpful, as long as neither parent is stressing the child. The call should be a special event and solely for the purpose of speaking with the children. It is most useful to not request to speak to the other parent when you call to speak to the child. Arguments that can ensue when you ask to speak to the other parent are experienced by the child as “my parents are arguing over me.” Of course, it is most helpful to teach the child how to call the other parent, without the need of parental assistance. Speed dial buttons on phones are perfect for young children doing this.
Similarly, during transfers of the child, be civil and brief, saying, “Hello,” “Thank you,” “Good bye.” Again, it is best to avoid discussing adult matters (money, schedules, lawyers, etc.) during transfer of the child.
If it is economically feasible, the child should have sufficient clothing and toys at both houses. This avoids the child feeling like a traveler carrying luggage. If possible, arrange to transfer the child at school or at childcare. One parent drops off; the other picks up. This tends to reduce the child’s separation anxiety that results from leaving one parent to go directly with the other. Being a co-parent requires a great deal of skill. This includes the ability to listen and to avoid getting defensive. The ability to let your former partner parent the child his or her own way is a skill. It need not be perfect, or as good as your parenting style, but it just has to be good enough. It helps to understand that the child can benefit from what each of you has to offer. It is a skill to present a concern and let the other parent deal with it as he or she sees best.
It is helpful for both parents to comprehend that they are in a joint business enterprise. Their business is to raise their child and provide the necessary skills for this child to grow into a productive member of society. That does not require you to like each other or to want to spend time together. It just requires an understanding that, for the sake of the child, you let go of the animosity and resentment towards each other, and let your child love each of you.
EVOLUTION OF THE RELATIONSHIP
There are four stages in the evolution of a relationship from a beginning romance and/or marriage towards a divorce and co-parenting relationship. The first is the stage of “intimacy.” This is when you get together, are in love, and the world looks fine. The second stage may best be termed “negative intensity.” This is when the relationship is falling apart and separation and divorce are in the works. The third is the stage of “building a structured agreement” for how to continue raising the children in the context of separation or divorce. In this stage, the parents must form a business-like relationship and clarify the time-scheduling plan for the children and the rules of conduct for how the parents agree to conduct themselves after separation and divorce.
The last is the stage of “emotional disengagement.” It is in this stage that you reassess and establish a post-divorce relationship with each other, which can range from Perfect Pals to Dissolved Duos. Hopefully you will end up, minimally, as Cooperative Colleagues, being courteous and civil in your interactions with one another. Unfortunately, many divorcing parents try to move directly from stage two to stage four without going through stage three. Bypassing stage three (building a structured agreement) does not allow for the necessary tasks of structuring a co-parenting agreement that prevents the children from being used as pawns between the parents as they continue to act on their negative feelings towards one another. This, unfairly, puts further stress on the child, and it should be avoided.
Divorce and separation do not automatically result in the parents realizing that now they must work together differently from how they did when they were together. Do not expect miracles. Your former partner is not going to wake up all of a sudden and say, “Oh gee, now I understand what s/he wanted. I will act appropriately.” A parenting plan is a map. It is a map of how the two parents will continue to raise their child. However, just as a road map does not teach you HOW to drive the car safely on the road, but merely shows you the territory, the parenting map simply describes in detail the territory of co-parenting. You are solely responsible for your own behavior in following this map. The more communication and parenting skills you pick up along the way, the safer the journey will be for your children.
Developing understanding and empathy for the other parent are essential in using the map effectively. You can still have accidents, despite the map that you create. Individual counseling, or some other guided experience in self-awareness can be a benefit to you in relating to your former partner. Oftentimes, individual counseling is very effective in figuring out your own boundaries. If both individuals are willing, divorce counseling aimed at learning communication skills can be very helpful for untangling the old emotional hooks and learning effective ways to co-parent, for your child’s sake.
IMAGINING THE FUTURE
Imagine that you are attending your child’s twenty-fifth birthday, or wedding. Will your child be able to look at the two of you on this day of celebration and say the following? “I would like to honor my Mom and Dad for their love of me. They were able to navigate through a difficult situation and protect me from the storm. I love you both for showing me how to be a human being.” Or, will your child look out and not see one or either of you there, because of your unresolved anger towards each other?
A child has the right to love both parents. Give your child that as a gift. It will be profoundly appreciated and everlasting.
1. See Ahrons, C. R. and Rodgers, R. H. (1987). Divorced Families. NY: W. W. Norton.
3. This term was used by Virginia Scott and George Daub during a presentation of their “Family Wellness” Series, Santa Cruz, CA (1984).
4. See Kubler-Ross, E. (1969). On Death and Dying. London: Collier-Macmillan, Ltd.
5. See Johnston, J. and Campbell, L. (1988). Impasses of Divorce. NY: The Free Press.
Michael Scott is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and a child custody mediator. He has been a therapist since 1982 and maintains a private practice in Santa Cruz, CA. Since 1985, Michael has served as a child custody mediator for The County of Santa Cruz Superior Court. He is an educator offering workshops both nationally and internationally on marriage, divorce, parenting, education, personal and professional development, conflict resolution, and the developmental needs of children.
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