In this episode Dr Sonia Cann-Milland, a step-family specialist counsellor (PhD) and step and biological mother of five children herself, provides some expert guidance on challenges such as coping with a particularly difficult ex-partner, examples of effective co-parenting, the impact of geographic distance between co-parents and the role that counselling can play to help parents better manage their situation.
Dr Sonia Cann-Milland’s Published works:
Dr Sonia Cann-Milland (00:00):Don’t shame your children for repeating negative talk that they’ve heard their parents say.
Laura Jenkins (00:06): In the Blend is a podcast series that helps parents navigate life within a blended family. Join me as I speak with experts and guests to get practical advice on how to have a harmonious blended family life. This series dives deep into the unique dynamics, logistics, and challenges, of raising a blended family, from new partners to juggling mixed finances, we will help guide you through it.
(00:34): Hello and welcome to In the Blend. In today’s episode, we’re tackling the subject of how to deal with your ex in a productive way, which is sometimes much easier said than done. Let’s face it, when you have kids together, you and your ex are likely going to be in each other’s lives, for a long while, whether you like it or not. So ideally, this is something that you can try to conquer. I know this is a subject that my partner, Matt, is still continually refining, and a topic that I think many blended family parents, I chat with, often struggle with as emotions like anger, resentment, or others, relating to a whole array of issues, can often get in the way.
(01:14): My guest today is Dr. Sonia Cann-Millan, a stepfamily counsellor, who has personal experience, too, being a step and biological mother of five children. As well as having a PhD, she’s also the author of three published works, relating to stepfamilies and, without question, an authority when it comes to navigating some of these issues.
Welcome Sonia, and thank you so much for joining me today. I’m very much looking forward to this conversation. I know there are lots of questions going through my mind in relation to this topic, and I think, often, there can be animosity with an ex, after a breakup. So if you have children together, it’s often a long road ahead, for both parties, especially if they’re young children. Just to get started, I’d love to know what are some of the reasons, that might typically cause things to go south between two separated co-parents?
Dr Sonia Cann-Milland (02:09): Yeah. Well, firstly, thanks Laura for having me on the show, it’s a real honour. There are things that can be a lot of animosity between couples after a breakup. There are so many reasons, and lots of personal reasons, but I think the governing reasons is the deep grief and resentment, and the inability to let go of that, is probably the main ones. Others can be looking for a revenge, in a sense, or punishing the other parent, by separating the children from a healthier relationship, with the other parent, and parents seeing themselves, in a war zone between each other, instead of putting the children first.
Laura Jenkins (02:58): In that situation, how can parents go about not losing their minds, when they know they’ve got to deal with their ex, or have them in their lives, ongoing? What are some things that they can do to help when things have got to that point?
Dr Sonia Cann-Milland (03:13): Yeah. So I think the first thing is that we need to be really aware about the thoughts that we entertain, and then, we just let sit inside us like rocks. That’s what drives our actions, isn’t it? So I think the first thing is understanding and embracing that divorce is the end of the couple relationship, not the parental relationship. That’s crucial to remember. You don’t divorce each other as parents. Obviously, I’m not referring to abusive situations, where you do need to protect your children, from physical, and emotional, and verbal danger, that’s very different, but generally, it’s really important to remember that you’re not divorcing a parent, you’re divorcing a partner.
Laura Jenkins (04:01): Yeah. That’s helpful, just to keep that in mind, and I think, sometimes, it’s so easy to get caught up in the emotion, that it would be very easy to lose sight of that.
Dr Sonia Cann-Milland (04:13): Yeah, that’s right. Which leads well into the next one, which is define the state of your relationship, with your ex-partner. The greater understanding that you have of where your relationship is at, will give you an idea of the boundaries that you need to put in place. So define it, is it high conflict? Are you able to talk about the kids’ schooling, or expectations in each homes? Can you have those conversations? Is your partner ringing up every five minutes, and wanting to speak to the kids, when it’s your weekend? Are they embedded in your lives too much? Are they wanting to talk about issues that aren’t children related? Hanging on to a relationship that is nonexistent? If you’re aware of those kind of things, then put some boundaries in place, so that you can establish a safe, and effective, and healthy communication.
Laura Jenkins (05:14): Can counselling play a role, as well, in helping people put those boundaries in place?
Dr Sonia Cann-Milland (05:20): Oh, absolutely. Absolutely.
Laura Jenkins (05:22): Thinking about if you’ve got a particularly difficult ex-partner, or co-parent, let’s say, for example, you’ve got a narcissistic ex-partner, or you’ve got someone who’s quite unreasonable, or they might be bad mouthing you to the children, what are some of the things that you can do in that situation?
Dr Sonia Cann-Milland (05:41): In regards to the counselling question, a counsellor can help you work through gaining a greater understanding of yourself, while you’re going through this experience of change or changes. So, that can be really helpful, and I think going through a divorce, separation, divorce and re-partnering, you might re-partner down the track, it can really knock our understanding of what our role is now. Relationships, not just within the family, and extended family, but our community connections can be rocked. So counselling can really help ground us there. Communication skills, really, really important, especially when we are really heightened with anger, and resentment, and distress, to learn how to manage all of that, and communicate in a healthy way, counselling benefits in that. How to support your children through transitions that come from separation, establishing healthy boundaries, and to manage high level conflict, to protect your children. So they’re all the things that counselling can do.
(06:52): And then, going back to your other question around narcissistic, that’s a tough one. There is no magic answer to that, but I do have a couple of tips. The first thing is, as much as you possibly can, stay in the children’s lives, whatever it takes, stay in their lives. Fight to stay in their lives, and create a space, to show that, if a narcissistic parent, or a controlling parent, or ex, chooses to use alienation, as a way to have control over you, and manipulate you, and possibly even, destroy you, if that’s their plan, then you work double time, in looking at how can you be in their lives. Stay in touch with the teachers at school, build relationships with other people that are connecting with the children, their sports groups.
(07:52): Wherever they are, you try to be, if there isn’t a court order. If there’s no court order saying you can’t ring them, keep ringing them. A narcissist has this incredible power, that they convince us that we can’t battle them, that we can’t challenge them. The best way to tackle and battle your issues with the narcissist, is don’t give them oxygen.
Laura Jenkins (08:21): Say nothing.
Dr Sonia Cann-Milland (08:22): Yeah. Just really water off a duck’s back because a narcissist survives through being able to control you, and then, it needs to be all about them. So if you are not engaging, and you are not in their chaos, then it’s not about them. It’s not about them being in control. So they have to have you engaging. Get legal advice, that’s really important, particularly, if you’re in an alienating situation. If you can avoid court, but generally, in situations where you are dealing with parents that are putting the children in the middle, weaponising the children to attack you, then get legal advice, because it’s important to protect the children, in this situation.
(09:18): I think also being aware that the children are the victims in this, not so much us. So we feel the pain, the kids are ripped from us, it’s a struggle. I’m not saying that it’s not hard and destructive in our own lives, but we can’t lose sight that the children are the ones that suffer. They suffer, mentally, the ability to be able to focus at school, their social skills are impacted by all of these, don’t forget that. That’s really important. Never bad-mouth your partner, that’s also important. And never have adult conversations around parental relationships with your children, because that’s what a narcissist will do. They will constantly talk to their children about how great they are, and how shocking a parent, the other parent is. So don’t engage in that, at all, and don’t shame your children for repeating negative talk, that they’ve heard their parents say. Have a conversation with them about it, but don’t pull them up in a disciplinary way. They’re being their parents’ representatives. They don’t understand.
Laura Jenkins (10:38): Yeah. That’s such good advice, and I think it would be really difficult for the parent, who’s not a narcissist, for example, who’s dealing with a particularly difficult ex, to keep their cool in those situations, and to stay composed, and not lose it in front of the kids, and not get angry when they hear something out of their children’s mouths. So it takes a lot of self control.
Sonia, I’d love to know what then, does effective co-parenting look like? Assuming we’ve got two parties who are willing to collaborate in an effective way, or cooperate effectively, what does that look like, and what are some strategies that people can use to manage their situation?
Dr Sonia Cann-Milland (11:23): Positive co-parenting will look different for everyone. So there is not one size fits all, because every stepfamily is different. So each parent, and then, the significant others, so the stepparents, finding your drive, finding that sense of, “Yeah. We’re comfortable with this, and our children are comfortable with this.” I think if you can confidently be able to say that, and you can see that, and you see that your children have healthy positive relationships with all the parents, and the significant others, in the family, then I think that’s a sign that you’re on the right track, where children feel safe and secure in both homes. Even if they differ a little bit, so you can still have a positive co-parenting relationship, but the homes might still look a little bit different, in terms of daily expectations. A few tips around what can be helpful to maintain a healthy connection, with your co-parent, is to have a parenting plan.
(12:36): So mediation can be really helpful with that, and it avoids court. And all of those things which can cause a lot of anger, resentment, frustration. So if you can do that, that’s great, and you can work out what happens in each house. Just unpack what you’re both prepared to agree on.
(13:00): The other thing is parenting apps. I don’t know if you’ve heard of, 2Houses is one, or Our Parenting Wizard, is a very popular one, that the judges will actually suggest in court, to use. That is where you communicate through the app, at all times. It’s like an accountability thing because that information can be used, if you do need to get a third party in, all of that information on the app. It just keeps track of how you’re treating one another, but it has great things on it. You can put things down when the sports events are, when is your child going to get a special award at school, when their next doctor’s appointment, and dentist appointments are happening and that can all go on the app. So if my former partner has got something special planned with the children, or whatever, I can just look up in the calendar, and I can see what the kids are up to, and when, and what the various activities they’re doing. And then, I can work out where I’m going to be, and if I can attend those, and so, it’s a wonderful way to communicate.
Laura Jenkins (14:18): Fantastic. I’m curious to go and have a look at that, myself. Actually having a tool like that where you can have a central spot to keep communication is a fantastic idea. I’m thinking about whether it might even sync with tools like Gcal or others.
Dr Sonia Cann-Milland (14:35): Yeah.
Laura Jenkins (14:35): Something I’d love to explore.
Dr Sonia Cann-Milland (14:36): Yeah. Just one other one. This came out in my research, co-parenting, I found from chatting to parents, was more effective, if the geographical distance wasn’t so large. So it didn’t mean that they had a poor relationship, but in terms of that real involvement of, it might be 50/50 access, it might be making decisions together, and that’s what you both desire to do. If you are geographically, a long, long way away from your children, you’re out of their community, and you’re in your own community, so you’re not engaging with the children’s friends, so you are unable to. I’m not saying we should all live next door to our exes, but if we are a long way away, then our input into co-parenting will look different, because we are just not in their lives, as much as the other parent.
Laura Jenkins (15:44): Yeah. That makes total sense and I think, also, from our personal perspective, from a logistics point of view, it makes it so much easier if the co-parent lives relatively close by, as well, in case someone’s left a school hat, or a school bag, or something, and you need to drop that round, it makes it much easier.
Dr Sonia Cann-Milland (16:06): A wonderful quick little story, not far from me, we have a family who separated, and the father purchased the home, across the street from the family home, so in the same street, directly across.
Laura Jenkins (16:25): Oh, my gosh.
Dr Sonia Cann-Milland (16:26): You couldn’t get closer. And whilst, there was some, “Oh, is this going to work?” It was superb, it was beautiful, and the children, like you said, if they forgot something, or they just run across the street, and go and have dinner with Dad, and then come back. They had a lot more input as to where they were, on any given day, because really the only thing between each parent was crossing the road.
Laura Jenkins (16:56): Yes. Yeah, I love that. We’ve had some friends, as well, who’ve done the opposite, where they keep the kids, in the family home, and the parents move out each week, as well, so that’s another way I’ve seen it work.
Dr Sonia Cann-Milland (17:11): They can be quite effective, too, with children who are on the spectrum, and can’t cope with too much change, and so being in the same home, with all things around them, that are familiar, and keeping that routine going for them, is really, really helpful.
Laura Jenkins (17:31): So tell me about how factors like environments, roles, and relationships, might impact how parents work together, in supporting their children. So I know you’ve talked a little bit about things like the geographic distance. Is there anything else to add around specific roles or relationships that might play a role?
Dr Sonia Cann-Milland (17:53): When parents separate, they are all the unknowns, that children are trying to grapple with. I think the biggest struggle, or what can create insecurity in children, around roles, relationships, and the geographical distance, that they have with their parents, is that they are now questioning what their role and relationship is, where they fit. And so, I think, an important part of this, is helping them understand that the parental child relationship, while it is looking different, matters, and is your first priority. That’s really, really important. That can change in stages. So during the separation, we can be completely absorbed in our own grief and pain, which is, I’m not being judgemental in that, it’s gut wrenching, it’s like a death. So to be focused on where the children are at, in that process, can be difficult.
(19:05): Then, when we’re on our own, the relationship can change again, and roles can change again. And in my own adult grief, I may seek comfort in the children. If I have a teenager, that I’m particularly close with, and I can chat with, and so, we have to be really careful because then that impacts the roles and relationship that they have with the other parent. So we have to be really wary of that. And then, we re-partner so the child that felt like they became the confident, and the supporter of the parent, now loses that huge responsibility. And the parents spreading their time out, between their partner and the child, and so the child’s starting to feel, “Well, am I as important?” So we really have to be aware of what’s happening for the children, with these change of roles and relationships.
Laura Jenkins (20:04): I’d love to know any top tips that you can leave us with, that we might not have covered in our conversation, so far today?
Dr Sonia Cann-Milland (20:13): Well, just a reminder that you are not separating as parents, so that’s the first one. The other one is that high conflict communication is what causes the damage, not necessarily the change in family status. Children adjust, but the damage is done in the conflict. Children need you both. They need you both, no matter how much you don’t need them, maybe. Always remember that they need you both, and they see whoever they’re living with, and whoever’s in the other home, connected with the other parent, is all family, so we need to be wary of that. We need to be understanding of that.
Laura Jenkins (21:06): But look, that’s all we have time for today. How can listeners connect with you, and also access your three published works, as well, that you’ve put out into the world?
Dr Sonia Cann-Milland (21:17): I have a private practice called Renewed Beliefs. You can get me on www.renewedbeliefs.com, and that’s my website, and you’ll be able to get the articles there. I also have written some blogs. You can just get in touch with me. I also write tip sheets, as well, so there’s a little bit more information available, if people would like to get in touch with me.
Laura Jenkins (21:43): Fantastic. Thank you so much. And we will link to all of that in the show notes as well.
Dr Sonia Cann-Milland (21:49): Thank you for having me.
Laura Jenkins (21:50): Thank you, Sonia.
(21:52): Thanks for listening to the In the Blend podcast. The show notes for this episode are available at intheblend.com.au, and if you like what you heard, be sure to subscribe, and please rate and review, in your podcasting app. You can also follow me on Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn.