Ex-Etiquette: How to be supportive when your co-parent is ill

Q. My ex has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. It makes it very difficult to co-parent. Will the courts grant me full custody when the other parent has a diagnosis like that? What’s good ex-etiquette?

A. Lots of people struggle with mental illness. If a parent is struggling and there is a question of primary custody, it’s the parent’s behavior that determines with whom the child will live, not the diagnosis.

For example, if your co-parent has cancer, the diagnosis is certainly not a reason to adjust custody. But if the parent is so sick that he or she can’t take care of the child, that’s when a decision might be made to adjust the child’s time with the parent — not because the parent is sick, but because the parent is so sick, the child may not be safe.

Let’s take this a little further. Does that mean sick parents might be penalized because they are sick? Time with their child reduced when time with the child is essential? This is where good co-parenting comes in. It has been my experience that judges greatly respect a parent that will step in to help a sick co-parent — fill in when the co-parent can’t pick up or drop off, or let a child visit more often during the days because it’s easier to maneuver a day visit than an overnight.

As the parent improves, the co-parent is trusted to return to the original parenting plan. When things get sketchy is when a co-parent steps in to help, then refuses to return to the original plan. They use their co-parent’s illness to “get more time” instead of realizing their child loves both parents. Children are frightened when their parent is severely ill. That’s when a child especially needs to see kindness and cooperation to feel safe.

Bipolar disorder is a difficult diagnosis for all concerned, co-parents and children alike. However, it is a disorder that can be successfully managed with therapy and medication. Zeroing in on the correct meds and dosage can take a while, and like most illnesses, stress exacerbates many of the symptoms. They can include mood swings, serious depression or unpredictable manic behavior. Truth be told, the severity of the symptoms can be different for everyone.

What can you do as a supportive co-parent if your co-parent is mentally or physically ill?

1. Be available to fill in so disruption is kept to a minimum.

2. Urge your co-parent to stay med-compliant and attend therapy sessions.

3. Don’t use your co-parent’s vulnerabilities against them. Your child loves both of you and needs both of you in their life.

4. Intercede if your child is unsafe, but monitor your co-parent’s progress and return to the past parenting plan when your co-parent is better and they can resume taking care of the children.

5. Never badmouth or undermine your co-parent in any way. This is even more important when a co-parent is ill. A child may feel particularly vulnerable at this time, worried about the sick parent, but also feel a little unsafe in the sick parent’s presence. Hold down the fort. Do what you can to offer your child the stability they need.

All in all, look for ways to help, not hinder. Do it in the best interest of your children. (Good Ex-etiquette for Parents Rule #1.)

That’s good ex-etiquette.