I had the tremendous honor of being published this week in Forbes Magazine regarding how to handle family disputes about vaccinating our children. In the article I shared communication skills for parents to find common ground whether they are married, separated, or divorced. The article dives into what you can do legally if you and your co-parent can't come to a vaccination agreement peacefully.
Below are the BEHIND THE SCENE answers I submitted for the Forbes article that the writer didn't use. I think it will be super helpful and I don't want to waste this important information so check it out!
As a reminder - To learn more skills for the emotional wellbeing of children and families, please join my Facebook group, Emotiminds, where I share my evidence-based knowledge and practical skills for raising emotionally healthy children.
My "behind the scene" answers to Forbes...
Forbes: For married couples, what type of strain might this vaccination disagreement place on the relationship?
Beth: Disagreeing about whether or not to vaccinate a child will increase the anxiety level of each spouse, and anxiety is commonly expressed with anger. Because of this, disagreeing about the vaccine could put a tremendous strain on the relationship, especially if the marriage was already conflictual.
People are passionate about their beliefs regarding vaccines because it is tied to their felt sense of safety. Safety is a requirement for healthy relationships to flourish. If you have two people who disagree on decisions regarding safety, it can drive a wedge between them.
As human beings, some of our core needs are feeling safe, protected, and in sync with our loved ones. If we think that our safety or the safety of our children is in jeopardy, we will likely experience a level of anxiety that will compromise the relationship.
Forbes: What are the best ways to come to a joint decision?
Beth: Plan ahead for the conversation. Write down your main points in the notes app on your phone. Build-in time for listening and digesting what the other person has said.
Schedule a time to talk like a business meeting. It's beneficial to do it when you are not distracted, in a negative mood, or have the children within earshot. It can help to talk while doing an activity that is side-by-side instead of directly across from one another, for example, walking outside or driving in a car. Being next to each other feels less confrontational and fosters a teamwork mentality.
Speaking of team, remember that you and your spouse/co-parent are not adversaries. You are two people who love and care for your family, and you are on the same team trying to do the best you can through a scary and uncertain experience. It helps to remind ourselves that nobody has the best answer right now, which is hard to accept. Finding a way to be a peace with the uncertainty and admitting that either way you can't control what happens might be the most helpful place to start.
Forbes: For parents who are separated or divorced, what are the legal hurdles that might exist if both parents aren't on the same page?
Beth: I am not an attorney, and this is not legal advice, but I will share my general understanding. If parents live under a parenting order, the order will typically designate a parent responsible for medical decisions, and the administration of vaccines falls within this category. If the parenting order requires both parents to consent to medical decisions, and they cannot come up with an agreement, they can request the court to decide for them.
Forbes: How might parents who want to get their children vaccinated navigate those hurdles?
- Outside help: This problem isn't going away, so it's best to invest the time and energy in finding a peaceful solution for the children's sake. Have a joint meeting with a trusted, neutral pediatrician and list out the pros and cons of the vaccine. Give each other time to think it through without texting or emailing the other articles about the vaccine. This behavior will only put the other person on the defense. Another option is to seek out mediation or a co-parenting coach to aid in the decision-making process.
- Approach your ex-spouse like you would a business relationship. Be respectful even when it's hard, do not bring past conflicts into the present. Keep unrelated disputes on the back burner, or better yet, try to let them go. Don't pick up the rope when your ex attempts to bait you with argumentative speech. Use visualization to imagine yourself staying calm during these negotiations. Take care of yourself by finding time to engage in stress-relieving activities like exercise, going to therapy, or talking with an unbiased friend who can see things from both sides, bonus points if she can also make you laugh!
- Agree to a STOP phrase or word. For example, if the conversation is getting too heated or you are not emotionally ready to talk, agree ahead of time on a word that means you will both stop talking about this topic for at least 30 minutes. Then follow through. If one person uses their stop word, take a break, but promise to come back to the conversation later. It can help to make your stop word something funny, as smiling is a fast way to diffuse anger.
- Keep the peace. When the adults in a child's life fight, it has a negative ripple effect on their children that can impact their mental health. Repeated, intense exposure to parental conflict can even become traumatizing to a child. Therefore, it is best to keep these conversations as peaceful as possible to prevent harm to your child. The goal in this situation is the safety and well-being of your children. The best way to provide that is by working through conflict with your ex-spouse in a respectful, compassionate manner.
- Build Self-Awareness. Look inward to see your true intentions around this conflict and see if something more profound is bothering you. Is it really about the vaccine? Or is it control, pride, power, past hurts, or getting even? Ask yourself if you would want your child to engage in conflict like this? Asking this question can provide some much needed perspective when stressed.
Forbes: Is there anything else you think our readers should know on this subject?
Beth: The good news is, this disagreement can be a learning opportunity for your children if you handle it with care. It can become a model for how children work through conflict in their relationships. You and your ex-spouse are constantly modeling for your children the type of behavior they will repeat in their relationships. With all the influencers out there in the world, a child's biggest influencer is still YOU.
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