Shared Parenting Support Program Overview

Frank Leek, Ph.D.
California Psychological Association Convention
April, 1994
The Shared Parenting Support Program (SPSP) is a structured therapy program providing a protected environment in which divorced parents can learn effective co-parenting skills.
SPSP has as its foundation two theoretical positions: family systems theory and cognitive therapy. Utilizing these two theoretical positions, the program works to bring about four major processes that must be addressed in treatment to help parents move to the business of co-parenting: they must deal with the boundary changes that occur after divorce; they must learn to talk with each other about their children in a responsible way so the children are not placed in the role of communicators; they must solve the child's paradox of loving two people who are angry at each other; and they must be motivated to work together to develop co-parenting skills, realizing that their children will be better off when the parents reduce their conflict and the children have easy access to both parents. 
To facilitate treatment, parents must accept that SPSP is not traditional marriage counseling in which feelings are brought to the fore and the participants feel exposed and vulnerable. Parents must be willing to work toward establishing a business-like, post divorce relationship with new boundaries that focuses on the needs of the children.
The program consists of intake and nine treatment sessions. Only parents attend the intake session. The nine treatment sessions must be attended by both parents and by any live-in partners or stepparents.
If possible, parents are seen together for an intake session. If they are unable to meet together, separate sessions can be scheduled.  After obtaining a brief history, each parent is asked to formulate three goals to be accomplished in the program. Having done so, they rate their goals on a scale of 1 (major problem) to 5 (doing well). The intake session begins the process of depolarization...moving the parents away from being adversaries, and looking at their problems of co-parenting in a more objective, business-like manner.  Parents are then asked a series of questions to determine amenability to the program and beginning the process of sharing information in a business-like manner. For example, parents are asked what one thing they each could do to improve their co-parenting, and what one thing the other parent could do. 
At the conclusion of the intake session, each parent is given a session worksheet, consisting of 20 co-parenting issues, to rate, briefly discuss and return at the first treatment session. They each are given an extensive set of rules to review which focus on keeping the child out of the conflict, creating a safe treatment environment discussing only one subject at a time; supporting each other as parents; meeting with the child's teacher jointly; and attending extra-curricular events without conflict.  Parents are assessing their joint ability to co-parent, and in the process are learning the 15 necessary behaviors to co-parent in a business-like manner. Parents are not permitted to argue. Any argument would result in their usual impasse and they would feel angry, impotent and frustrated...feelings which we wish to modify.  They are told that after learning specific skills they will have an opportunity to discuss how the past has affected their current ability to work together as co-parents.
The second treatment session focuses on the needs of the children. A developmental history is obtained for each child. There are two purposes to doing so. It has often been several months or even years since the parents discussed their children's needs in a cooperative manner. The second reason is for parents to share very intimate information, sometimes with significant others, in a business-like manner. The process involves desensitizing the intimacy parents carry into their divorced life and which is now dysfunctional. The parents then rate each child's behavior, continuing to use the five-point scale of 1 (major problem) to 5 (doing well). There are five categories of behaviors comprised of five items each. The categories are Externalizing, Withdrawing, Anti-social, Somaticizing and Anxiety/depression. They then rate each child's eating behavior, sleeping patterns, school adjustment capacity to move from one home to the other and general divorce adjustment.  Parents are then permitted to make their first set of decisions: does a child need a therapist, and if so, who will be the therapist? Quite often the selection of a therapist for the child has been very conflicted during the divorce process. In SPSP, parents work to select, if needed, a child therapist that will not be biased toward either parent and will include each parent in the treatment process.
During the third and fourth session, parents are taught a system of communication that focuses on dealing with clearly defined, contemporaneous issues. The three systems are Information Calls, Semi-yearly Meetings, and Co-parent Telephone Calls. 
The Information Call is a system by which parents can call each other in a non-defensive mode to exchange information on a single, current issue regarding a child and permit parents to understand their child's view of the divorce and coping behavior. By sharing information they will soon realize that children do not have the ability to give accurate information to the other parent, especially in an emotionally laden context. The Information Call is practiced by role playing recent co-parenting events.
When the parents have learned how to make Information Calls, they are taught how to conduct Bi-yearly Meetings...one held in February to discuss scheduling through the summer, and one in August to discuss scheduling through the holiday season. By planning ahead, parents can reduce conflict appreciably. A Bi-yearly Meeting is practiced during a session. The telephone call is scheduled for every two weeks at which time the parents share current information. A strict agenda is followed. A parent can terminate the call by simply saying, "I am feeling overwhelmed". The Co-parent Telephone Call is practiced by role playing until the parents have mastered the techniques of discussing current subjects one at a time, exchanging information, and observing the new boundaries of their relationship. For example, one parent cannot lecture, advice, ridicule or demean the other parent.
Having learned the three communication skills, the parents are able to discuss current issues in the context of past problems. These discussions are conducted during sessions six through eight. This is the only time during the program parents can discuss the past. Most parents think obsessively about the hurts and indignities of the divorce process. They now have an opportunity to discuss the past with the understanding that having done so, they have put the past to rest. It is time for them to move from the crisis of divorce to the enduring practice of co-parenting. 
The ninth session is used for parents to assess progress in meeting their goals, working as 
a co-parenting team, and conducting the business of co-parenting.
Preliminary research was conducted on 14 families, totally 28 parents, 15 live-in partners or stepparents, and 25 children. The children's' mean age was nine and their ages ranged from two to fourteen. The research was based on a small number of cases and should be taken only ask trends...a first look at the results of SPSP as an intervention.
The parents' assessment of their own skills was based on self-determined goals, co-parenting skills and general co-parenting effectiveness.
Pre  Post Significance
Goals   1.49 3.69 .0001
Skills   2.43 3.97 .0001
General   3.24 4.22 .004
Parents also assessed the behavior of their children at the beginning of the program and at the end of the program:
Pre  Post Significance
Externalizing   3.86 4.20 .005
Withdrawing  4.09 4.33 .012
Anti-social   4.57 4.71 .001
Somatic 4.38 4.71 .005
Anxiety 3.41 4.00 .0001
At the beginning of the program, parents identified their children's' primary problem as anxiety and depression. By the last session, they assessed their children as having significantly less anxiety and depression. Parents identified the second major behavior problem as being externalization...arguing, teasing, and being stubborn. These, of course, are the behaviors the parents were exhibiting toward each other at the beginning of the program. Before treatment, parents identified their children as mildly withdrawing. At the conclusion of treatment, parents reported that their children were less withdrawing. The behaviors of somaticizing and being anti-social were not identified as major problems. The children were essentially pre-teen so the absence of antisocial behavior may have been a developmental phenomenon.
Parents also assessed their children's behavior patterns and adjustments.
Pre  Post Significance
Sleep  4.58 4.80 .505
Eat 4.36 4.90 .061
School  4.24 4.77 .009
Transitions 3.18 4.05 .010
Divorce 3.18 4.05 .003
Parents were most concerned about their children's adjustment to the divorce. This was the primary concern that compelled the parents to enter treatment. There was a significant improvement in their judgment of their children's' adjustment to the divorce by the last session. They also reported at first that their children were symptomatic when moving from one home to the other. As structure is developed and positive ways for the exchange are practiced, the parents observed their children to be less symptomatic. Most parents did not identify their children as having sleeping or eating problems.
The program was developed to address the processes of boundary changes, business-like co-parent communication, avoiding placing the child in the role of communicator, and solving the child's paradox. The initial data indicates positive effects. Follow-up research on these 14 families is in process to determine the effect of the program six months after termination. 
Further research is being formulated involving 60 families who have completed the divorce process and have a custody arrangement in place. All 60 families will take the pre and post assessments. Every other family will be seen in the SPSP treatment modality and the control families will use whatever resources are customarily used. 
Currently, over one hundred therapists in several states have received training in conducting the Shared Parenting Support Program and are finding that it is clinically productive. Parents are reporting positive gains.