Many of my clients come to the first meeting asking: “How should we tell the children we are separating?” By just asking that question demonstrates mindful parenting. The parents both equally share the dread of that moment and how the children may react (putting their own issues to one side) but in so many cases the feedback suggests “it went okay” or “pretty well considering”. This follows when the parents have made the conscious decision that they will act together as co parents.
Children of course, have their own ways of dealing with change in family dynamics, some suffer anxiety, others show their frustration and anger, whilst some become withdrawn. More often than not the child’s reaction is inextricably linked to parental behaviour and what they are being exposed to. So its crucial right from the start parents show they love the child and indeed equally support the child on the bumpy journey of life. Separating should not therefore mean one parent takes more of the lead on this over the other.
I recall training as a collaborative lawyer and hearing Christina McGhee (internationally recognised divorce-parenting expert, speaker, coach and author of the highly acclaimed book “parenting apart”) In summary she advised one way to break the news to younger children can be to reaffirm both parents love them hence telling them together is a powerful tool to use. She described asking your child what they love to eat and drink e.g “crisps” and “milk”. Saying suppose daddy is crisps and mummy is milk. You love crisps and milk, but you know dipping your crisps into your milk makes them taste funny and ruins the milk. So just like your favourite foods you can carry on loving mummy and daddy, it’s just that mixing them up together doesn’t work well. Giving the child permission therefore to love each parent and see them as different to one another but great in their own way is a helpful, easy to comprehend analogy! So many parents feedback that this was such a useful way to describe and endorse to their child they can freely love both parents.
However, for many separating parents containing their distress and hostility towards the other parent can impair their ability to co-parent responsibly. Harmful conflict can arise when parents are unable to put the child first. At the most extreme and intense end of parenting these parents may, as a consequence of their negative feelings abuse of their parental responsibility. They may misuse their parental position in a way that can cause traumatic emotional harm to their child, including alienating the other parent from the child’s life.
Parental alienation is a form of psychological abuse against both the child and the rejected parent, it is a concept which is becoming slowly more recognised and understood in the UK and Court system. There is no finite definition yet of this abuse but it is now recognised by Cafcass (the court appointed social worker). Typically, it results in a parent being rejected by their child for no justifiable reason, despite previously having a loving relationship. It is an extremely harmful behaviour that can have a life-long impact on a family. It is a form of abuse.
Notwithstanding the above, it may not be as black and white or straight forward to label the issue as parental alienation and parents need to be mindful of this. There can be other reasons why a child may say that they do not wish to spend time with a parent. These may include:
- attachment – age and gender specific reactions to resist time with the other parent including separation anxiety
- post-separation rejection, a temporary reaction to the changing family situation
- justified rejection. If the child has been harmed by a parent or is frightened of them because of domestic abuse or other harmful parenting, such as neglect or substance misuse
- connection – when a child prefers spending time with one parent over the other. This can develop before/during/after separation and may be linked to the sex of the child too.
To try to avoid these types of problems occurring parents need to try to consider and work on what I refer to as the BE SMARTER parenting technique:
- Be open and honest with each other from the start and see if you can agree some basic points on how you intend to co-parent after the separation
- Educate yourself- children do not come with manuals but now might be the time to read about “Parenting apart” and other books
- School- Talk to the school and make sure they know parents are parting so they can spot any subtle child behaviour changes and support the child
- Moving on- Talk to the children if you can together at regular times especially when talking about something new like introducing a new partner, changing the child’s school, moving house and setting up two homes
- Allow your child to take their belongs between homes including clothing
- Remember you were a child yourself and imagine what it’s like to be in their shoes
- Try counselling for the family or yourself if you are anxious and uncertain about coping
- Evolve your respect for each other even if its clear you no longer love each other, and
- Reinforce to your children they can talk to both parents even when in the care of the other parent but set ground rules as to what and when this is acceptable in both homes.
At the end of the day you just need to try to do you best for your children and try to work to avoid conflict starting if you can. Making sure you also instruct a solicitor who is mindful to the above is also a great way to ensure you collaborate this life chapter carefully and as child focused as you can.
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