Many people still feel that parents should stay together for the sake of their children putting them first and their own needs second. A growing body of research, however, indicates that the opposite may well be true. A recent study conducted by the University of York has found that the children of divorced parents are more damaged by the arguments that occurred in the marriage itself than by the split afterwords. Having disagreements is perceived and is, of course, normal but it is when those disagreements remain unresolved that the children tend to have long term problems. You would be astonished by the number of divorcing or separating parents who believe or convince themselves, that their children have no true idea of what is going on. Children are like aerials when it comes to their parents, they are completely attuned to how the parents are relating to one another and highly perceptive. Even when the parents do acknowledge that the children must have sensed the atmosphere or overheard the arguments, they still think that they can contain any damage to the relationship between them as parents and their children. However, that is not true. A Dad who is having frequent difficulties in his relationship is more likely to filter this into how he relates to his children and how he parents than the mother of the children. Mums seems to be better at insulating their children from this kind of spill over effect which does not, however, exempt Mums as every lawyer knows Mums can and do consciously and usually unconsciously alienate their children from the other parent.
Parents need help to change behavioural patterns to enable them to stop conflict. It is unlikely they can do this by themselves particularly as in my experience, so few of them want to accept that their children are affected by their behaviour. It is true that all human relationships have disagreements and conflicts but if those conflicts are frequent, hostile and heated, this is a problem and if there is withdrawal and silence between the couple, or verbal insults, raised voices and physical aggression, we have major issues.
Among other things, children need love and a safe environment. In order for children to feel safe they must know what conditions to expect from their living arrangements and the significant adults caring for them. Where there is constant arguing, periodical withdrawal, unbearable silences, or physical abuse to name a few, children will feel entirely unsafe and such feelings will impact on their physical and mental health significantly. As well as potentially suffering from depression, hostility and acting out, they can also take on the role of the super good child who becomes parent to the parents. Parents will often overlook unusual behaviour particularly, if it assists them in their lifestyle e.g., the saint like child. Children need their time to be children so being saint like or having an overdeveloped sense of responsibility is not good and is not a sign that your child or children are doing well quite the contrary in fact.
The simple truth is that children find unresolved marital conflict deeply disturbing. Study after study has shown that children react to parental arguments physiologically as well as mentally by showing increased heart rate and blood pressure. Such physiological reactions have been detected in children as young as 6 months.
Parents who are in the process of separating seldom have good communication. Some do, but it is rare. Most parents need help with their communication as parents since their communication as spouses/partners has broken down. The first step is recognizing that civilised communication will make for less stressful and ultimately good parenting. Good communication will go a long way to ensure that your children have good outcomes long term. The good news is that with willingness and work on both sides, it is possible to have a very civilised post relationship parenting relationship. Once you have recognized the communication issue the next step is to look for a civilized and resolution orientated way of sorting out your separation or divorce. Not only will this take your children out of the centre of the battlefield, it will also reduce conflict between you and your ex, demonstrate new ways of communicating and also model good conflict resolution for your children. It takes time, commitment, focus and work but it is absolutely worth it if you place a high value on your children’s welfare.
Uniquely, the collaboration process as a one stop shop can offer most of what you will need to achieve the above. The process works by combining a number of different professionals in one location to advise the team rather than any particular person in the team. In addition, there are two aligned professional namely the lawyers. One or two of those professionals depending on the couple’s specific needs are what we loosely call mental health professionals, meaning counsellors, psychotherapists etc., whose specific job it is to help the separating couple to establish a new pattern of communication by helping them to become aware of their patterns of communication and to practise and demonstrate other ways to re-communicate given their stated goals. We call such people collaborative coaches. Lawyers, as I said, also form part of the professional team and their job is to represent their individual client in this process which means they operate only within the integrity of the process to seek resolution because you have opted for this process and that is what honours your instructions. Within that context and only within that context, you will be independently legally advised at all times should you request same. Within the process it is the lawyers job to advise on legal issues, create options for you, and generally help you to reach agreement while feeling safe and protected. The lawyers will also draft your agreement and rule it in court as a consent agreement when that time comes. The process also allows for other professionals such as accountants and child specialists. It is important to note, however, that everyone in the room must have, as well as their personal professional training, collaborative training and mediation training. No one is equipped to do this work unless they have training.