An article appeared in the Irish Examiner recently (29th November 2018) in the section entitled Life/Style, by Richard Hogan who is a practising psychotherapist, in which he wrote “recent research illuminates that separation doesn’t generally impact the child negatively but rather the damage is caused by how the parents deal with each other in that new post-separation landscape”. Wise words in my view and ones that echo sentiments expressed in this blog since its creation. I would urge everyone in this unfortunate circumstance to try and manage their marital breakdown in a civilised or amicable fashion. I am very much aware that it is a tall order, but the alternatives are so dreadful that rising to the occasion is the best advice that anyone can ever give you. I am not going to write now about the many and varied alternative ways in which you can resolve your disputes without going to Court as I have written extensively about them in this blog, in my articles and on the website and no doubt, I will cover them again in due course. For the purposes of this article, I propose to address how conflict around children in the context of marital breakdown actually manifests and how it then impacts on the children. It is not only the obvious tug of war around residency and access that causes all the problems rather the difficulties are caused in more subtle ways and often without any conscious efforts on the part of the parents.
It seems from the research that the type of post-separation conflict that has been found to have the worst effect on children is that which occurs when parents use children to express their anger and hostility towards each other. This would seem kind of obvious to most parents even those that are blinded by anger and bitterness, but it is amazing how many parents involve their children in their conflicts and do not even appreciate the damage they are doing. Often, they are even unaware that they are involving their children.
Asking your children to carry messages from one parent to the other is a big “No – No”. This is especially so, if the message is hostile which it generally is, either overtly or covertly. As a colleague of mine put it, no good is being expressed in a sentence beginning “Your Mother or Your Father”. Tell your mother etc., or say to your mother, ask your mother, your mother should, and so on….are not phrases that usually bear glad tidings and love to all mankind. It is astonishing how many parents use their children to convey such missives.
Parents regularly contact me with reports of things their children have told them about the other parent. There are circumstances in which this information is given by the child in answer to an innocent, non-intrusive question, but the opposite is equally true. Asking children intrusive questions about the other parent is not good. You are putting your children on the spot and they know it and resent you for it. They feel they are betraying the absent parent and also making you unhappy with the information they are giving. In short, they are in a no-win situation. Even if you don’t understand why you should not do this – don’t do it – as a good child psychologist will undoubtedly be given this information by the children and will rumble you. This will not play well if you find yourself in Court.
Telling your children things about the breakup e.g., what led to it and who did what etc., but then asking them not to tell the other parent what you said, is not good. You should never put your children in a position where they have secrets from the other parent. Remember this is a stock in trade of child abusers. Do you really want to use similar tactics for any reason? Confiding in your children inappropriately about adult matters is also a No-No. It can be hard not to talk to your children and certainly the older ones when you find yourself living alone and a little isolated, but it has to be resisted as you are their parent, not their friend and you have to be the grown up. Inappropriate confidences can either serve to alienate a child from a parent or over-burden them with secrets and information they should not have and do not need.
Very often children will be afraid to say anything positive to one parent about the other or about spending time with the other parent, for fear of upsetting one parent or the other. A child in such a situation will feel constrained not to say anything for fear of upsetting one or the other. Sometimes this feeling can play out in ways that affect the access time of one of the parents. If a child cannot utter anything positive about the visits, the child might conclude that it might be easier not to go on visits or tell the upset parent that they do not want to go as a means to make the parent they primarily live with, happier. This happens frequently around holiday access when the prospect of the children being away for an extended period is more than the non-holiday parent can tolerate. This will result at no end of difficulties around passports, information about where the children will be at all times and an expressed wish to be able to contact them whenever wished. Apart from the passports, the other parent will not see anything wrong with any of this, which on the face of it looks quite innocent. It is, of course, a question of degree. Having information is a good thing as long as it is not over the top and being able to talk to the children while they are away seemingly innocent enough, unless it is two or three times per day. At this point, the holiday tends to become burdensome for all concerned and can be destroyed for the children. Parents will often tell me that a child does not want to go on access with the other parent and of course, that might be true but it can also be the case that the children perceive that the parent left behind is unhappy or particularly sad or even a little angry and if they are primarily resident with that parent, they may feel that it is better not to go on the visit.
It is important to remember that children can hear and see as well if not better than many adults. In addition to this startling information, it is good to remember that children are bursting with curiosity and anything that seems secret or off limits will tease them to distraction. Lowering your voice is like an invitation to them to eavesdrop. Every time you go on the phone to talk to friends or extended family, you need to be aware of the big ears around the place. A lot of parents do not even lower their voices and it is truly amazing how many parents can be heard shushing their children while they have one of these conversations so that the child even if not overcome with a need to eavesdrop, cannot but listen. A child’s view of a parent can be badly affected by overhearing such conversations and it should not happen. A child is entitled to an opportunity to get to know both their parents on their own terms and without having the lens coloured by one or other parent to a point where they are prevented from having that opportunity. Worst of all, of course, is when a parent directly badmouths the other parent to a child.
Children should feel safe when expressing their feelings to either of their parents at any time. Sometimes children take on the responsibility for keeping the peace between the parents and hold themselves accountable for any fighting or unhappiness that breaks out. Such children have poor outcomes post-divorce.
Another factor which can have a negative impact on children post-separation is the quality of parenting they receive from one or both parents. Imagine a parent who sheds tears every time he or she has access with the children and imagine how this impacts on the children just in terms of the actual visits but also the quality of parenting they are receiving. Imagine a parent who gets upset every time the children have to leave the house and how that makes a child feel either about leaving the house or going home post visiting. Imagine a parent who talks to the children about the sexual behaviour of the other parent when the children have not even accepted the sexuality of their parents in any context and so on. Parents who are obsessed with what the other parent is doing or who cannot cope with the strength of their negative emotions are not going to be quality parents. Part of any alternative dispute process is going to look at parenting in a more in depth way than any court will do and will examine how future parenting will look in terms of communications how and when, decisions and plans that need to be made in the immediate or are coming up soon, and will try and empower the couple to deal with these matters. The experience of having sat together at formal meetings, and the experience of having business family meetings together for just you, the couple, can help enormously in giving you the courage to believe that you can deal with this. Accepting, however, that very often distracted and saddened parents can feel absent to their children, try as they might, I recommend counselling on an ongoing basis. It can help with relieving the emotional fallout when friends feel you should be getting on with it and it can empower you to take control. Counselling for children can also be very important as they need outlets to vent their frustration, sadness and anger too. Art therapy and play therapy can often be appropriate resources.
One of the greatest gamechangers arising out of a divorce or separation is the advent of a new relationship for one or both parents. When such a person becomes a step parent that can also give rise to a whole new ballgame. There is so much to think about here and I have already written an article on being a step-parent, however, some of the questions are 1) When should a child be introduced to another party or significant other? 2) When does a relationship qualify as steady/long-term/serious – 3 months, 6 months, 9 months or a year? 3) How and when do you tell the children? 4) What is the potential involvement of the long-term partner/stepparent in parental decisions or issues? We would routinely deal with these in all alternative dispute resolutions which can mean that such events do not jeopardize hard fought peace and accord by taking people by surprise. If parents handle these developments well, the children will generally be okay.
These are not the only things that can affect children post-divorce and other examples are lack of finance for one or both parents as well as no contact with previously close extended family members. These matters can be managed if recognized in advance. I have written before in this blog of the role of grandparents as bridge builders post-divorce and I would urge you to read that article. I find that where the parties adopt alternative dispute resolution as the method of resolving their dispute, the extended family no longer finds the need to take sides which ultimately benefits everybody. Lack of finances can often become most obvious around Christmas and birthdays and a little advance planning by the parents every year can often take care of this. Being able to talk and having to experience post-divorce of those conversations as you do in mediation, collaboration or managed negotiation can make co-parenting much easier going forward and ultimately, prevent your children from being caught up in parental conflict and promises better outcomes all round.