Caught In The Middle

Kids are often caught in the middle of parents during and after separation. Parents are often dealing with their own grief, anger, loss and trying to manage the major changes that come with separation and are unable to see the impact that all of this has on the children. There is often point scoring over the children with the demand of shared care between both parents, often hostility towards each other and children’s needs and wishes are lost in the noise. There is resistance to work in together to ensure that children are not traumatised more permanently or internalise feelings that often then later present as challenging behaviours.

We well know that the current legislation surrounding shared care focuses on parents having quality time with their children post separation and this is so important for children and young people. However in a study undertaken by Dr Jennifer McIntosh that looked at shared care arrangements over a four year period, we now know that only about 40 percent of shared care arrangements are working well. It is vital that parents work together in a positive parenting alliance to ensure that children remain attached to both parents, they feel supported and stable to ensure they develop emotionally well. Many children and young people are presenting for counselling at an early age with anxiety and depressive states due to the continuance of high conflict between parents during the relationship and post separation. This is a telling tale. It is vital that we continue to discuss the impacts of children during separation and divorce to curb the tide of mental illness as they grow into adulthood.

Parents are the most important tool in this equation. It is vital that we provide parents up to date from the latest research on the impacts of separation and divorce on children, how to ensure they focus on the children emotionally in such situations, understand how their children develop through the different stages and ages as they grow and equip them with the tools to remain child focused as they ‘battle’ to rebuild their own lives and those of their children. The picture is not great is it, however this is seriously real!! Children have to mould themselves to suit their parents, they are often not equipped with the words or skills to let their parents know what the impact is on them.

Another perspective are those children whose parents have never lived with each  other. Just because these children have not lived in the same family home with both parents, we cannot say the  impact is lesser than those who do. These children have no history of both parents together, they often do not  have the same family supports around them and are impacted greatly by having to juggle the needs of both  parents. This typology of family system also sees children present with anger issues, internalised feelings and  stress, externalised challenging behaviours and a feeling of self blame. They can find it difficult to hold secure  attachments, present with anxiety and other depressive symptoms just like children where both parents have  lived together. We also often see one parent disengage with their child/ren as it is all too hard to keep it  together. This only adds to the trauma for that child/ren and impacts greatly on their future relationships and  attachments. They can experience loneliness, hypervigilent behaviours and find it too difficult to trust others  developing co-dependent behaviours.

Having a meaningful relationship with both parents where they as Dr McIntosh suggests build a parental alliance that scaffolds the child/ren onto a secure bridge between the two is the most effective way to ensure that children and young people develop emotionally well and learn the necessary skills for adulthood. It is vital that both parents remain present and active in their children’s lives putting aside their own hurts and defences to ensure their child/ren feel loved and supported.

The key to a meaningful relationship with children is not to be fixated on a schedule. This leaves children feeling like a clock, they are just seen as time for both parents. Having to set up their belongings at both houses, often not being able to take clothes and their favourite things between mum and dad’s house can be distressing and causes anxiety. Many parents make their children change clothes before they go to the other parents house, again adding to the trauma of having to feel like allocated time in each house. Children and young people need different things at different developmental stages in their life. What they need as a baby is to have a primary care giver and spend quality time with the other parent. What a child needs at preschool age is different to primary and high school age and then again different at adolescent age. What they do need though is two parents that can engage appropriately with each other and without the continuance of high conflict putting their differences aside and become child focused. Your children are your children for life no matter what so carving them up in timeslots is not the way to go if you want them to develop as normally as possible given the separation, divorce and conflict that comes with this.

One of the most effective ways to ‘inoculate’ children during and post separation of their parents is to involve them in the process. By this I mean engaging in a positive process supporting children to see a qualified professional who works with your child/ren throughout the differing stages of the separation. This also applies if you have been separated for some time and you think the children are travelling well.  This is where a social worker or psychologist meets with the sibling group and then individually with each child to assess the impacts of the separation or divorce. The professional engages with the child/ren to assess how they are coping with the change, their own grief, loss, anger and sadness.Feedback session/s are provided to the parents where children can be appropriately and loudly heard as to what the impacts are on them.

With the changes to the Family Law Act couples now are required to engage in mediation prior to going to court and parents have the positive power to engage children in ‘Child Informed Mediation’. Again this is where the experiences of your children are included in the process and the mediator works with the child/ren and then provides the parents with feedback.

Child informed mediation provides parents with a unique view of what is occurring from their child/ren’s perspective and from their experiences and feelings. The wishes and feelings of the child/ren are sometimes unable to be heard due to the continuance of high conflict or no discussion at all between the parents. When parents engage in child informed mediation the results can be very positive for all members of the family. The mediator is well equipped to provide relevant feedback in a positive and proactive way so parents can really take a different path to change the pattern of conflict, change how children feel about being ‘allocated time’ and learn how to develop strategies to change the path of their child/rens future. A place where children can grow into healthy adults, secure, lessen the risk of mental illness, co-dependency and feel confident and secure in themselves.

Let’s all be proactive in our approach to support children and parents during and post separation. Parents cannot do this alone, together as families and professionals we can develop our children for the future to lessen the risk of repeating the same patterns and assisting them to feel safe and secure