There are many aspects of separation and divorce. While it’s natural that parents need to resolve disputes to their satisfaction, it’s important that the children don’t become lost in that process.
Parents who are in dispute present to mediators, or their lawyers, with issues that revolve around their needs and what they want to walk away with after their divorce. For children, this means parents are focused on themselves and what they see as ‘fair’ but this does not necessarily mean being ‘child-focused’.
When there is a high level of conflict between parents, the children are aware, even if those arguments are not in front of them. They are very in tune with you and they get a sense of when you’re stressed or are feeling unhappy. Your conflict then becomes their conflict and it’s common to see children have significant changes in behaviour during this time. They may regress on previous milestones (such as bedwetting); have changes in attitude; poor emotional regulation; poor decision making; and a variety of other negative behavioural shifts.
Parents sometimes get confused about the meaning of child-focused and what’s in the children’s ‘best interests’. The focus becomes muddied on what they (the parents) think about time and division, and not what children are missing, which is having both of you, all the time.
Here are some tips on taking a more nurturing approach on some of the key issues presented by parents.
Memories are not defined in time
While some parents argue about time, children do not want to feel as if they are another ‘thing’ to be shared in your divorce. What’s important to them is that they have a meaningful relationship with each of you and that their time with you brings value to their lives. They want to feel loved, supported, heard and cared for, no matter what amount of time that is for. They also want to know that you are happy and okay when they are not with you.
Moving between homes
This can be a big hurdle for children to adjust to moving between homes, particularly when conflict is present. Support your children during this transition time by greeting each other politely. Allow the other parent to hug or kiss them goodbye and/or embrace the receiving parent with love and affection. Sometimes they forget their special items, even when you’ve reminded them, so if they need something in order to feel settled, it would be best if you can communicate that freely between the parents and accommodate the child’s needs.
The children don’t like to be apart from either of you. Positively including the other parent into your conversations during the week helps them to know that they are a part of each of you. There are many ways you can ‘include’ them, without needing to spend time together. For example “Would you like to share a pic of this with Mum / Dad?” Or “Don’t forget Dad / Mum would like to see your certificate” Or, “Would you like to make a batch of biscuits to take to Mum’s / Dad’s?”
Children of all ages love to hear stories of when they were younger. Share incidental stories of times you remember and positively include the other parent, For example, “I remember when you were two and Dad / Mum and I took you to Queensland for a holiday” – then, of course, tell them about the experiences as a positive memory of that time. I am sure if you think about it, there are many ways you can incorporate these stories.
It is not practical to suggest that all separating parents can be friends. However, you can nurture your children in a way that tells them that their needs matter. What children want most is to know they are not caught in the middle of your disputes. Nurture them as you learn to parent together while living apart.
Jasmin Newman is an accredited and registered Family Dispute Resolution Practitioner, Parenting Coordinator and Course Director of Parenting After Separation Courses.