What is it like to be your child?

The primary message parents hear from professionals after separation is about the need for being child-focused. The family law act is built around the need of parents being focused on their children and their children’s needs in family law disputes. 

In mediation and any separated parenting conference, each parent presents their views according to what they believe is in the best interests of the children. This doesn’t necessarily make it child-focused, however. When two parents have different beliefs about what is best for the children, conflict escalates. Each parent believes they are working in the best interests of the child but if one of their beliefs are rigid and opposing, it becomes impossible to reach an agreement. The more conflict escalates, the less the children’s needs are kept at the heart of decisions. 

A too often unaddressed question, is ‘what is the child’s experience of your separation’?

So what is it like to be your child? 

In the following exercise, I am going to ask you to try and remove your personal feelings toward your coparent, and think about life through your child’s experiences. The purpose of this exercise is to consider what it’s like to be your child living in a separated family. Think about each question carefully and if you like, you can write down your answers in a notepad. 

What do you think your child’s experience is when they sense conflict? 

How do you think they feel about this? What emotions would they be experiencing?

Does their behaviour change? (do they withdraw, act out, isolate, leave the house, listen to music so they can’t hear?)


What is it like to be your child at changeovers?

What do you think they are feeling when they arrive? 

What do you think they are feeling when they have to say goodbye? 


What do you think your child would change about living between homes if they could?

Would they feel comfortable to talk to you about this? 


What does your child like most about their other parent? 

Do they ever talk to you about their time with the other parent? If not, what is the barrier to them talking about this? What has been your response to them in the past?


What do you think it is like for your child when they need to ask for something that requires approval from both of you? 


If you asked your child to draw a picture of how they feel inside, what do you think that picture would look like? 

Supporting your child through separation

If you’ve really considered these questions then it’s likely they have raised some emotions in you. I appreciate this can be difficult. When you have considered your child’s experience does it change how you feel? Is there anything you can think to change that would actively support them having a better experience of your separation? I realise these patterns can be hard to break, however, it is never too late to change your approach or progress communications to be child-focused.

Depending on the age of your child, it may be appropriate to ask them about their experiences. If you do, then it’s important that you are somewhere the child feels secure and they feel that you are receptive to them expressing themselves. You may hear things which make you uncomfortable so a healthy response is to acknowledge their feelings and tell them that you’re going to take time to consider this carefully. 

Sometimes it’s helpful for a child to have another trusted adult for children to speak to. Someone who is neutral to the conflict and who can separate themselves from your perceptions. It may be a teacher or other professional such as a counsellor or family therapist.

What’s important to children, and indeed all of us, is that they feel seen and heard and that they know that their experience of the world matters to their parents. 

Recommendations

Separate your issues with your coparent from your child’s experience of them. They don’t have the same relationship you do and therefore they are not necessarily affected by the same issues you are. 

When making decisions that will affect your child, consider what impact this may have on them. Will this be positive or negative? Are their views able to be considered?

Learn, learn, learn. If you haven’t already, now is a good time to do a parenting after separation course. The purpose of these courses is to help you understand the coparenting relationship and what is in the best interests of children.

Keep the children in the centre of your mind, not at the centre of your conflict. Breaking the cycle of parent-conflict is essential for your child’s positive development. (You may wish to visit our available course by clicking the link.) 

I have long said that as this next generation of children become adults, we will hear more of what their experiences here. This is the authentic voice of just one child who feels prevented from loving a parent.

We know you want the best for your children. Being child-focused can be hard but it’s always best for them.

Need help? You can reach Jasmin Newman via the contact tab or phone Parenting After Separation 1300 919 019

Early Childhood Regressions: Trauma or Conflict?

Milestone regressions and behavioural changes of young children are frequently a major concern of separating parents. There are two, very rigid viewpoints often held by parents when regressions are reported. 

Parent A often reports that the child has regressed to bedwetting; is having unexplained tantrums, or appears to be over-tired etc. They fear that the child is not being adequately cared for and this often results in withholding the child due to those fears. In many cases it results in re-litigation or further delays current proceedings. 

Parent B most frequently claims that the child is happy in their care and that they are well looked after. They have trouble grasping the problem because it’s not occurring under their watch. They will commonly claim that Parent A is making this up to cause trouble for them. 

While all suspicions of child maltreatment should be explored, there is a more likely explanation which is centred around the child’s perception of their dramatically changed world. Psychologists and family therapists state these regressions or changes in behaviour are not necessarily something bad that is being done to the child or fabricated by the other parent. Rather, it is often the presence of conflict between the parents, and the absence of the familiar relationship of the parents when in the child’s presence. 

Even when children have been exposed to parent conflict prior to separation, they become accustomed to it. Their routine has stayed the same, they are fed and cared for in the one home and both their parents are coexisting with them under the one roof. When separation occurs and routines are disrupted, the child can have significant adjustment issues. 

However, this is not a reason to resist shared care. Children, even young ones, can and do adapt fairly quickly. It is the presence of conflict and the refusal or inability of parents to separate their issues from the child’s needs that cause the behaviours that underpin this apparent trauma. 

I asked Family Therapist, Terri Kelly for her views. This is what she said. 

One of the hardest things a parent can do is find the courage to pause and ask themselves ‘what if?’. 

What if the way my child is behaving means something different to how I see it? 

What if my child doesn’t see the parent the same way I do? 

What if my thoughts and beliefs are colouring my views on what my child’s behaviours mean? 

Finding the courage to be vulnerable enough to see a different perspective is a huge ask when you have fears and doubts about the other parent and surety that you are right in how you see things. 

But, what if? 

There is always more than one way of understanding your child’s experiences. When you find the courage to pause and ask yourself the question of what if, you open the door to new possibilities of seeing the world through your child’s eyes.

Terri Kelly

What the child needs is a sense that everything is okay between their parents, even if it’s not. Prior to separation, they are familiar with seeing their parents talking to each other and sharing time together with them. When conflict is high after separation, what they now experience is an abrupt changeover in a strange location where neither parent can be civil, let alone spend time in the company of the other parent.

These children need particular care and for their parents to be attuned to their perception of the world. Being child-focused means being able to consider these matters through the child’s eyes

From the child’s perspective, they are dropped off and picked up in a hostile, often unfamiliar environment. They get a strong sense of their parents’ anger and resentment displayed toward each other. Sadly, even infants get a sense of being caught in the middle. They feel torn in their love, and as a consequence will often say or do things which are out of character. They will feel a need to express an allegiance to one parent, or the other. Sometimes both. 

A child will often say “I don’t want to go back” or “I don’t want to leave you”. In reality, what the child is most likely saying is “I don’t want to feel torn between you”. 

When you find the courage to pause and ask yourself the question of ‘what if’, you open the door to new possibilities of seeing the world through your child’s eyes.

What is optimum for children in these moments is time together with their their parents. At very least, they need to get a strong sense that everything is okay.  

While it seems a far cry for many parents involved in family court proceedings to facilitate time together as a (separated) family, those parents who navigate amicable separations report doing these activities regularly. Studies show that these children do not have the same level of associated trauma as parents who are high in conflict. 

So how do you go from being hostile to being ‘friendly’? Well, that’s up to how much you are willing to help your child adjust. And this means both of you. I say this over and over in consultation with separating parents: “You must find a way to separate your relationship issues from your co-parenting requirements to meet the child’s best interests.

You don’t have to be friends with your co-parent, but if you want to give your child the best chance of adjusting without added trauma, being friendly toward them will significantly help. 

Recommendations 

Some adjustments I suggest parents make (wherever possible)

  • Always speak positively about the other parent 
  • Help the child make a gift from them for their other parent 
  • Send photos to their other parent on behalf of the child and show/tell them you’re doing it. Bonus points if you can read/show their happy response once received. 
  • Give hands-on help to facilitate Facetime calls. Say hello. Be courteous. 
  • Invite the other parent to share part of special days together as a ‘separated’ family. 
  • Share an occasional meal together. 
  • Become okay with the other parent being in your home for short periods. 

Even if you’re faking it, you’re doing it for the child. It is vital that both parents put aside their differences for this to occur. If you can’t achieve that on your own, or you fear your co-parent won’t do their part, you should seek support from a co-parenting coach or parenting coordinator. 

In the vast majority of cases, the child is not being hurt or harmed in the other home. They are not traumatised by the separation itself. What they are responding to is the conflict they witness, or sense between their parents, and the absence of having both of you together in their very small world. 

So ask yourself, What If…..

For more information, contact Jasmin Newman

Jewell’s Story

The following story on parental separation was written by a woman who wanted to tell her story of separation from her father.

Over the years I’ve become conditioned to the depth of some of these stories, however I never wish to be so used to them that they become ‘normal’.

 

I was separated fro my father for many years as a child. I endured years of listening to my mother bad mouth my father. Some of this was warranted, but so much of it wasn’t.  She was determined that I would not love my father because of the physical abuse she suffered from him.

My father continually wrote letters to me. I opened each one.  Some I answered but there were more times that I didn’t answer. Not deliberately, but just because I was a kid and didn’t think about it. I guess I was too busy being a kid.

What I do remember and what always stayed with me was Dad writing “I love you” and “I’m sorry” so often that it became embedded in my heart.

Regardless of how many times we saw each other throughout the years, I know without any shadow of a doubt that I was loved by my Dad. I later discovered he kept all the letters I sent him over the years.

Despite not having spoken to him for the 5 years previous, I was blessed to spend the last 3 months of his life with him. He passed away in July 2016 of a brain tumour.

We held hands, laughed and told each other how much we loved each other.

I miss my Dad.

I share this story because I want to encourage other parents to never give up on your children, even if at times it seems they’ve given up on you.

I don’t know how my father did it for all those years. I don’t know how he continually pressed on through the letters and birthday cards and never got a response from me. He loved me regardless of anything else. I know that my Dad loved me.

Thank to all those parents who are fighting the fight to stay in your children’s lives. Keep fighting. I saw the truth through the love of my Dad.

Mum and Dad could never have stayed together. Their relationship was too volatile and Mums negative words about Dad to me only pushed Dad and I closer together throughout the years. So don’t worry about what the other parent tells your children about you. Just be that constant source of love in their lives.

If you’ve been alienated from your children, my advice would be to write them a letter every week. Write to them and give it to them when they are older.

~Jewell Drury.