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

The Leaver and The Left

There is a concept in separation and divorce in which there is often a disparity between where each party are emotionally in relation to the separation.

While some couples come to the decision together, in many cases one party has already made the decision to leave long before they’ve told the other. They are referred to as ‘the leaver’. This can cause a great deal of frustration for the person who is being left.

As you will see from the inserted graphic, the leaver is ahead at every stage. By the time they are making new plans and coming to terms with their life ahead, the left is only just finding out. This in itself can cause a great deal of conflict.

What happens then is the grief cycle for the left, which the leaver has already had time to come to terms with, is only just beginning. For the leaver, there are heightened emotions, often denial and sometimes still trying to save the relationship. This is discussed in full in the parenting after separation course.

The message I encourage separating parents to understand is to have an understanding that you are each on the same path but at different stages. You will ultimately both come to a place of acceptance, however, if you can respect that each of you is at different stages, this will go smoother.

Consider the graphic and where you are now.

Were you the leaver or the left?

Where is your co-parent at on this scale?

What do you think life looks for them now?

What do you think they experienced at various stages?

This is just some food for thought. You may not come up with all the answers you need right away. Processing relationship grief and loss is an individual journey and can take time. You will come through this in the end.

Co-parenting and the COVID19 Crisis

During times of crisis, we tend to react from a base of fear. However, we all react or respond to fear in slightly different ways. And that’s okay.

The important thing in co-parenting during this time is that you recognise there is more than one way to get through this. It’s also likely that you may have different approaches as to what’s best.

The biggest concern of co-parenting through this current coronavirus crisis is if the children can move between homes safely during any future quarantines. And if not, what will happen to existing court orders or parenting agreements. I know some parents are concerned about breaches or being accused of withholding children.

In short, you should follow the government advice or specific advice of your health care professional. If you or your children are diagnosed or being tested for coronavirus, then the government health advice is that you will be required to stay in isolation.  This may affect your normal co-parenting routine. 

It’s better to be prepared and have this conversation in advance.

Work out what you will do, how you will both manage and you what you will do if the children are disadvantaged in time with the other parent. 

It’s best if you can be flexible, considerate and accomodating. Most of all, be child-focused. 

If being in quarantine is a contravention of existing orders then I recommend the following. 

  1. If you normally communicate directly, email or phone your co-parent and advise them of the current situation. Talk rationally, calmly and sensitively about the situation at hand. Be considerate that this may disrupt their routine and may require a short adjustment period for them to consider. It can be a good idea to flag a conversation with an initial message that says “we might have some disruptions due to the coronavirus. I was wondering if we could talk this through?. Can I call at (time)?”
  2. If you have, or feel you need a lawyer, contact them and ask them to communicate with your co-parents lawyer about the current health status and any anticipated changes in parenting time. 

If you are the parent who is not with your children and the children can not be safely returned to you for your scheduled time, remain calm. These are exceptional circumstances and eventually, life will be returned to normal. 

These are my recommendations

  1. Communicate calmly, openly and with a child-focused approach. 
  2. If quarantined, facilitate FaceTime calls for the children with their other parent.  
  3. Act on specific medical or government advice only.  Do not listen to advice from well-meaning friends or social media. 
  4. Keep each other openly and honestly informed in relation to the health status of yourselves and people the children may have come into contact with. 
  5. Some people who have compromised immunity disorders may be on specific advice to remain in social isolation at this time. This may be extended family such as grandparents.
  6. If you or the children are NOT diagnosed or being tested for coronavirus, then shared parenting should continue as normal. 

Please remember, we are ALL going through something unusual. Keep calm and keep communication open, honest and sensitive to the fact that we are all dealing with something a little unknown. However, there is no reason to panic. Calm communication is your best tool.

See our parenting after separation course for more tips on improved communication.