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

Because it’s for the Kids – Building a secure parenting base after separation

Learning to co-parent is a new path that requires adapting what you used to do, to what you now need to do. This article by Jennifer McIntosh, Ph.D offers wisdom to help keep the kids in mind.

Building a secure parenting base after separation

Many people say being a parent is the best but hardest job in the world, and we don’t get proper training for it.

Separation between parents is also hard – to put it mildly – and there’s no training for that either.

There’s no doubt that being a separated parent can be hard, emotional work.

It can be difficult to know what you need and want, and what your children need and want.

A secure base

With the right support, most parents can find a way to build a secure base for their children after separation. That’s good for parents, and vital for their kids.

We hope this booklet helps you do that.

Is separation harmful for kids?

If it is managed well by the adults, separation doesn’t have to be harmful for children in the long run.

Is conflict between parents harmful for kids?

Sometimes. What hurts children and their development the most, short and long term, is ongoing adult conflict that doesn’t get sorted out.

The good news: kids can cope with conflict between parents so long as:

  • the conflict is not violent
  • the conflict is not frequent
  • parents work at sorting it out
  • kids understand they are not to blame
  • kids are not caught in the middle of it.

In fact, children of all ages can learn good coping skills, provided they are not too stressed by what is happening in the family.

What happens when separating doesn’t stop the conflict?

Some parents can sort out their differences with a separation. For many, conflict grows around the time of separating and continues long after divorce. This is very stressful for parents… and for children.

It’s doubly important to think about what children need in these situations.

What does high conflict look like?

Conflict comes in different shapes and sizes.

Parents in high conflict typically do these sorts of things with each other:

  • remain very angry
  • distrust each other
  • become verbally abusive
  • avoid each other unnecessarily
  • argue or interfere
  • go to court a lot
  • threaten, intimidate or try to control their ex-partner
  • are aggressive or violent
  • have trouble communicating about the children
  • criticize each other’s parenting.

That’s hard for anyone to live with, and important to change, because…

Parents’ ongoing conflict costs kids too much

Research shows the sad truth that conflict between parents that goes on and doesn’t get resolved is very hard on children and teenagers, and can affect the way they develop:

  • they lose their ability to trust
  • they make poor attachments to their parents
  • they don’t believe in themselves
  • they get overwhelmed by their feelings
  • they show their distress in bad behaviour
  • they have trouble making and keeping friends
  • they aren’t confident
  • they don’t perform as well at school
  • they have trouble making healthy adult relationships.

Something to think about

One in four children from separated families suffers from poor mental health. That’s a lot more than “normal”.

Separation doesn’t cause this. Long, bitter, unresolved conflict does.

Children’s energy gets drained by high or frequent conflict between parents, when mums and dads can’t ‘be there’ for them, because their minds are full of tension and anger.

Babies and young children are especially vulnerable to both family conflict and being looked after by overwhelmed parents.

Conflict costs parents a lot too, such as:

  • Worry and anger that goes on and on.
  • Depression.
  • Losing perspective: forgetting what’s important.
  • Not feeling like a good parent.
  • Money for mediators, counsellors.
  • Nerve-racking and expensive legal processes.
  • Time lost from work.
  • Forgetting there are solutions, not just problems.

You can protect your children from your conflict.

Parents in conflict with their ex-partner need support to sort it out. In the meantime, children can be protected from adults’ tensions when both parents:

  • keep the child out of the middle of their arguments
  • never ask the child to carry messages to the other parent
  • don’t ask the child personal questions about the other parent
  • make arrangements that suit the child
  • know their child may have different feelings from the ones they have
  • try to notice what it’s really like for the child
  • give permission for the child to enjoy their other parent
  • help the child to have a healthy relationship with their other parent
  • notice when the tension is being soaked up by their child
  • remember that children can twist themselves into strange shapes inside, in order to cope with conflict between the people they love most.

What’s time got to do with it?

Some parents focus on how much time they will each get with the children.

From your children’s point of view, it’s much more important to work out what kind of support they need from each of you.

Read on…

What children need when Mum and Dad separate

What children need after their parents separate is exactly what they needed before: a secure emotional base.

What all children need when Mum and Dad separate

Children need a secure base with parents they trust and feel comforted by.

Above all they need:

  • a secure base for exploring, growing and developing
  • help to solve their problems
  • encouragement to learn
  • routines that help them feel in control
  • firm and loving limits to be safely independent
  • a trusted parent when they need to be dependent
  • protection from trauma.

Good parents don’t get it right all of the time, but they do try to repair mistakes when they happen.

What babies need when Mum and Dad separate

Babies need all of that, plus a bit extra. Babies need more help to manage their feelings.

They need predictability, and a lot of time with parents who nurture them. They need parents who play with them, listen carefully to their efforts to communicate, and who keep their world small and safe.

If they’ve had a safe and nurturing relationship with both parents, they need to continue to have that. They need visiting schedules that don’t overwhelm them with too much change, or with conflict between their parents. Babies need parents who are tuned into their needs, rather than having to be tuned in to Mum’s or Dad’s feelings.

What teenagers need when Mum and Dad separate

They may be on their way to adulthood, but teenagers still need a secure base with their parents, in order to reach their potential.

It’s the little, day-to-day things that matter. Research shows that the best parenting for teenagers after separation is done by keeping the daily stress in the teenager’s life as low as possible.

This happens when:

  • Mum and Dad are ‘there’ on a daily basis to listen and give support. That can be in person or by making sure that your teenager knows how to reach you by phone or email, and knows that you will make every effort to be available when they need you. Those check-in calls are so important: “Just calling to see how things are today”.
  • Each house has a daily routine that is predictable, and has consistent rules and expectations. Parents arrive home when they say they will, provide meals on time, and give a good structure to the teenager’s day, that helps them manage their load. This really reduces the daily stress that teenagers can feel.
  • Parents are able to keep tabs on their teenager and take a real interest in their life. Without intruding too much, these parents share in their teenager’s interests, know what they need to get on with their activities, know where they are, and how they are spending their time.
  • Each parent remembers special days in their teenager’s life, and takes part in them as best they can. That includes the big days like birthdays, and the other moments that are important. The “of course I’ll be there” message or the “good luck” calls before the big match are worth their weight in gold.
  • Parents don’t rely on the teenager to give messages to the other parent. This really stresses adolescents, especially when they become the target of Mum’s or Dad’s frustration when a message goes astray, or when they don’t get the answer they wanted. Teenagers who feel caught between their parents are at the highest risk for problems. Parents need to speak directly to each other whenever possible, because even an apparently harmless message can cause stress for the teenager.
  • Teenagers feel close to their parents.
  • Step-parents have a good relationship with the teenager.

What about teenagers and conflict?

Adolescents are very aware of conflict between Mum and Dad, and, like younger children, they do best when their parents manage that conflict and keep it low. They aren’t as likely to blame themselves for trouble between their parents as little kids are. However, teenagers from high conflict families often leave home earlier than their friends who live in low conflict homes. So the message for parents of teenagers is the same as with all kids: keep your conflict low and keep your teenager out of communication between you and your ex-partner.

This picture tells the story of the circle of security

Always be bigger, stronger,
wiser, and kind.
Whenever possible follow
my child’s needs.
Whenever necessary take charge.

Nurturing Children through Separation and Divorce

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. 

Inclusive co-parenting

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?” 

Speak positively 

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.


You can find more information and helpful guidance in the Parenting After Separation Course. Or contact Parenting Coordinator, Jasmin Newman via the contact tab.

Considering Child Safety During COVID19

Despite a shaky and uncertain start for many parents on how shared parenting would take place during COVID19, there is now a clear and concise message from the Government and the Family Court. Co-parenting in the vast majority of cases continues as it has always done. This applies to both court orders and those families who have not attended court but whose children routinely move between homes. 

Court orders are considered ‘essential’ thus facilitating travel for parents. This is particularly important for parents traveling between States where they may be required to show parenting orders to police on the border. Isolation requirements will need to be met by each parent, just as they were doing anyway. 

Child safety is considered to be the primary consideration under Australian family law. As we have never before had to navigate safety regarding a global pandemic, this is new and unchartered territory. However it also gives an opportunity to discuss the broader context of child safety. 

Issues of immediate safety are: 

  1. ensuring a child is not subject to family violence from either parent; and 
  2. long term safety in which a child’s mental health and overall wellbeing is demonstrated to be improved by continuing, ongoing relationships with both their parents. 

During COVID19 given that immediate safety has already been addressed, it is the long term impacts that parents must consider. 

The primary concern many parents have had regarding a child traveling between homes has been a distrust in the other parent to comply with social isolation requirements, including those who may be quarantined after crossing State borders. 

Given the now high priority police and military are placing on monitoring social isolation, noncompliance by any person is becoming a risk in and of itself. The vast majority of people are doing the right thing and abiding by requirements. Those who are not are being issued warnings or infringement notices. This makes the likelihood of noncompliance almost zero, thus removing any level of real risk. 

The Chief Justice of the Family Court, Will Alstergren, issued a media statement clarifying issues around orders.  In an article published by The Australian, Alstergren further implored parents to act sensibly and reasonably.   “Each parent should always consider the safety and best interests of the child, but also appreciate the concerns of the other parent … This includes understanding that family members are important to children and the risk of infection to vulnerable members of the child’s family and household should also be considered.” he said. 

These most certainly are difficult and conflicting times for all Australians and it’s normal that we have elevated fears and concerns during this time. For all of us, being restrained from normal travel and daily interactions with our family and friends is emotionally debilitating. 

For parents who can take a wider perspective in this time,  they will see that children of separated families have an opportunity to move between homes, thus giving them that vital contact they are craving, and which sustains them at a deeper level. These children will have some variety that the rest of us do not. A change of home, minor change in routine, different meals being cooked for them and, most importantly, the company of their other parents and perhaps step families. 

In normal times we take these small things for granted. During the pandemic we are now living, these are big issues that will go a long way towards helping children cope. Their likelihood of suffering long term mental health issues will be reduced and their recovery time improved by having at least some variety. 

In weighing up safety we must consider the long term impacts on a child’s wellbeing. This is demonstrably improved by a meaningful relationship with both their parents. I implore all parents to see this as an opportunity to help their children during this difficult time. Shared care is best for children, even more during this COVID crisis.

Countering Arguments Against Shared Parenting in Family Law

Have we reached a tipping point in the child custody debate?

Despite strong public support and mounting empirical evidence in its favor as an ideal living arrangement for the majority of children of divorce, shared parenting as presumption in family law has historically been met with skepticism among some legal and mental health professionals. In a recent article in the Journal of Divorce and Remarriage, I describe how the past 40 years have produced three distinct “waves” of arguments against shared parenting, and how these have stalled meaningful legislative reform toward the establishment of shared parenting as a legal presumption, placing the burden of proof on shared parenting proponents to defend their position and demonstrate its efficacy, in a way that supporters of more traditional sole custody arrangements have not had to face.

The first wave of arguments was advanced in a manner that considered the idea of shared parenting of children by parents in conflict after divorce as an outlandish proposition. Three distinct arguments were made to discredit the concept:

First, it was asserted that children have one primary attachment figure to whom they become bonded, almost always the mother, and that any period of separation from the primary attachment figure will damage children’s development and compromise their well-being. At the same time this argument was advanced, however, reformulations of attachment theory emphasized the fact that children typically formed primary attachments to both parents, that these attachments were equally important for children, and that children tenaciously continue these attachments in changing circumstances, including after divorce.

A second line of argument was then put forward, stating that child development would be compromised when children move back and forth between two homes, “bounced around like a yo-yo,” with constant movement, two sets of home rules and different parenting styles. The research on children living in two homes found, however, that children themselves generally did not report such problems, and that sustaining attachments with both of their parents protected them from the adverse child development outcomes often accompanying divorce. In fact, lengthy separations from either primary attachment figure were found to be detrimental to child development.

Finally, a third argument was made that it is harmful to child development to disrupt the caregivingstatus quo, and that mothers should thus retain their role as the primary day-to-day caregivers of children. Research suggested otherwise, however: shared care of children was becoming the norm in two-parent families and disrupting shared parenting would in fact be more likely to lead to instability in children’s lives.

The second wave of arguments against shared parenting were presented as more concentrated and in-depth rebuttals of the concept, especially in situations where parents disagreed or were in conflict over child care arrangements after divorce. First, it was argued that shared parenting after divorce exacerbates parental conflict, and that children would be drawn into the conflict if shared care arrangements were imposed on families. Shared parenting, therefore, is only suitable for parents with little or no conflict and who get along well as co-parents. Again, research findings challenged this viewpoint: in actuality, an adversarial “winner-take-all” approach to child custody exacerbates parental conflict, leading to adverse consequences for children, whereas conflict is reduced in shared parenting arrangements where neither parent feels marginalized from his or her children’s lives. Further, research demonstrated that children do better in shared care arrangements even if there is conflict between the parents, and that sustaining both relationships is a protective factor for children in high parental conflict situations. Not all conflict is bad for children. Ongoing and unresolved conflict, however, is harmful to children; in such situations, rather than depriving children of a relationship with one parent, interventions to reduce conflict and support child development, such as assisting parallel parenting, therapeutic family mediation, and parenting education programs, were found to be most protective of child well-being. In response, a second critique of shared parenting was then advanced within the “second wave”: in high-conflict families, shared parenting exposes victimized parents and children to family violence and child abuse, and a legal presumption of shared parenting will allow abusive parents to continue their reign of terror in families. This argument, however, misrepresented the position of shared parenting proponents, who made clear that a legal presumption of shared parenting should always be rebuttable in cases of violence and abuse, as in such cases the safety of children and victimized parents is the primary consideration.

The third wave of arguments against shared parenting acknowledged that shared parenting may be beneficial for most children and families of divorce, including those in high conflict, but cautioned against the use of presumptions in family law, arguing that the best interests of children are different in each individual case, and that judges should retain their decision-making authority when it comes to post-divorce living arrangements for children. In response to this viewpoint, it has been pointed out that research on post-divorce outcomes for children and families has now established which living arrangements are most likely to support healthy child development. Without a legal presumption, judges make decisions based on idiosyncratic biases, leading to inconsistency and unpredictability in their judgments. And with two adequate parents, the court really has no basis in either law or psychology for distinguishing one parent as “primary” over the other.

It may be asked, then, after 40 years of debate, whether we have now reached a tipping point, when researchers can conclude with confidence that the best interests of children are commensurate with a legal presumption of shared parenting responsibility after divorce. Summarizing the state of current research in two recent special issues on shared parenting in the Journal of Divorce and Remarriage and the Journal of Child Custody, leading divorce scholar Sanford Braver asserts, “To my mind, we’re over the hump. We’ve reached the watershed. On the basis of this evidence, social scientists can now cautiously recommend presumptive shared parenting to policymakers…shared parenting has enough evidence [that] the burden of proof should now fall to those who oppose it rather than those who promote it.”

References

Kruk, E. (2018). “Arguments Against Presumptive Shared Parenting as the Foundation of Family Law: A Critical Review,”  Journal of Divorce and Remarriage, 59 (5), 388-400.

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