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.
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.
Jasmin Newman is an accredited and registered Family Dispute Resolution Practitioner, Parenting Coordinator, and Direction of Parenting After Separation Courses.