This week marks Children’s Mental Health Week, first launched in 2015 by Place2Be to bring attention to the importance of children and young people’s mental health.
The welfare and wellbeing of children should be considered in all processes for the separating family including by the court. A separation or divorce can have an additional layer of complex emotions when children are involved. Both parents find themselves accepting a reality where they will not see their child every day and every night as, absent safeguarding concerns, the child is likely to be dividing their time between two homes going forward. Even in the most amicable of separations, that can be a difficult reality to come to terms with, but with the right support and approach, both parents and the children can move towards a new living arrangement in a positive way.
The manner in which a separation is dealt with and the parental relationship conducted afterwards can be key to the long term prospects of children, and parental conflict can, in some cases, continue long after separation. Parental conflict can conjure up images of parents arguing and shouting at each other, in the presence of the children. In reality, the parental conflict that can have an adverse effect on children’s emotional wellbeing is wider than this. For example: children witnessing parents refusing to acknowledge each other; being asked to pass messages between parents; being expected to conduct handovers at a distance or in a wholly artificial environment.
Children are more resilient than we sometimes give them credit for, and many can and will thrive after parental separation. However, there is a growing body of research that suggests that children who are exposed to unresolved parental conflict are more likely to suffer future negative outcomes, such as poor performance at school, anxiety or depression and difficulties in future relationships. The impact on children in some instances has been considered more adverse than if the child had a parental bereavement, due to the ongoing conflict that they are left to deal with.
With the right support and approach, steps can be taken to not only limit a child’s exposure to conflict, but to resolve it in the future. Not only is this good for children, but it can be good for the parents too. I recall a judge once describing parents as a Venn diagram; each parent was represented by a circle, and the children were the part in the middle where the circle overlapped. They are always connected by virtue of their children. If they pull apart, in conflict, not only are they stretched and put under stress, but so are the children in the middle. If, however, they can work together to limit ongoing and future conflict, both circles remain largely stress free. This image has stayed with me since, and I think it powerfully demonstrates the importance of reducing conflict, both for the children of a family and the parents.
Ending a relationship permanently is never an easy decision. In the past, I have had client’s express reluctance to take that final step, having concluded the relationship is over, because of their fears at how the children will react. I am not a mental health expert and have no expertise in child psychology. I am, however, a child of divorce and over 20 years later, I still have clear memories of the anguish and heartache felt at home, and the sense of relief I felt when I thought it might be over after I was told of my mother and step father’s separation. I wanted my parents to be happy, and it was clear they were not, and I wanted the arguing to stop. My firm belief is that two happy homes are better for a child than one unhappy home. It is unresolved conflict, not separation that can expose children to harm.
A degree of conflict is often inevitable with separation, but with proper support and guidance, there are many things that parents can do or consider to help reduce and resolve this both for their own benefit and their children’s, so a more peaceful set of arrangements can be achieved sooner.
Get support for yourself and think about self-care
Clients come to me focused on the legal issues arising from the relationship breakdown, but the reality is there are often a myriad of non-legal issues to deal with too, which can feel overwhelming. Seeking the support of a non-legal professionals and non-judgmental family and friends can be enormously helpful. At a time when a child seeks reassurance and comfort, as they navigate a new living arrangement, their parents may be feeling lost, unsettled or less emotionally available as they too adjust to a huge life change. Seeking support and taking time for self-care is just as important as supporting your child through the process.
Communicate with your child
Telling a child about a separation can be one of the most difficult conversations for a parent. It is a question I am often asked by clients; how and when do I tell the children? Will they blame me? There are many people who can help with this; friends or family with similar experience, mediators, counsellors, and child therapists who work with parents too. Seek advice if you need it. If it’s safe to do so, having this conversation with your ex can be helpful and answer their questions honestly, in an age appropriate way; a clear message from both parents can go a long way to ease worries.
Allow your child to express themselves
This year’s theme for Children’s Mental Health Week is “Express Yourself”, with a focus on helping children find ways to share feelings, thoughts, or ideas, through creativity. Children will react differently depending on their age and their personality, and they may not react in the way you expect. Encourage and help your children to express themselves. There are many resources online with recommendations, such as books or toys for children (for example “worry monsters”) and individuals, such as play therapists can help where needed. Your children’s school may also be able to offer support.
Communicate with each other
Children should be allowed to be children; they should not be messengers for separated parents, nor should they be co-opted as allies by one or either parent. Communicating clearly and openly with your ex-partner can remove a great weight from children’s shoulders. There are some easy to use co-parenting apps available that can help parents when communicating with each other, and offer an easy way to share information and updates.
Try and separate or divorce well
It is the unresolved parental conflict, not necessarily the separation itself, which can have lasting effects on a child. Separation is often hard, but it can be done well. Providing it is safe to do so, think about parenting courses and whether you and your ex can work together with the help of a counsellor, therapist or mediator. Even when court proceedings prove to be necessary, there is a way to litigate; it does not have to be nuclear. Stay respectful and solution focused. Take a step back, and think in a proportionate, reasonable manner. If you and your ex need the help of the court to resolve and finalise matters, that can be done without vitriol and anger. If matters get off to a difficult start, there may come a point where, after initial reactions have calmed a little, you feel more comfortable sitting down with your ex.
Give yourself and your ex credit
You are both human, possibly dealing with a range of emotions depending on where you are in your separation journey. If (or when) you and your ex-partner experience a bump in the road, try to work past it and move forward. Try not to ruminate on what you or they said or did not say, and don’t chastise yourself if you feel you could have dealt with an issue in a more positive way. You are human after all. Instead, try to reflect and move forward positively. Children can learn positive lessons from witnessing their parents resolving disputes and conflicts and moving forward.
One of the most rewarding aspects of my job is seeing clients prove the theory that there is life after separation. During a separation, whether or not you are involved in court proceedings, the pressure can feel relentless. Your ex could be feeling the same range of emotions. It will pass, and with the right support, you, your ex and your children can move forward in a healthy and happy way.