We all know that when two people separate, the effects are felt by a far wider circle. Children will often be in the thick of it, continuing to live with one or both parents while the difficult matter of divorce is dealt with.
They hear the arguments. They’re exposed to views that they ought not to be. They feel the tension. And all of that can be deeply distressing. It can also influence the way these children behave in the future, including towards their mum and dad.
The vast majority of parents who, when asked if they think it right for children to be put in that position, would say ‘No, absolutely not, that’s awful’. The trouble is that separation is such a highly charged, emotional experience for two people to go through that in the midst of acrimony children sometimes get ignored, forgotten about or – at worst – used by one parent against the other.
I have seen many, many cases of parents who, even though they obviously love their children deeply, become so caught up in the trauma of their break-up that the children’s needs are not as high on the list of priorities as they should be. Equally, I have advised parents who are very in-tune with their children’s psychology but whose ex-partners’ behaviour appears to be at odds with the children’s best interests, making it seem that they just don’t care. Each situation presents its own challenges; my job is to make sure that my client gets the best possible post-separation arrangement with their children and, crucially, prioritise their children’s welfare in the process.
Here are my top five tips for parents who have separated:
1.A united front
There will be plenty of things that you and your former partner will disagree on, but you should both commit to putting your child’s bests interests above everything else. You might come at this from different angles at times, but if you both fundamentally believe and acknowledge that your child deserves to be protected from the fallout of your relationship breakdown, you’ll be off to the best start.
Anyone who has been through a divorce will probably balk at this. Of course there will be moments of hostility between two former partners, but there are ways of helping you keep things in check so that your children are shielded. For example, think about involving a mediator to help you and your ex-partner sort out issues and the terms on which you’ll each walk away from the relationship. In my experience, it is a far more constructive way of handling the situation than going through the court process.
Children want and need mum and dad. They want mum and dad to be together, but if they can’t have that, they want to able to spend quality time with both. That’s the usual scenario, anyway. So, the worst thing you can do is to try to stop your child seeing their other parent, either by refusing to allow them to visit or by bad-mouthing or blaming the other parent to the extent that the child turns against them. My advice to clients is, as long as it’s safe to do so, encourage a positive relationship between their child and their ex. Allow your child to be happy when they’re with their other parent. Don’t show any jealousy. Don’t make your child feel guilty for being with them and not you.
4.Keep things as normal as possible
‘Everything has changed. Nothing has changed.’ It’s good to try to apply that. Even though the family set-up has been upended, routines can still be in force. Bedtime stories at 7.30; swimming on a Wednesday with Mum; rugby with Dad on Saturday; lunch with cousins on Sunday. Whatever your family routines have looked like in the past, think about the best ways of retaining some normality in your child’s week. And, as difficult as it will be from time to time, you’ll need to set aside at least some of your differences with your ex-partner in order to do that.
5. Don’t treat your child as a possession or a pawn
Refusing to take your child to their Saturday morning football practice because his dad is the coach and it’s ‘your weekend’. Taking your child away for a few days because you know it’s your ex-mother-in-law’s 70th and you don’t want her to spend it with her grandchild. These types of things, particularly if repeated, can be extremely damaging to family relationships – and even to your own relationship with your child. As difficult as it may be sometimes, look at situations from the child’s perspective. Why should they not go to football? Why should they miss out on their grandma’s birthday?