Aspects of post-divorce life can take people by surprise. One of these is the effect of a family break-up on children.
Parents go to great lengths to shield children during and after the divorce process. They watch what they say, taking care not to badmouth the other. They avoid putting their children in the middle. They try to maintain as much normality and routine as possible. But it’s not always possible to predict how children will behave once this significant life change really takes hold and when everyone is expected to ‘get on with life’.
Some adapt well to the new family set-up, others less so. It’s quite common for children who are adjusting to a new arrangement to decide that certain things don’t quite work for them. I’ve advised many clients whose children have regularly told them that they don’t want to go to mum’s, or don’t want dad to take them out for the day. It’s not what either parent wants to hear when the aim is a smooth, post-divorce life and, above all, a happy child.
It may be tempting to play down the child’s resistance and pack them off with positive words and a cheery smile. After all, it will usually have been decided that it’s in their best interests to spend time with both parents. But this shouldn’t stop you asking: why? Why does the child feel that way?
They may not be able to properly articulate their feelings, particularly if they’re young. Or they may hold back from being completely honest, for fear of that parent’s feelings being hurt, or worsening the family dynamics. But it’s important to try to get a good understanding of what’s causing the problem, particularly perhaps where the relationship between the child and their other parent was previously good.
The reason may seem trivial: “My bedroom’s smaller there”; “Your food is better”; “We always go to the same park and it’s boring”. It’s usually a good idea to encourage the child to try to look beyond those things. That’s especially so where court arrangements for contact are in place, as you’ll be expected to help ensure the arranged contact happens.
An exception to that is where there are safety or wellbeing concerns. So, listen carefully to what the child is telling you and even where their reason for not wanting contact seems innocuous, keep a close eye on the situation. Be careful not to put words into their mouth, or to make assumptions that can’t be supported. And if you’re at all concerned, speak to your family solicitor.
Depending on the circumstances, you may be able to speak with the other parent about how your child is feeling. Where it’s possible to have this conversation, there’s a chance you could work together to help make the arrangement work for your child. But where your relationship is not on good terms, there may need to be some external help – perhaps a lawyer, but better still a mediator who can work with you all to get things back on track. That can be a really effective way of pulling together to find a solution.
This isn’t an easy situation, and the stress can take its toll on everyone. So, it’s worth thinking about ways of giving post-divorce arrangements the best chance of working out. These things might help:
1. Try to be as openly calm and comfortable with the arrangements as you can be.
2. Show your child that (assuming it’s safe) you want them to maintain contact with their other parent.
3. Make handovers as relaxed, organised and as easy as possible for your child.
4. Don’t discourage contact, talk badly about the other parent, or fuel any negativity your child may feel towards them. (Parental alienation is a very real thing, with serious emotional and practical consequences).
5. Try to work through the issues your child may have with spending time with their other parent. It could be an easy fix, so give it a go.