In mediation we sometimes see parents where the relationship between one parent and the child or children is starting to break down, or has already. That person can present as being frustrated with what is happening, very sad at the turn of events, extremely angry or a combination of all of these and more. The reasons for this are varied but at this stage we should make clear that we are talking about situations where neither parent presents a risk of emotional or physical harm to the child in their parenting. There is therefore no good reason why the child should not have a relationship with both parents.
The reasons for the start of this can be varied and complex and the parent putting blocks in place is not always aware of what they are doing. Sometimes children know more than they should about the separation and an incident where someone’s anger or upset led them to do something that wasn’t wise is communicated to the child and the child is shocked by behaviour that is not in keeping with the parent they now and love. This causes them to be confused and when confusion is not backed up by loving reassurance about the other parent this can start cracks in that relationship.
In our experience difficulties can also be caused by advice given out by lawyers that is followed to the letter, or taken slightly too far and we would always urge caution on any advice where the end result is possibly that a child or children’s relationship with their parent or parents is going to be affected. Where there is no suggestion that there is a risk of harm to a child there should be no interruption in a child or children spending time with that parent even if the circumstances and relationship between those parents is in a difficult place.
Here at LKW Family Mediation we strongly believe that all children need to hear the following three messages loudly, clearly and repeatedly during their parents’ separation:
- Mummy loves you and daddy loves you (this should include extended family members too such as grandmas and grandads and aunts and uncles).
- You are free and able to have a relationship with each parent without any fear of barbed comments, coldness, anger, different treatment or anything like this from the other parent.
- None of the separation is your fault.
Please don’t assume because you’ve said any of those things once that is OK. We would always suggest that those messages are put on repeat for as long as necessary. Number 2 is really important. Children are often far more switched on to their parents’ relationship than parents realise. The fact you do not argue in front of the children doesn’t mean that they don’t pick up that when someone mentions Dad, Mum gets a funny look on her face. Or that when you mention Mum anger seems to come from Dad. They know things and it’s these kinds of things that make children feel that one of their parents is not keen on them having a relationship with the other. It changes things. Suddenly they have to walk on eggshells or deny their feelings to their parents, or they become the peacemaker telling each parent what they want to hear in the hope of making them happy.
Children love their parents and want to make them happy if they can. In certain circumstances this can involve saying they won’t see one parent or making comments about the other parent to please the parent that is fed up with their ex partner. This is always harmful to children’s wellbeing. They are half of one parent and half of the other – to deny a relationship with one parent is like making a part of them wrong or dirty or not loveable.
Whatever you think about your child’s other parent, however much they have hurt you please ensure that your child gets the three messages above. It’s OK to talk to your children in an age appropriate way and it’s better that you do. No one expects you to be perfect or not to have emotions. It’s OK to say “I am just really angry with daddy/mummy at the moment but that’s just because of what’s happened. It’s my anger and I am dealing with it and your daddy/mummy loves you very much and none of this is your fault and I don’t want this to affect your relationship with them”. It’s also OK to say you got things wrong. As parents we teach our children that if you make a mistake and you say something hurtful you say sorry and parenting is modelling good behaviour and not never getting anything wrong.
All of the research points to the fact that divorce or separation is not in itself harmful to children. What causes the emotional, behavioural, physical and social side effects is being exposed to (and sometimes asked to take part in – either explicitly or implicitly) a war between the two people you love most in the world.