In our experience, when a marriage or relationship breaks down between adults who are parents, both parents tend to feel a significant sense of anxiety about the effect of the situation on the children. Often this is tinged with guilt about how things have turned out, shame for perceived failure, and anger at the role of the other parent. It can be a maelstrom of emotion, and more often than not the children are at the heart of it.
Both parents usually want to make things as smooth as possible for the children, not just in the immediate aftermath of a decision to divorce, but looking ahead to the longer-term future. We’ve heard stories of a daughter dreading her graduation day for fear of the fall-out from her estranged parents being in the same room; of a son asking to go away to boarding school to get away from the tensions in his two homes. This sort of distress can be avoided. Here are some pointers on effective co-parenting after the breakdown of an adult relationship.
Making the move from disappointed, hurt, divorcing spouses to constructive co-parents sounds like a tall order, but it needn’t be beyond the realms of possibility. The trick is to shift the focus from you to them. What do you want for your kids?
When you think about it, there is probably a lot of common ground here between you and the children’s other parent, even if you find you don’t agree on much else. You will usually both want them to grow up to be happy and secure individuals, and to be able to take advantage of the opportunities that come their way. Once you’ve worked that out, the question is how can you work together as co-parents best to achieve that. If you can get the big picture vision in place, working out the details can feel less scary. A jigsaw’s always easier to do if you put the edges in first and work in from there, right?
All the evidence suggests that it isn’t the fact of parental separation that affects children adversely, it’s exposure to conflict arising from that separation. The UK charity One Plus One has recently published a new study, Parental Conflict: Outcomes and Interventions for children and families, focusing on this area and pulling together all of the relevant research in order to make recommendations for government on making things better, in particular with early intervention. The report is reassuring and scary in turns for those of us working with families in situations that raise the likelihood of conflict, but is worth a glance through by any parents seeking to do the best for their children after family breakdown.
Some of the research findings summarised in the paper are not a surprise, like that children exposed to conflict between parents are at risk of a range of negative outcomes including emotional and behavioural difficulties, trouble getting on with peers or family members, problems settling and achieving at school, sleep difficulties, and poorer health. However, the authors also report emerging research that points to the influence of parental conflict on specific neurobiological processes in children, which may actually affect children’s emotional and cognitive development. This acts as a huge incentive to parents who want to do the best for their kids to reduce the conflict between them, and particularly to protect the children from it.
One Plus One has developed a pioneering e-learning module to assist parents in conflict to understand ways of changing their actions to bring about better results for their children: you can get to the programme here. We can’t recommend highly enough their excellent website theparentconnection.org.uk which has reams of useful information, plus gives instant access to a mediator at certain times of the day if you want to talk things through.
It’s important to remember is that co-parenting isn’t always easy even if you are very happily married to the children’s other parent. Most parents in a traditional family unit disagree about some aspects of their children’s upbringing. Kids don’t come with a user manual, and we all make it up as we go along! When you’re no longer a unit with the children’s other parent, you may find yourself taking their behaviour more personally, but that doesn’t mean that it was the way it was intended. If you can stop sweating the small stuff and focus on helping your little people become the big people you want them to be in the best way you can, you can reduce the conflict and its effects on your children.
Communication difficulties and escalating conflict can be addressed and ameliorated by working together with a family mediator. We usually talk about family mediation as a way to avoid court, but its usefulness extends far beyond that, and an experienced mediator will be able to work with you to explore the patterns that lead to conflict and what both of you might be able to do to make the situation better. If you’d like to know more about how we could help, give us a call on 01223 443333.