Separation, divorce, family breakdown, ‘amicable’, civilized, chosen or not, it’s a messy time for everyone . . . children, parents, relatives and friends alike.
As a family mediator who sees all kinds of people in all kinds of states and stages of separation and whose job is to try and help them sort out things sensibly, I have never met two parents who don’t genuinely believe that they want what’s best for their children . . . the trouble is that they often don’t agree with each other what that actually means!
We’re all good parents at heart (or as Christina McGhee puts it . . ’you’re not a bad parent, just a good parent having a bad time’), but it’s often hard to keep those good intentions on track and continue to work with your soon-to-be-ex as the other parent when you’re worried about the future, threatened about finance, scared they’ll try and take your children from you, or in an emotional fog which feels as though it will never clear. ‘Our children’ often become ‘my’ children and we find it easier to try and operate as though the other parent never existed (we probably wish on occasions that they didn’t). Anger/blame, withdrawal, recriminations, suspicion and lack of trust are often rife and make us fearful, frequently contaminating our ability to hold a level-headed discussion together about arrangements for what is still, ‘our’ children’s family.
What must it feel like to be a child or young person in the centre of all or even some of this family turmoil, in the middle of your two parents whom you love? You may have simply taken for granted that your parents were just there . . . and now these two people whom you may hardly recognise at times are disrupting your family, your home, your life too.
As a mediator I often meet with children and young people and I’m told in great and often heartbreaking detail what this feels like. You may have suspected or known things were wrong for a while but never thought your parents would actually split up; no-one talked with you or explained; you often felt that you’d done something wrong or that you had responsibility to put things right; you felt split in two and disloyal to one if you spent time with the other . . . the list goes on . . . and on . . . all through your lives, unless your parents calm down, help you make sense of it too and settle to the new pattern of your life.
So what can parents do?
Plan early . . . talk to your children as soon as you know you will separate, listen to their worries and their wants . . . you don’t need all the answers, just give reassurance and tell the truth, without all the ‘adult’ details. Make incremental plans, take things in stages, remember children grow older, things change.
If you’re angry or upset with the other parent, practice turning on the ‘parent-mode’ switch where the children are concerned (and get lots of support for yourself away from them – remember this is the second most stressful life event and very few people cope perfectly).
Remember that though they are part of you, your children are NOT you . . . they are separate and may have very different needs. Try to ensure that what you decide will work for them too.
Remember also that you are a parent FOR LIFE . . . and so is the their other parent. No matter what happens, no-one can ever replace you and your children will only ever have you two as their parents (though hopefully they will have other important positive adults their lives). As parents you are equally important to your children, although different from each other; this doesn’t necessarily mean cutting their time with you down the middle . . . beware of ’competitive’ parenting!
Please consider the longer term for everyone and talk with a mediator to see how they might help you all to re-establish your lives post separation. Family mediators are able to talk with children and young people, who often want a ‘say’ in separation without being asked to make the decisions.
Contrary to popular belief (or wishful thinking), children are NEITHER too young NOR too old to be affected by their parents’ separation. How you handle things now will become part of the story of their childhood, who they are and who they become in the future.
Written by Ruth Smallacombe of the Family Mediators Association in connection with National Family Mediation Week.
For more information on our mediation services, contact Sarah Smith on 01423 543117.