'It's like something you really love breaks, and you can't put it back together'
This is a quote from one of the young children who took part in a short film, called 'Split: Divorce Through Kids' Eyes'. I recently watched it as part of a two day course I attended to learn more about how to help separated parents find child-focussed solutions. I felt privileged to be able to attend this skills training; it was an excellent opportunity to concentrate on all those children who are at the centre of most of the cases I deal with, and learn more about how I can help parents to best support their children.
The training was run by Christina McGhee (author of Parenting Apart, which seeks to show separated and divorced parents how to raise happy and secure kids.) Christina gives very clear and incredibly important messages to parents: You cannot take away all the hurt that is caused when a family separates, but you have the power to make it infinitely worse. She discourages parents from fighting fire with fire and is categoric that such behaviour will damage their relationship with their children. She delivers powerful messages that are difficult to ignore.
The short film (entirely in the words of children and with no intervention from adults) was incredibly moving and provided such an insight into the emotional repercussions for children, and also the day to day issues that they encounter when living between two families (two sets of rules and constantly having to remember what you need in each home.)
It was clear how important it is that parents take responsibility for ensuring that the children receive all the support and love that they need during this time, and particularly to see that the situation is not their fault and they do not need to try to fix it. One child said that she had received counselling and was told 'your only job is to be a kid'. You could see what a relief it was for her to be told this but parents do need to let them know in an age appropriate way what is happening.
The film made me think about the number of children I have, however briefly, had some responsibility for during my career. As a family lawyer, it is so important to ensure that the children's best interests are always at the heart of decisions made in relation to them. Sometimes my clients need to be reminded that their children absolutely need the love and attention of both their parents. Sometimes my job is to be tough – but clients are always grateful later to have been steered away from unnecessarily inflaming a situation.
Christina McGhee advised that parents consider their role in relation to the children like a business partnership – sometimes you need to work with people you don't like, but you don't lose sight of the ultimate goal and get distracted by your personal feelings. I particularly liked the simile of one participant that 'the children are on a ship in a storm and the parents need to work together to guide the ship safely to port'.
One of the most important skills for family lawyers is empathy – we have to understand how our clients are feeling and recognise how difficult it is for them to be living through such uncertainty and emotional turmoil. This course gave me an even greater understanding of the difficulties involved in parenting through divorce, and the enormous impact that the parents' actions have on their children.
Here are some of the strategies that the children said helped them:
Saying good morning and good night to the parent that they were not staying with, really helped them not to miss that parent;
Writing down what had happened, and if it wasn't kind then tearing it up and throwing it away
Meditating so that you can forget about what is happening on the ground and think about a happy place.
Talking to children at school who have had similar experiences.
Here are some things that parents can do to help:
Resist the temptation to say unkind things about the other parent – it could cause your child to feel hurt, conflicted and confused.
Try to anticipate your children's specific concerns and address them (for example when they have to see both parents together at school event, they don't need to worry about which one they approach first).
Acknowledge that it is sad and it is ok if they are upset.
Let them know that they are strong enough to get through this.
Get the support you need to help you through – the better you are coping the easier it is for children to cope