Being wise about the voice of children

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Resolution’s home page: http://www.resolution.org.uk

New research on what children think of their parents’ separating has been published. Some time later, the kids say: Don’t stay together if you’re unhappy. They say: Include us but not in the crossfire. They say: We don’t want to choose. A new Parenting Charter and online advice about children and divorcing parents has been launched as well.

Resolution, the English family law association (6500 members), supported by Consensus in Scotland, commissioned some research on what children say about their parents’ divorce. Knowing that the adversarial legal tradition can be far from helpful for many families, family lawyers have developed mediation, collaborative divorce and arbitration. This new research, charter and online advice are to promote this sensible trend … and their own services and incomes, of course.

Resolution are to be hugely commended. First for the child-focus and the particular statements that top the new Charter. And second for their new online advice that includes  a clear and straightforward web-page on When your children are turned against you. Many other organisations remain astonishingly silent on this whole topic that everyone knows happens. But Resolution even names Alienation! Three cheers for this and the page of informed specific Tips for parents. The advice is limited because answers and skilled help is still scarce.

What’s missing?

As usual, everyone can only be enthusiastic about the collaborative aims and principles in this new campaign. We need to underline what’s missing to persuade lawyers, governments and everybody to take that on board as well. Small changes would make this campaign complete.

What’s not mentioned – in this campaign, not their website – is what to do when one or both parents just cannot or will not follow the good advice however much encouragement they get. As they say elsewhere, in various ways, some parents just cannot do collaboration, support their children’s needs for a relationship with both parents, and protect them from the conflict. Some parents cannot see that what they’re doing is not best for the children. Some of these parents actively put their children into the crossfire. What then?

When we leave these families out of our thinking, they and the children are left to drop off the edge of a cliff. Somehow it can then seem ok to damn them, even to blame them: It’s the family’s fault. They didn’t take our wonderful advice.  But the survey is still a good starter for some better cliff-avoidance for all.

Briefly

Four out of five of the 514 children and young people (aged 14-22) – surveyed some time after the separation – said they preferred that their parents split up rather than stay together unhappily.  “Don’t stay together for a child’s sake … [we] will certainly be very upset at the time but will often realise, later on, that it was for the best.

They want greater involvement in decision-making during the separation process. Many didn’t think their parents explained or included them enough. But 9 out of 10 also said they do not want to feel like they have to choose between their parents. 1 in 5 felt like the separation itself was their fault – it’s good to know that 4 out of 5 did not feel like that. 1 in 3 wanted their parents not to be horrible about each other to them, and to understand what it felt like to be in the middle of the process. But half of them praised the way their parents put children’s needs first.

Conflict and uncertainty is damaging

Screen Shot 2015-09-05 at 12.50.47Jo Edwards, chair of Resolution, said: “Being exposed to conflict and uncertainty about the future are what’s most damaging for children, not the fact of divorce itself. This means it is essential that parents act responsibly, to shelter their children from adult disagreements and take appropriate action to communicate with their children throughout this process, and make them feel involved in key decisions, such as where they will live after the divorce.  We should be supporting parents to choose an out of court divorce method, such as mediation or collaborative practice. This will help parents to maintain control over the divorce and ensure their children’s needs are, and remain, the central focus.

Relate counsellor, Denise Knowles added: “There are plenty of steps that separating parents can take to ensure they reduce the negative impact on their children such as working to avoid constant arguing or speaking badly of the other parent in front of the kids. .. Trying to understand children’s needs will make them feel secure and loved during this difficult time. Separating parents could also consider accessing support such as individual counselling, couples counselling, family counselling and mediation.

A parenting charter for separation

This research supports the call now for the Government to share a Parenting Charter for all divorcing parents concerning the children’s needs and rights. The new online advice guide  then helps them do the right things.

The Parenting Charter sets out what children should be able to expect from their parents during a divorce. Top of the list are that children have a right to:

  • be at the centre of any decisions made about their lives
  • feel and be loved and cared for by both parents
  • know and have contact with both sides of their families, including any siblings who may not live with them, as long as they are safe
  • a childhood, including freedom from the pressures of adult concerns such as financial worries

The longer interview case studies add more colour to what goes right: ‘Archie’. And also what goes wrong: ‘Sarah’ felt she was and is still used as a ‘go-between’ by her parents: “It all got a bit nasty, and they’d tell us things, and it started to get a bit more bitchy. They started to do stuff like sending text messages to us …that’s where it all was just not right… even though I want to be involved, I don’t want to be in the middle … with so much resentment behind it … I needed the support from both of them, and I didn’t feel like I was being supported in any way. was just awful being involved like that, and hearing things from both of them, and stuff like, they still do it now, especially if one of them’s had a drink, all they can talk about is each other.

Sustaining the good thinking

Sarah did have a relationship with both her separated parents even though neither sounds very satisfactory. Would Sarah have wanted to choose only one parent as a way to avoid being a go-between? Unlikely. Separating is one thing, but getting rid of one parent is a different thing entirely. And would it have solved anything, made her happier? Unlikely again. She said she needs and wants support from both – though she didn’t get it. It sounds like she has given up hoping.

If Sarah’s parents somehow learned what it’s like for her, might they realise and improve things for their daughter? Might professional help quite quickly do the trick through articulating their child’s voice to guide them? Yes, that kind of help would work and it is available.  Unfortunately for many families the legal and professional approach still does the opposite.

FamilyPicsThe view that shapes things – for younger children too – is that the conflict (of the kind Sarah describes) is a good enough reason to cut one parent out of a child’s life (as happened in this case). The principles of including the child, of listening to the child’s voice, can unwittingly turn into instruments of the opposite, most unwanted effects.

The Parenting Charter still applies when parents don’t collaborate. Not collaborating means that one or both parents are probably putting their child right into the crossfire, right into the decision-making role, right into having to take one parent’s side and reject the other. Faced with ‘conflict and uncertainty’ – especially if a parent is turning up all kinds of pressure on them to take their side – a child may well solve the conflict by adopting a position of extreme certainty. They can end up being stridently but disproportionately clear about which parent they are for and against. Such a strange degree of certainty is, if anything, more damaging to a child. It points us to attend more urgently to the child’s welfare and care. The child’s very clear voice can be extremely wrong (as happened with this Dutch family – the children still affected 40 years later).

Keeping hold of the Parenting Charter, children need us all to remember and to see past our natural intuitive responses to be more wise about their voices.  Sound-bites leave out bits that need to be chewed. It takes a parent great skill and self-control – in an emotionally difficult situation – to include children but avoid making them feel too responsible for big decisions. Professionals also struggle to know how to include children but avoid them having to take sides, to keep out of decisions that may lead to losing a relationship with one of the parents. Sometimes the parent that draws them close may not be the better parent for their welfare.

What should not have been included

The press release has ‘parenting expert’ Sue Atkins rolling out some old-fashioned heterosexual bias. Maybe it’s the sound-bites thing again. But if there had been enough thinking going on behind the scenes, this bit should have been changed or left out.

Instead of emphasising the idea of children having a good relationship with both parents, Sue pictures one parent as the main carer and the other a ‘long-distance parent’. With no gender-equalist sensitivity, nor even the facts of diversity, Sue sticks her foot firmly in the traditional past. She says that the distant parent is the Dad. With a touch of patronising sympathy, she allows the main carer parent, the mother in her account, off any responsibility for the child’s other relationship. Sue makes the distant parent – the father – the one who “has to work hard to maintain their relationship with their child. I don’t advise [blaming the ex-wife] …  Dad [doesn’t have] to automatically disappear from their child’s life.”

We really need to be more careful, balanced and forward-looking than this. Sue’s kind of talk – the kind that Resolution has used and endorsed – sets us up, when high conflict and Alienation do occur, for a rapid slide into more ignorance and prejudice when families can’t or don’t do the collaborative thing. The principles are so easily forgotten as soon as families don’t do what we recommend. Then the children’s welfare disappears as the fine words of any charter turn into so much hot air.

Let’s remember

So, let’s remember the principles even when parents don’t collaborate. The principles are: to put the children’s needs first, to include but protect from the crossfire and the big decisions, to promote children’s need for a good relationship with both parents. Sue should have talked more of shared care arrangements instead of the single-parent-Mum-plus-or-minus-distant-parent-Dad pattern.

For children who are kept worryingly close to one parent and completely cut off or actively rejecting an unnecessarily distant other parent, let’s remember that this can be with any gender pattern and even same sex separated couples. Let’s remember to link in that new online advice instead of Sue’s old stuff.  It may be much more than just the distant parent’s fault for not trying hard enough. Dads and Mums who are distant  or rejected may be doing all the right things and more. It can most certainly be in the hands of the close parent to wittingly or unwittingly harm their children by turning them against the rejected parent.

Sue Atkins’s views – shared so widely without correction – are a key part of perpetuating what blinds us as some families and children drop off that cliff. Her talk on the edge of “Dads automatically disappearing” is only a short step to the idea that: It’s normal for Dads to be completely absent. Anyway, given the UK’s major commitment to gender equality, how come anyone – let alone ‘experts’ – get away with talk of just the one gender pattern?!

Taking the extreme pattern of Parental Alienation, many now report that a fair proportion of rejected parents are the mothers. In those cases, Sue’s talk feeds into yet another awful instant assumption: The rejected Mum must have done something really bad to not be with their children.

All of this slippery thinking perpetuates devastating outcomes for some families and children – the very opposite of what the new Charter means to achieve.

In summary

Surveys and sound-bite campaigns like this confirm the important principles. But they may forget to mention the higher conflict patterns and the harm to the children when those same principles slide away. The research and principles themselves underline that harm will be happening. Yet the missing bit means we easily slip into less constructive responses. Such as:

  • Frustration (at parents who fail to collaborate),
  • Despair and giving up (before we’ve even tried even to think clearly),
  • Blame (on one or both parents – often picking on the parent who is in fact the most child-welfare-focused one),
  • Forgetting the children (who are definitely not responsible or to blame for their fate even though their voice may be the instrument of adults’ failed responsibility for proper assessment and decisions)
  • Forgetting that children are immature (and even more vulnerable to influence when it comes to their stressed attachment to a parent, a parent whose own emotions and needs will play on the children so that the child’s voice is not the voice of their own real need), and
  • Forgetting the very principles that the research emphasises (about what children themselves express there about what they do most need and want).

It is an easy next step from this to opt for one side or the other. Don’t think too much – just join in the nearest gender-based crowd that seems to know who to cheer for and against.

And as we do that, we forget that simplistic taking of sides was the original problem. It is not the solution that children repeatedly tell us to avoid. It’s not what the research and the Charter tells us – to find a reliable voicing of what children needs.  Children really need their voice to be matched with some deeply careful adult thinking.

Nick Child, Edinburgh

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About Nick Child

Retired child and family shrink now family therapist living, working and playing in Edinburgh.

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