In high conflict scenarios between separated parents, sometimes the kids aren’t alright.
And if the conflict does not reach a place of resolution, the short-term and long- term development of the children can get badly derailed, with lifelong impacts for the entire family. But conflict is a reality of many family separations, and within reason, most kids can cope – if the burden on them is managed carefully.
Build a safe foundation for the kids after separation
While the initial impact of mum and dad separating will be difficult for the kids, if managed well in the early stages, most kids will be able to adapt to their new world. However, for that to happen there are certain conditions that must be present. Most importantly, the conflict between parents must not be violent, nor frequent. If parents are constantly fighting, they may not realise their arguments are increasing in intensity – in terms of what they say to each other, how they say it, their body language during an argument and what happens after – from door slamming to inconsolable sobbing. Instead, parents should try and work things out without the intensity dial reaching 11. This is not to say parents should avoid the difficult emotions –feelings of grief and loss are a very real between separating parents – but overt displays of anger or sadness are often the emotions that kids understand – and the ones that stay with them.
Parents need to be able to regulate their emotions in front of the children – or even when they think the kids can’t hear. If the family are in the same house together assume the kids can hear everything. The next important consideration is that the kids understand – from both parents – that they are not to blame for the separation. If kids think it’s their fault, then that is a terrible burden for them to carry – and many do without the parents realising.
And finally, kids can’t be caught in the middle of two fighting parents – this may result in them being torn by their loyalty and love for each parent; children may take on the emotions and stress of their parents with traumatic long-term consequences.
Shield the kids from your conflict
Often in mediation we hear parents refer to their kids as being ‘resilient’ in a general sense as in ‘yes it’s hard, but kids are resilient.’ This is a generalisation, not a justification. Yes, children learn coping skills (like independence) – but they also learn coping behaviours. Examples can include verbally retreating, hiding, acting out the emotions they are feeling and taking their anger out on other kids…assuming all kids are resilient is inappropriate at best and at worst, dangerous. Below are some key strategies to help protect your kids from parental conflict:
Keep the kids out of the arguments – if kids hear their name in an argument they can feel at fault or caught in the middle of the crossfire.
Don’t ask your child to pass on a message to the other parent.
Don’t question the child fishing for information about the other parent.
Put plans in place that prioritise the child.
Empathise with feelings the kids may have about the other parent or the separation – even if you do not feel the same way. Kids need to feel seen, and they need to be heard.
Put yourself in your child’s shoes for a moment to feel what it might be like in their reality.
Reassure the child that they can look forward to spending time with the other parent and encourage a positive relationship with the other parent.
Be aware of your child’s emotions – and when and how they are being impacted emotionally.
Despite kids trying to be brave on the outside (because we want to believe they are resilient), understand that something very different may be happening on the inside.
Understand your kids’ needs
Often parents get locked into a 50/50 mindset when it comes to time spent with the kids – we hear ‘it’s my right to have the kids 50% of the time’ a lot. And in some scenarios, that may be the appropriate outcome. However, in many situations, it’s not. It helps to think of what the kids need in terms of support, not time. Importantly they need:
Trust and confidence in each parent’s ability to practically and emotionally care for and look after them.
Support in new routines they will need to get used to.
Help resolving their issues and challenges around new routines (ie. where do I keep my footy boots? Can the cat come to daddy’s house?).
Encouraging a gentle level of independence (where practical) so they feel they have some control over their situation.
Healthy attachment from each parent to meet their needs – ie comforting them when they are sick, helping with homework etc.
Protect them from the impact of trauma – especially resulting from high conflict between parents.
Make sure your kids know you understand what they are going through
For most kids, when their family separates, their entire world as they knew and understood it has gone. Everything changes. As adults, unless we have been through the same thing as a child, it’s hard to comprehend the impact on the kids – what it must be like for them when they love mum and dad and wish everything could go back to before the fighting started.
Sometimes parents make decisions around living arrangements, holidays and schools without considering what the kids may need or even feel about these big-ticket decisions with wide-ranging consequences. Changing schools may compound the already overwhelming feelings the child has. Sometimes it helps to think about what the child’s worst memory of the conflict between parents will be, and what will be their best memory of how you handled it. Don’t be afraid to ask them what they need – their answer may surprise you.
And finally, rarely do parents get everything right – there is no such thing as the perfect family separation – it just doesn’t exist. The essential thing to ensure the kids are all right is to be in touch with them in their world – and always come at things from the perspective of what it might mean for them. And that might mean rethinking some decisions. If you can do that, while difficult and heart breaking for a time, the kids will be alright.
To help you prepare for mediation, we have created a library of helpful information including checklists, tips and added detail around the process of mediation. For useful and relevant information you can download for free, we encourage you to visit our resources page.
Family Dispute Practitioner, Fresh Start Mediation
It’s affordable, informal and collaborative – almost the opposite of family court. Yet the idea of going into family mediation with an ex can trigger feelings of anxiety, stress, and sometimes, fear. Considered preparation can go some way to alleviating the intensity of these feelings.
While it’s true what really throws one person may not touch the sides of another, there are some commonly used phrases that when used in mediation have the potential to initiate a negative reaction in the other party - and in the interests of trying to resolve the dispute in mediation, are best avoided at all costs together.
You don’t have to be best friends with the other co-parent – you don’t even have to like them. But to meet the needs of your child, you do have to communicate with them.
Mediation works because it replaces blame and punishment with problem-solving. And the effects of this approach can produce real and lasting behavioural change (rather than the antiquated notion of being caught and punished in an ongoing cycle that can continue into adulthood).
If you are a manager or employer, it’s your duty - your job - to manage workplace conflict fairly and without bias. Believing you only need to get involved if the dispute hits the bottom line will cost you a lot more than a decline in profit.