How to support your children through divorce

Last week, I attend a refresher seminar on the Voice of the Child in Mediation. It was a timely reminder of how easy it can be to be unconscious of how to support your children through divorce. When you are getting divorced, it feels like everything is about you because you are facing so many pressures. You might be left at home managing the children on your own. You might be the parent that has moved out, trying to balance work, seeing your children and finding somewhere else to live. Keeping child focused isn’t easy. It doesn’t make you a bad person if every now and then, that child focused approach that you want to have, slips a bit.

Following on from the seminar, I wrote an article about The voice of your child in divorce   highlighting the benefits of child focused mediation and the potential for the thoughts and feelings of your child being expressed through a meeting with a mediator. My article has been shared on social media, where a lady in United States got in touch with me. I’ll call her Steph.  Steph came from a family whose parents had divorced when she was an 8 year old  child. The experience wasn’t a pleasant one for her, and although she doesn’t hold any resentment towards her parents as they “did the best they could”, Steph had been asked to ‘choose’ which parent she’d like to live with which she found emotionally traumatic. Fast forward 25 years and Steph faced her own divorce determined to do it differently for her own children.

Steph wrote:

the only similarity between my childhood experience and that of my children would be the rug being pulled out of their world on hearing the words “mummy and daddy aren’t going to live together anymore

Have fun with your children

Steph said that she found great solace in having fun with her children and that this in turn, helped them. Seeing a parent appear ‘happy’ is very reassuring for children. Remember that you are their emotional  barometer and unconsciously, your children will look to you to help them decide whether they feel happy and ok, or not. It is not the role of your children to support you emotionally, and, if you can have fun together, they are supporting you without the emotional pressure that goes with truly supporting an adult through such a difficult time.

A note of caution – your children are smarter than you probably want to think. If you are totally faking it, they’ll know. This can cause more stress and upset for your children. Genuinely enjoy them as much as you can. Focus conversation on the activity in hand and relax. your children are just the same as they were before your separation.

It’s ok for you children to see you cry out of sadness

Steph said that she feels it is important to let your children see you cry if that’s how you feel. It’s how you deal with it that counts. Your children seeing you cry in sadness is one thing. It allows your children to see that being upset and vulnerable is ok, its normal. Crying out of anger is a different matter. When we are angry, we say things that we might not otherwise say if we were feeling a different emotion. When we are angry, it’s easy to get into ‘venting’.

Don’t vent in front of your children – ever

Venting is when we let off steam in anger. we say all kinds of things which we may, or may not really mean. At the time we say them, we mean them, but what about later? Venting in front of your children is an absolute no-no. There is no excuse, reason or justification for it. Ever. No really. Never. Even if your children have witnessed poor behaviour by you, the other parent or both of you, do not vent about the other person in front of your children.

I know that sometimes you feel like the other person ‘deserves’ it, but here’s the thing. They can’t hear you. And, because they can’t hear you, it’s not hurting them. It’s only hurting your children and depending on what you say, can fall under the category of emotional abuse. Your children have a right to love their parent irrespective of what you think of them. If the other parent choose to behave badly, you can take steps to address this either directly or legally if necessary, without putting your children in a difficult position.

Don’t ask your children to make adult decisions

One of the biggest temptations for parents who are separating is to ask the children who they’d like to live with. The motivations for this can be two-fold. Some genuinely believe that its better for children to make the decision themselves, others do it because they are confident that the child will say them – scoring points over the other person. So, does it matter what your motivation is? The short answer is no. You maybe surprised, but I invite you to read on…

Whatever your motivation for asking your children about who they want to live with, consider this. If I asked you which of your legs would you like me to chop off, you’d likely say neither. But if I held a gun to your head and said you must choose, which would you choose? It’s an impossible decision right? For most children (not all I know), the decision you are asking them to make is impossible because in truth, they’d like to live with both of you.

Should your children be consulted? Well, it depends on a number of factors including their age, emotional maturity and how the two of your will handle whatever it is your children say. Thinking back to when you were a child, did you always want to share your thoughts and feelings with your parents? If you use family mediation, there is a possibility that your children can be spoken to. Similarly, the court may ask a CAFCASS officer to speak to your children. Allowing your children to speak to someone neutral and independent is more appropriate. at the end of the day however, its you as responsible parents who must make the decision. Older teenage children will of course decide for themselves where they want to live and you may well find that changing as frequently as the latest fashions in Jack Wills!

Allow your children to openly express love for their other parent

This is a big one. It can be very painful for you to hear that your child loves their other parent if you are caught up in anger and resentment. Remember though, its your job as a parent to bring up happy, secure, well-round and resilient children. Loving both parents is part of this and also increases their chances of creating loving secure attachments to others when they are adults. It’s actually a great thing that your children feel love for their other parent, not all children get that privilege. so, as painful as it may be to hear, be happy and be proud. As adults your relationship may not have gone the distance, but your parenting skills deserve a medal.

Emma Heptonstall is a Family Mediator at Your Family First. Part of Crombie Wilkinson Solicitor LLP, Your Family First is based in York, with offices in Selby and Malton. Contact 01904 697760