The subject of this blog is very sensitive, tragic, and without doubt, difficult to confront. As parenting coordinators, however, we see something valuable in raising awareness of the difficult subject matter in the hope that, by doing so, parents of younger children might find extra motivation, however hard or futile it may feel, to work at an early stage towards engaging with appropriate professional supportive services to help establish a more co-operative separated family path…
In this very sad court judgment (published last month – see here), the court reports that the family is coming to terms with the death of a daughter and sister. Tragically, the deceased daughter, a young adult, died following a suicide attempt which left her with a catastrophic and completely irreversible brain injury. It is clear from the court judgment that she had felt, over many years, caught up in her parents’ conflict during their difficult separation and beyond. We know from research that children caught in conflict can respond in a number of negative ways, suicidality being at the most extreme end of the spectrum.
One note written by Lilia, which the judge sets out in the judgment, reads as follows:
“To Dad. For some time, you’ve wanted to understand how I feel about you, and why our relationship has deteriorated. So I’m going to explain how I feel. As a child, you would tell me many things about the animosity between you and mum that were very upsetting for me. Serious conflicts with terrible implications. Conflicts that I never needed to be involved in, that should have been kept between adults. You were frustrated, you wanted me to understand how you felt. But I wasn’t your confidant, your friend or your counsellor. I was just a child, your child. All I wanted was to be protected…… When I raise a concern or say I don’t like what you are doing, you assume the thought has been planted there by someone. You assume my feelings are not my own and immediately try to hunt down the puppet master instead of respectfully accepting and validating my feelings.”
One thing parenting coordination and other separated family interventions have in common is to help parents look at how they can improve their dynamic. This, without doubt, improves their children’s experience and even very small changes can have positive effects over the longer term. No-one for a moment would suggest working to make these changes is easy – it’s really very hard. But investing some time to recognise your own feelings, understand a former partner’s, what you actually want your future to look like and what you’d like your children’s lived experience to be can be enough to help implement some new boundaries and changes that can give a more positive and less overwhelming feel to the experience for every family member concerned.
In this case, the judge comments as follows:
“As a judge assigned to the Family Division but also nominated to sit in the Court of Protection the facts of this tragic case bring painfully into the spotlight for me one dimension of the potential consequences of prolonged parental conflict for the children at the heart of a family dispute.”
He goes on to say of Lilia and her family, that:
“The dispute between her parents that had dogged the lives of the family and most importantly their children at least since their separation therefore continued into this court but now on quite literally a matter of life and death. I simply note that as a fact; I express no views on who is responsible for the parental conflict; that is not the purpose of these proceedings, is not justiciable within them and would probably serve no purpose. Almost inevitably Lilia’s mother and father must have been asking themselves could they have done anything differently which might have altered Lilia’s trajectory in life which has led here. I doubt that they will find any answer to those questions and it is highly likely that the causes of Lilia’s psychiatric and psychological conditions and her attempt to end her life are complex and multi-faceted; it seems that Lilia’s psychological and psychiatric well-being was also significantly affected by the pandemic generated lock-down. Only the parents can have some sense of whether they might have done things differently and given Lilia a childhood less complex and troubled than that which she lived. They certainly owe it to their other daughter to try.”
There is a science behind what happens between couples, which we are not addressing in today’s blog. When some relationships come together, and when they end, they can be extremely intensive – as a result of psychological processes that are not the design or fault of the couple – and can lead to behaviours or blocks that are ultimately harmful for everyone in the family system, first and foremost the children. If, as parents, you can recognise this in yourselves, or accept it if it is pointed out to you, then it is absolutely worth seeking broader professional help to take steps to break down the conflict, to identify what is causing it and to work towards a healthier transition.
Often, in parenting coordination, we start at the end and work backwards. We might ask: “What do you want your future thirty year old child to say over a cup of coffee about you and your ex and the way you managed your separation?” We know all children develop their own views and opinions about the rights and wrongs of their parents’ parenting. The purpose of long-stop reflective planning like this though is less about what children will ultimately actually think, and much more about what steps you know in yourself that you took with the intention of creating a more positive environment. From such reflective work, it is possible to identify from what help each individual might benefit, what help you need together, how education can help in terms of providing the motivation for change and what the children need to settle into better and more collaborative routines. Very often, one parent is billed as a “bad guy”, which doesn’t help. Personal challenges facing any one member within the family system are going to take their toll on everyone in that system. Non-judgmental, impartial and supportive assistance that can help address anyone’s challenges, with support from everyone to do so, is going to be the best way of improving family dynamics and children’s outcomes.
There is no doubt that children are affected by their parents’ conflict, though to varying degrees: some children are better able to withstand it than others through a combination of genetic and environmental factors. We know that conflict is inevitable – children need to experience it and see it resolved in order to manage conflicts throughout their own lifetimes. What children need to witness though is a constructive resolution of conflict, or even partial resolution. If they cannot see their parents co-operate about anything, some are going to struggle to carry effective conflict resolution modelling into their own lives. Parents have a very crucial role modelling position in this respect with their children.
At para. 66, the judge says:
“I do not have sufficient information available to me to draw any firm conclusions but the impression from what she has said about her childhood experiences was that it was marred by conflict between those who should have been the most important figures in her life; her mother and father.”
So, the supportive message is, if you think your parenting relationship could be improved in any small way, reach out and talk about it to find out what help might be available. If help is possible, it will help everyone feel better – adults and children. It will help the future relationships of the separated parents, and help children with their own approach to all types of relationships they’ll encounter as they move through their own lives.
If you would like to read more about how children can be affected by chronic inter-parental conflict, two particular documents are helpful:
- Annual Research Review: Inter-parental conflict and youth psychopathology: an evidence review and practice focused update, Gordon Harold and Ruth Sellers, Journal of Psychology and Psychiatry: https://acamh.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/jcpp.12893; and
- The Early Intervention Foundation’s ‘What works to enhance inter-parental relationships and improve outcomes for children’: https://core.ac.uk/reader/74381020.