Judge in the Family Court of England and Wales endorses parenting coordination as a positive process that can support parents following separation

In the recent court judgment of XF v XM (see here), which was published online though anonymised to protect the family’s identity, the judge, Mrs Justice Roberts, acknowledges that parenting coordination can be helpful for parents who have been through a difficult and challenging separation. Whilst parenting coordination is a well and long established form of dispute resolution that families have been able to call upon sometimes for decades in other jurisdictions, it is relatively newly available in England and Wales.

For the subject parents in this court judgment, their separation left a legacy of inter-parental conflict.  It is clear from the judge’s descriptions that both young children were affected by their parents’ conflict and this presented in regressions of various types developmentally, a deterioration in their usual resilience and emotional well-being, as well as the elder sibling taking too much responsibility for her younger sister.  Much to the parents’ credit, they indicated they were willing to seek help to improve their co-parenting relationship, motivated, no doubt, to benefit their children.

The family was based in Dubai. In the midst of Covid, when Dubai was in lock-down, a number of unfortunate events led to the parents’ separation.  On the face of the court judgment, this appears to have occurred somewhat unexpectedly, in particular for the father, who could be perceived as being entirely unprepared emotionally.

With her characteristically sympathetic, impartial but not neutral as to the issues approach, Mrs Justice Roberts pointed out to the parents that, in spite of the hurt caused between them and the visible effects on their daughters, they were more than capable of jointly exercising their parental responsibility in a way that could help their daughters thrive in two homes.  She recognised that parenting coordination or other forms of dispute resolution could assist them to move forward constructively and cooperatively, with their daughters’ best interests at the heart of their decision making.

So what had happened for this family? Quite unexpectedly, they separated. For one parent at least, but probably both, emotions were raw as each began their journey to facing an unanticipated future in two homes.  Such journeys don’t take place in sync. Most commonly, one parent has been thinking about a separation before the other and even if this isn’t the case, their respective journeys through the transition are completely individual, taking different amounts of time, with different emotional twists and turns.

Most parents have good instincts for parenting their children. What is understandably more challenging following separation is managing a relationship with a former partner who needs to become a co-parent – and doing so without it impacting on the children. One situation shown to create a particular challenge to successful transitioning is if the separation occurred suddenly and unexpectedly.  If things didn’t work in the relationship, it can feel inconceivable that they could possibly improve once living apart.

As with anything, mindful planning goes a long way towards enabling parents to consciously develop how they want their co-parenting relationship to be, which in turn informs their child’s experience of the co-parenting partnership.  Considering how a relationship actually differs as co-parents, what it should look like and then experimenting/stress-testing and tweaking the reality counts for a great deal.

For the family in this judgment, it was clear that trust had broken down and that each felt threatened by the other’s perceived underlying intentions.  In addition, the judge felt the parents’ insecurities were, certainly on the part of the father and even if quite unintentionally, being projected onto the children.  When this happens, a challenging cycle of blame develops in which the children start to respond negatively, in response to which each parent questions why and often concludes the actions of the other must be the cause. With the right support, parents can overcome misunderstandings, work to understand one another and avoid negative and detrimental cycles of this nature.

If these parents expressed an interest in parenting coordination, they would be invited to sign into the process for at least a year.  Why? Because this time period offers them a chance to create a parenting relationship that will benefit them, their children, their future partners, and their wider families, but also to practise their newly established way of being and skill-set over a long enough period of time to effect real and long-lasting change.  Habits take time to form and parenting coordinators are there to provide – among others – understanding, prompts, a framework, encouragement, challenges and where necessary a firm and guiding hand along the way.

The types of work the parents could cover with a parenting coordinator are broad ranging, and can include:

  • helping to implement the terms of the court order or parenting agreement
  • having got clear parents’ respective concerns in the engagement phase of the process and having observed their interactions, identifying and reviewing with parents their current communication style, and implementing a new approach
  • considering the hallmarks of a healthy co-parenting relationship
  • putting co-parenting values into a shared parenting charter
  • looking in detail about how conflict affects children
  • looking at how best to support children, from the child’s perspective – what do children need and deserve in order to thrive
  • working on the components of handovers, for example, to ensure they can be a positive experience, and much more.

A parenting coordinator can also make decisions about something parents haven’t been able to agree on that relates to the terms of the court order, for example, how the children would divide their time in a half term if it is to be shared and parents can’t agree the dates.

In helping parents to effect positive change, the parenting coordinator hopes to improve the functioning of everyone in the family and work themselves out of the job!

On the site, we have lots of information about parenting coordination, and various blogs covering topics that relate to successful co-parenting and strategies. Do please have a browse and contact any of us with questions you may have.  If we cannot help, we will do our best to point you in the direction of other professionals who can assist you to improve the healthy functioning of your family unit.

Seeking co-parenting help early is vital – those offering help are not there to judge and only want to help you build solutions…

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:

  1. 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
  2. The Early Intervention Foundation’s ‘What works to enhance inter-parental relationships and improve outcomes for children’: https://core.ac.uk/reader/74381020.  

As Child Mental Health Week begins, here’s ten top tips for healthy parenting approaches following separation…

As separated parents, what can you do in order to ensure children are okay and able to continue being themselves?  In this blog, we look at TEN things parents strive to do well in order to help their children continue to flourish following their parents’ separation.

  1. Looking after your own well-being.  Don’t just take our word for it.  In support of Child Mental Health week, the Duchess of Cambridge commented:

 “…there has never been a more important time to talk about parental mental health and well-being too.  Last year, you told me just how important this was, but many of us find it hard to prioritise.  This is a hugely challenging time, so please look after yourself too….we really do need to be the very best versions of ourselves for the children in our care.”

How do you look after yourself following separation when there is a lot to come to terms with?  Try naming feelings and looking to address them, rather than, as is so often the case, prioritising others.  There may be feelings of loss associated with the hopes and aspirations you took for granted, and many parents experience a deep loss and sense of devastation when they face up to the fact their children will now only live with them part of the time – most parents didn’t sign up for that.  There are also quite understandable concerns about how you will manage emotionally and financially in a one parent household. 

The important bit for children is how you go about addressing these things.  Being caught up in tension or preoccupied with worry about what you are going to need to address in the aftermath of a separation can create a barrier to actually living in the moment and alongside children.  Becoming informed is empowering since you will know more, and have more confidence, about what you can expect and what steps are likely to be necessary.  Alongside this, seek some talk therapy so that you can talk through and organise your thoughts and feelings in a way that doesn’t overwhelm you.  Knowing you have a designated time to do this and sort out all that a separation entails means you won’t have to anguish over things in a way that is uncontainable and spills into your time with your children. 

Investing time to plan, process emotions and come out reflectively with insight and ready for a next chapter, even if unwelcome, will make things far more manageable, with the positive knock-on effect of being less stressful for children. 

  1. Accepting that change is happening – when you separate and so far as your children are concerned, you might be experiencing feelings of guilt, regret, hopelessness, fear and a plethora of other emotions.  Whatever you’re feeling, when a relationship has ended it is well worth working towards acknowledging and ultimately accepting that if one parent didn’t feel they could continue, being in an unhappy household in the longer-term has been found in research to be the most affecting of all for children.  Simply put, children cannot and do not thrive in environments of conflict and tension. 

Parents do well if they recognise their romantic relationship with their children’s other parent is distinct from their ongoing parenting relationship.  Is this easy?  Absolutely not.  However, framing things in this way enables parents to make healthy and child focused decisions, as well as recognising the need to develop a new cooperative relationship that places children’s needs above all else.

  1. Be clear and open with children – explain all changes in an open, honest, age-appropriate and reassuring way.  Children need to know that there might be a difficult period of adjustment, but that at all times their needs will be at the forefront of their parents’ minds and that they won’t be brought into the conflict.  Check in with children, and make sure they feel comfortable to approach you with any questions.  There are many, but one good resource for parents wanting to explain things for children is the toolkit/video-clips on the Sesame Street website: see here
  1. Make sure children are reassured that it isn’t their fault– check in with children to make sure they understand the reason for the separation isn’t their fault.  Children often misunderstand and blame themselves, thinking that something they did caused their parents to row and separate.
  1. Do not criticise your child’s other parent; in fact, be positive about your children’s other parent – children see themselves as half of their parents and so if you say or do anything negatively in your body language, children absorb it, impacting their own confidence and self-esteem.  Think about not only what you say, but your non-verbal cues, too. 
  1. Keep children out of the conflict – children exposed to chronic conflict between parents may not be able to flourish in lots of areas in their life as they would have done had the conflict not been present.  See our previous blogs, which explain the difference between constructive and destructive conflict resolution.  Seek professional help, if required, to assist you to form strategies to manage constructive approaches to making arrangements for the children.
  1. Develop your new parenting roles – sorting out the romantic relationship from the parenting one is key.  If parents have a child together, that parenting relationship must continue (barring safety issues) for the sake of children.  Working on what you both need to do in order to respect this and then setting in place boundaries or appropriate ground-rules can help for the many years ahead.
  1. Think short, but especially medium and long term.  What children actually need is love, reassurance, proper parenting boundaries, reliable and present parenting.  Say, for example, you are in dispute about your children returning home at either 6 or 7.30 pm on a school night from an evening with their other parent.  Before talking about it, try the following exercise.  Ask yourself: “On a scale of 1 – 10, how important is this to me?” and write down the reasons why.  Then try doing the same list from the perspective of your child’s other parent, and then for each of your children.  See if your view changes once you’ve done this exercise for everyone within the family and only raise it once you’ve thought about it from everyone’s point of view.  It means you will be able to talk about the pros and cons for everyone in a considered and calm way when you come to discussing any concerns or preferences.  Remember also that there are usually more than two solutions – 6 or 7.30.  Think of a number of possible suggestions as you may find one appeals to you both.
  1. Making sure you understand – when a relationship ends, there is often a lack of trust and risk of misunderstandings.  Listening to your child’s other parent is really important, and checking back what they have said to make sure you have understood things properly is a way of double checking.  Use “I” statements rather than “you” or blame statements.  Rather than saying “you are so thoughtless when you turn up late with the children each week” try “Please could you return the children on time each week because I find it difficult to get them settled down in good time for a relax and bed if they return home any later.  They always need some down time and re-adjustment time, and I find they are tired for school on a Monday on the weeks they’ve arrived home an hour late.”  
  1. Build separated parenting skills at an EARLY stage following your separation – parenting coordinators tend to come into the picture later on i.e. when relations are strained to the extent that being constructive is proving impossible.  Often, if parents just go to see lawyers, they don’t work on the other really important facets of transitioning in a separation.  Make sure you look not only at the legal side of things, but the emotional and psychological needs of you and your children as you go through this difficult adjustment.  Developing skills and strategies at this early stage will be really hard work, but in most cases will mean lots of gains over the longer term.

In summary, it can be helpful to remember the following:

Each parent makes up half their child. A bad word or gesture against your child’s other parent is a direct blow to a child’s self-esteem.

Adult parent relationships are important to children. Investing in your parent to parent relationship will in turn impact on the quality of your parent to child relationship.

Romantic relationships must transition to constructive parenting relationships.

Long term thinking and planning pays dividends.  Children grow into adults and will reflect on the entire course of their childhood and freedom to maintain positive relationships with both parents.

You are important.  Plan and designate time to process and progress the practical and emotional elements of a separation.

Dear Santa, I don’t want presents this year. I just want my mum and dad to get along…

When you separate from your partner, how can you transition most effectively from your formerly “romantic” relationship, to a reasonable and functioning relationship as co-parents of your children?

Although for a minority of separating families, this will not be possible (or appropriate), for the majority it will. The caveat, though, is that you’ll undoubtedly need to be prepared to put in some time and hard work to build a vision of what you want your children’s day-to-day experience to be like now that you have separated. You’ll also need to accept that each of you needs to work through the emotional stages that occur when a relationship ends, often on different timeframes. Approaching things in this way, well-informed and knowing what children really need in order to thrive, can help you to lay solid foundations for a co-parenting relationship that will serve your children well for the remainder of their lifetimes. It turns out that your children are affected not only by the quality of your individual relationship with them, but also by the quality of the parenting relationship you maintain with your child’s other parent. Investing in both relationships is key.

With the inevitable build up and ill-feeling a separation so often entails, it is understandable that you might initially consider it inconceivable that you can build a healthy post-separation parenting relationship with your child’s other parent – this feeling is completely normal and understandable. Perhaps you didn’t want the relationship to end, or perhaps you feel deeply wounded by the other’s actions and feel both you and your children have been badly let down. Perhaps you feel angry, or just plain relieved. Whatever you feel, it is likely your child’s other parent doesn’t mirror exactly the feelings you have about the separation. Whatever has happened that led to the end of your relationship, it is helpful to remember that:

• your child’s relationship with their other parent is independent of your feelings and needs;
• your child’s thoughts and feelings about their other parent, and their emotional needs, differ from yours.

In this blog, we consider a number of points to keep in mind as you work towards creating a parenting relationship that will provide your children with what they need to be “okay”. This will help them to continue thriving in childhood and just to be able to be kids, unburdened by the adult challenges surrounding them.

• When you separate, try to think about your perspective as well the perspective of your child’s parent. You may be the driver for the separation and may have been thinking about it for months or even more. When you share your desire to separate with your partner, it may be more recent news to them and understandably takes time to get used to and eventually accept. Considering one another’s roles and where you might be on the journey to acceptance and planning for the future can help you to show patience or tolerance, for example. Whether you initiate it or not, coming to terms with a separation isn’t a linear process, and parents tend to take a couple of steps forward with a step back here and there. Both being emotionally ready to talk about arrangements is the best place to be when you talk about children’s future living arrangements. Sometimes it’s helpful to look at an interim arrangement, let some time pass and then revisit the more permanent type arrangements once you’re both emotionally ready to do so.

• It is so important when you separate to protect your own well-being. You will often hear medical and other professionals using an aeroplane safety metaphor – put your own safety mask on first. If you are emotionally well, you can make calm and considered decisions about the future, support your children while they come to terms with the separation and attune much more effectively to their needs. Your support may come from family, a network of friends, a counsellor or a therapist. Investing in your wellbeing helps both you and your children and is to be encouraged.

• Take time to consider what you think a healthy post separation relationship should look like – actively create a vision. Consider and reflect on the values that were important to you as a family and those which you feel should encircle your children as they transition to a new life experience within two homes. Really thinking about this from a short, medium and longer term standpoint can help you both to focus on what is going to be the healthiest form of experience for your children. It can also help you optimise your own health, the wellbeing of the wider family and enhance the quality and success of your own future relationships, etc. Having this type of discussion in a professional setting with good quality professional support can help you both to begin communicating in a new way in your now exclusive role as co-parents.

• Imagine what the experience might be like for your children. While you will live in one home, children will shift between you both. What children can find difficult is having to live a parallel type existence in which they inhabit two worlds that are essentially independent and don’t overlap at all. For example, if a child senses one parent is struggling, they may not mention life with the other, may not give an honest account of it and may even say very different things to each parent about life in their other household. Children’s mental health and well-being is much enhanced if they are able to continue in one world that incorporates two homes, rather than feeling as though they are split in two. Allowing children to talk positively about their other parent and experience in each home, and being positive and constructive about the child’s other parent enables children to live unburdened by any adult issues. Approaching things in this way has been shown in studies to lead to better outcomes for children in the longer term.

• Setting appropriate boundaries in your relationship as co-parents is a really difficult transition and requires careful consideration and most likely some adjustments as you go. It is often helpful to think about a parenting relationship in terms of behaving to one another professionally as you may do to a colleague in the workplace. Generally, this involves sticking to polite, cordial, interested but not over-familiar exchanges. It is helpful if you can agree together what appropriate boundaries you can put in place in terms of your co-parenting relationship? It is also helpful to bear in mind what the other parent might need from you in order to best relax and ensure life in two homes for children is relatively unburdened. For example, if your former partner is very risk averse and you’re more laissez-faire or adventurous, try to think about what reassurances can help your child’s other parent, and in turn your children? This isn’t necessarily about control and it is more just about acknowledging our natural differences and working together to provide all round reassurances.

• When you are separating, place you, your former partner and your children’s well-being first and plan, where necessary with professional support, for the future. All parents are motivated to do the best for their children and invest a great deal of time, energy and financial resource into helping educationally, with activities, experiences and so on. If children are feeling compromised, however, they won’t be able to settle into any of those things to the best of their usual ability. If you are not able to work together directly to look at how to build a cooperative future, choose together to seek the right professional help to help you realise an outcome that reflects the experience you want your separated family to benefit from.

None of this is easy. Making a relationship that has broken work in another way whilst staying well yourself, attuned to children, re-grouping and rebuilding yourself is a great challenge. Break it down into manageable steps by looking at one thing at a time, acknowledging thoughts, feelings, small achievements and set-backs and find space to get the help you need. A great thing to bear in mind is Jack Canfield’s famous formula: event plus reaction = outcome. If there are events brought about by your former partner that you don’t appreciate during the course of your relationship breakdown or early co-operative parenting days, the events themselves may be out of your control. However, your reaction to them is not, and your own reaction can determine to a certain extent the ultimate outcome as well as the overall experience of the event for the children. Small changes you make in terms of your reaction to the event can in the end help shape positive changes in your parenting relationship for the future.

Each sibling responds differently to their parents’ separation

Have you ever wondered why one child copes well with your separation, while another in the family seems to falter or take the separation very badly?  While it isn’t of course possible to give a definitive answer to a complex and multi-faceted question such as this, there is a growing body of evidence that assists us in considering some of the relevant and contributory factors – most of which are as you might expect! 

In this blog, we take a look at some of the potential factors affecting individual children – for example in a family with three siblings of different ages and genders who all respond differently to their parents’ separation.

A major factor affecting any child’s chances of a positive recovery following their parents’ separation is the ongoing level of conflict between their parents – higher conflict means children are more likely to struggle in all sorts of ways.  And the fact is that some children are more sensitive to conflict, whereas others seem to possess a natural resilience.  That is why, as parenting coordinators (in common with other professionals working with separating families), we work hard to help you identify together what a healthy parenting relationship looks like for your separated family, including:

·         what communication you actually need to have;

·         how it can happen with sensitivity to one another’s needs and triggers;

·         maintaining constructive parental communication that is focussed on the children and their needs.

Don’t forget that many parents – despite an understandably rocky start in the immediate aftermath of a relationship ending – succeed very well in establishing and maintaining a parenting relationship even if their relationship as partners came with challenges.  The reality is that it takes time, some commitment to change and self-reflection from both sides.

What about different children within the family itself?  There are many factors that can help explain why some children cope better than others with their parents’ conflict.  The following list mentions only a few…

·         A child’s sex can be relevant, and their age at the time of their parents’ separation.  Research suggests girls may tend to internalise worries and try to involve themselves in a conflict to help resolve it.  Boys have a tendency to externalise as a means of coping, often showing some anger or acting out. 

·         The age of children is relevant.  Very young children are developing their executive functioning and so role modelling from parents is vital.  Older children have more ability to reflect and think about conflict on a multi-layered level, whereas younger children don’t yet have that capacity.  Older children may be thinking about the immediate and longer-term implications, various potential outcomes, see the conflict as a threat to themselves and so on.  Older children might also be impacted more because they have been exposed over a longer period of time.

·         A child’s temperament can be relevant.  Relatively laid back and easy-going children are less triggered or sensitized than children who are naturally more temperamental.  This is also true for children who can separate themselves from the problem rather than become subsumed or enmeshed in it.  Those who are better able to express their emotions may also find it easier to navigate their parents’ conflict.  Tied to this, children with a challenging temperament can be a point of conflict for parents in and of themselves and this can increase conflict within a parental relationship.  Being mindful of this can help parents to stand back from their conflict, look at the cause and find ways of managing it more effectively, such as by discussing it with the support of a professional.

·         Extra support networks, such as peer groups, wider family members and other role model adults such as a good teacher or coach can help buffer the experience for children.  Those with more developed networks tend to find an outlet, distraction and buffer support from these various sources.

·         Sibling relationships can be a great buffer for children, but can come under strain if children start to take sides or get involved in the conflict.  Trying to ensure children or siblings don’t take sides and split allegiances is important both now and in the longer term.

·         Additional challenges over and above the conflict, such as parental depression, parental mental health, economic strain, or a parent with an alcohol or substance misuse challenge all create extra layers of stress for children, known as adverse childhood experiences.

So, what takeaway points can we think about?

·         Depending on the circumstances, staying together for the sake of the children could be the right thing for a family, but consider it carefully.  It might not be if the conflict is very negative, long-standing and affecting your ability to function well.  If one parent decided to end the relationship because they couldn’t continue, research does show this may ultimately help children to do better in the longer term since living in an unhappy and conflicted family can be impactful.

·         Work to continue improving your communication about children.  These days we are so fortunate to have a plethora or professional services available to help us with different life adversities, including counselling, psychotherapy, couple’s therapy, coaching, mediation, online courses and online free resources to name but a few.  Work out what might be appropriate and consider trying it – children do best if their parents are able to tackle and resolve conflict and decisions about them respectfully and constructively – even small improvements can enhance everyone’s feelings of well-being.

·         Remember to look at each child individually and keep that under review, being mindful of their age, characteristics, support networks and so on.  A child may on the outside seem to be doing well, but check in with him or her regularly.  Helping children to develop life and problem solving skills can help them to see your conflict in a healthier and more detached way.  This type of mindful skill building can continue in different stages throughout childhood.

·         Whether children tend to internalise or externalise their feelings, some talking therapy may be helpful to support them both through their transition into two homes and to settle into new routines.  However, there is less chance of therapy for children succeeding if the underlying communication challenges between parents continue unimproved.  So consider assistance as parents to address the challenges you’re facing, alongside help for your children.  In medical/child developmental fields, this is often referred to as putting on your own safety mask before your children’s, as you are asked to do on an aeroplane in an emergency.

·         It is absolutely right that children spending time with both parents following separation should take priority over other activities that might have been part of their routine before a separation.  But reflect on what support networks might be dear and valuable to children, and where possible try not to interrupt them too much.  Sometimes this constancy in the face of considerable change can be a useful anchor to children.

·         If possible, agreeing broadly similar rules or boundaries for children is helpful.  It is no good if one parent says no to computers, for example, and the other gives a child free rein.  This only leads to manipulation and can discourage children from maintaining healthy relationships with both parents.  Believe it or not, children in adulthood won’t thank either parent for this – particularly perhaps the one who didn’t set age-appropriate boundaries or respect the viewpoint of their other parent.  Sensible discussions and compromise help children to respect parental boundaries and maintain appropriate family systems, which in turn helps children to develop healthily and with confidence.  Children who develop the right impulse control now, are more able to say no to difficult challenges they might encounter later in life, such as in peer pressure situations.

At the outset, it is important to acknowledge and accept that it isn’t a sign of personal failure, nor a guaranteed sentence of sadness you’re passing to children if your relationships ends.  Sometimes, in spite of our best intentions and efforts, things don’t pan out as we’d planned or hoped.  Children who experience parental separation surround us in all our communities.  They pay testament to the resilience children have and many might even want to tell you the experience was one that, while difficult during the transition, enabled them to develop some grit and decent life experience that has stood them in good stead in their adult life. 

Parenting coordination aims to help parents develop a family system that helps each child in a family have the potential and freedom to thrive in two homes.  Children do best if they benefit from unqualified parenting warmth and support, respect as between their parents (or parents who accept the limitations of their relationship and minimize conflict), appropriate boundary setting and a schedule that allows for some realistic and child-focused flexibility. 

What is sensitization and how does it affect children?

Over a number of decades, researchers have considered the effects on children of having parents who are frequently conflicted, whether their parents live together or have separated. 

In this blog, we provide a quick reminder of

  • the types of behaviour that fall under the umbrella of parental conflict;
  • how children are affected or become sensitized to conflict; and
  • how, by having a more conscious awareness of such conflict, we can respond appropriately to protect our children from developing sensitization.

Many adults assume that children who are exposed regularly to parental disputes get used to them, or become desensitized.  Research undertaken since the 1980s, however, suggests that children’s responses to continued conflict are actually quite the opposite i.e. that children become increasingly sensitive to their parents’ ongoing conflict. 

But what is actually meant by parental conflict?  Some parental conflict is positive and usually, so far as children are concerned, includes conflict that is resolved constructively, such as:

  • when both parents compromise;
  • agree to disagree; or
  • one apologizes and both move forward. 

The conflict parents need to be mindful of is the kind that is negative in nature, particularly if there is a repeat pattern to it i.e. not just the ordinary or occasional difference of opinion, but a real difficulty in making parenting decisions cooperatively.  This type of conflict includes:

  • an unresolved argument, particularly if it is about the children;
  • the silent treatment or a lingering tension because an issue is unresolved;
  • verbal disputes;
  • physical fighting; and
  • other forms of domestic abuse, such as controlling and coercive behaviour.

Many of us think that if we’re not actually fighting verbally or physically, we have succeeded in closing the dispute down, and we and the children are therefore shielded or protected from it.  Research suggests that this isn’t the case.

Children’s sensitisation to parental conflict was actually first documented in the 1980s.   Researchers found that children who saw arguments regularly became more ‘attuned’ or ‘sensitive’ to them.  This included:

  • responding by copycatting angry behaviour they witnessed by playing more aggressively with peers, for example;
  • trying to comfort a distressed parent, for example with cuddles or wiping away tears; or
  • becoming involved in their parents’ disputes. 

When researchers exposed or observed children in these types of scenarios, there was a marked difference in the reactions of children whose parents typically did not argue regularly as compared with those whose parents did.  Those whose parents argued little hardly reacted to the conflict they witnessed, whereas those whose parents did quickly became attuned and responded more sensitively.  In other words, there was a clear correlation between more exposure and the child’s reaction, meaning that those exposed more frequently are vulnerable to the effects of their parents’ conflict.

The research shows that, when a child is actually responding, for example to comfort a parent, it may help the child cope in that moment.  However, over a period of time a child may develop unhelpful patterns of dealing with conflict, which can spill into all areas of their lives, such as within friendships, future romantic relationships, teachers or in the workplace.

As ever, this blog and site is intended to bring a positive approach to things and with that in mind we always focus on potential solutions.  So what, as parents, can we consider doing differently?

If you are aware that you and your child’s other parent struggle, think about the following:

  • First and foremost, are you both prepared to acknowledge that your communication could be improved and that you would both like to try to do something to change it?  It is easy to conclude that it is mostly or entirely the fault of the other person, but every communication involves two individuals and both can work on ways to improve things.
  • Can you identify which type of parental communication style you have?  Do you both shout, does one of you shout and the other fall silent, or do you both give up and ignore one another and more or less operate in parallel?  Or does one of you like a great deal of planning and detail while the other is very laissez-faire and this causes continuous tension or misunderstandings and exhaustion? It is helpful to recognize that none of these outcomes or strategies are very constructive and can make children feel anxious about a tension or issue that is unresolved.  Just identifying this and looking for ways to support one another can go a long way to improving things, even if only a little.
  • If you can recognize challenging communications between you, what can you differently?  Can you set aside a quiet time each week, or month, to talk about the children and anything that might be concerning you?  Make sure you really listen to what the other person is saying, and what their concerns are.  If necessary write them down and then summarise them back to one another, so that you both know you have heard the other and truly understood the other’s concerns.
  • Try not to react in the moment.  Take time to reflect and consider what is being requested and why.  Try to brainstorm a number of solutions together i.e. not just my position or your position as the only two outcomes, but what other solutions might be available to you, so that you avoid complete black and white thinking about things i.e. it’s my way or the highway!
  • Ask one another what each of your children would feel and write it down.  What is their position on the issue in question?  Can you try something for a period of time, then review together and see how you think it suited you all?
  • Try to shield children from the conflict, particularly if it is about them.  However, let children know if appropriate and in an age appropriate manner any decisions you have come to, that is it not your child’s fault or responsibility, and that you have discussed things together such that any issue has been resolved. If you can’t resolve it, find a way to park it and look to other issues that are easier to find a mutually acceptable solution for.
  • Remember to acknowledge the positive decisions you have been able to make together, and the positives about each of you and your parenting relationship.  Otherwise, it is easy to look only at what isn’t working and the negative elements of one another. 

References:

  • Children and Marital Conflict, The Impact of Family Dispute and Resolution – E. Mark Cummings and Patrick Davies, (1994, The Guilford Press).
  • Parental Conflict, Outcomes and interventions for children and families, Jenny Reynolds, Catherine Houlston, Lester Coleman and Gordon Harold, (2014, The Policy Press)