It’s such a deep sense of relief when you make the decision to leave. Usually it was a long time coming: you’ve put up with an unhealthy marriage for far too long. And it’s right to feel that sense of freedom and relief.
But if you have children, it’s not the end of your relationship with your soon-to-be-ex. You still have to navigate parenting, whether collaboratively or in parallel. And one of the biggest challenges arises when your children’s relationship with their other parent is difficult. It causes a lot of heartache all round. In this blog we look at what you can do to support your children when they aren’t getting on with their other parent.
Set ego aside
Before we get into the whys, wherefores and what-to-dos, let’s get the foundations right. Supporting your children when they aren’t getting on with their other parent is all about doing what’s best for them. Your children. Not you. Not your ex-spouse.
It’s totally human to feel a whole range of things when this situation occurs. For example, you might feel:
- Smug that you’re the favoured parent
- Happy your ex-spouse is being made to feel miserable
- Frustrated that this is yet another divorce-related problem to solve
- Angry that the majority of the parenting load seems to fall to you
- Worried for your children
- Sad for your ex-spouse, because they’re a good parent, even though you don’t want to be married anymore
Or any variation of these, plus more. If you are secretly feeling a sense of triumph that your children are choosing you, don’t beat yourself up. It’s a human response, especially at a time like divorce. But. Keep it to yourself. Acknowledge it and move on.
The focus here is on your children’s needs. Not about proving yourself, or humiliating your ex-spouse. And in the court’s view, unless there are safeguarding concerns (which we shall come to later), children have the right to a relationship with both parents. This isn’t about point-scoring, it’s about helping the children to have the parental relationships they are entitled to – even if they are pushing one of you away.
Watch how you speak about your ex-spouse around your children. Are you subconsciously (or even deliberately) leaking anger or anxiety when you talk about them? Remember, your children aren’t pawns in your divorce. It’s important they know that the end of the marriage is nothing to do with them. They aren’t to blame, and they don’t need to take sides. Their parents have separated because it was for the best, but the children are still loved 100%.
If you are speaking disparagingly about your ex-spouse around your children, you are forcing them to choose. You are making their life harder.
Why is your child struggling with their other parent?
There are so many reasons why your child may be struggling. We covered some of them in this recent blog about why your child might not want to see their other parent. The reasons can usually be grouped into two main themes: your child’s emotional struggles and their other parent’s behaviour. And of course, the two may collide. Let’s look at each of them in turn:
Your child’s emotions
Divorce is a turbulent time for children. And that turbulence can show itself in all sorts of ways. From acting out of character at school, to pushing one or both parents away. The important thing to bear in mind here is that it isn’t personal. It isn’t a long term rejection. It’s your child feeling powerless, and using the power they have to express their feelings – in a child-like way. If this is the case for your child, the answer lies in boundaries and listening. We’ll go into this in more detail later in this blog.
Your ex-spouse’s behaviour
It may be that your ex-spouse has done something to annoy, scare or worry your child. This can be something tiny and seemingly insignificant like using different washing powder, so your child doesn’t feel like it’s home. Or it can be a more sustained habit of not meeting your child’s needs: maybe your child is being ignored or shouted at. If this is the case, the answers lie in supporting your child and trying to facilitate a better situation with their other parent. You don’t need me to tell you that this can be tricky.
Are they safe?
Before we go any further, let’s consider safety. The safety question is not straightforward, sadly. You may feel that your ex-spouse’s actions are harmful or unsafe. What you think is a safety concern may well not be the perspective of social services, CAFCASS, school or the police. The framework is the concept of ‘good-enough’ parenting and that standard may fall well below the standards you might set for yourself and your children. The sad fact is that social services and CAFCASS are understaffed and overwhelmed. They don’t have the capacity to work with everyone.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take action. Document everything you are worried about, with dates, and evidence (for example: photos, screenshots of messages, eyewitness accounts from other people). Keep a good record.
Depending on your situation, it may be wise to contact your ex-spouse, and raise your concerns in a non-confrontational manner. Focus on your child and opening up a conversation, rather than blame. For example, you might say:
‘Chloe told me she’s worried about Saturday. What do you think we can do to make it easier for her?’ rather than
‘You need to stop bringing your friends around to watch the football every weekend, you’re neglecting the children!’
This gives your ex-spouse a chance to address the situation without feeling cornered. And if you can keep the communication blame-free, it can help you both put strategies together.
If you have concerns, contact social services. They will be able to advise you on your situation and strategies you can use, even if they don’t investigate themselves. For example, they may signpost you to family mediation services, parenting plan toolkits and third party communication apps such as Our Family Wizard.
Work with your children
The most important thing you can do for your children is to build trust. Make it safe for them to trust you, and, if possible, their other parent.
How do you do this? First and foremost, by listening and validating. Give them your attention, and the space to tell you what they are worried about. This might not happen immediately, so give them space, and let them know you are there for them. Treat whatever they say seriously, even if it doesn’t feel like a big deal to you.
Set the problem out as something you can solve together. For example, you can say things like:
‘So you don’t enjoy being with daddy right now. What can we do to make it better?’ or
‘I know you’re not enjoying time with Mummy Sarah, but she loves you very much. And it’s important that you can have fun with both of us. What can we do to help?’
Listen to their answers. It might be that what they want isn’t possible. You’re not going to get back with your ex-spouse, however much your children say they hate their dad’s house! But it might be that you can make the other house more comfortable for them: maybe they could take some of their favourite toys and clothes there, or get duplicates. In all things, look for workable solutions, and let them be part of it, rather than impose your own ideas.
If the situation with their other parent isn’t ideal, focus on building their resilience and being a safe space. Let them know you’re there for them, no matter what. And that whatever the toxic parent says or does is about the parent, not the child. Show their child they are unconditionally loved by you. That doesn’t mean tolerating bad behaviour, but it does mean setting your boundaries lovingly.
If your child needs extra support, see if you can get pastoral support at school involved, or a private therapist. Your child may respond more readily to a trained impartial ear, rather than you. This has the added advantage of providing extra weight to your claims if you do need to apply for or amend a Child Arrangement Order, or get social services involved.
Need help building a strategy?
When divorce hurts your children, you get emotional. And quite often that emotion paralyses you from thinking clearly, or moving forward. If you need help getting through this turbulent time, whether it’s about communication strategies with your ex-spouse, or parenting strategies to support your child, I’m here to help.
I offer a whole range of 1:1 services so we can get straight to the heart of your unique situation and what matters to you right now.
Just book in a call and let’s see how I can help you.
Emma Heptonstall, the Divorce Alchemist is the author of the Amazon best-selling book How to be a Lady Who Leaves, the Ultimate Guide to Getting Divorce Ready. A former lawyer, Emma is a family mediator and founder of Get Divorce Ready the online self-study and group programmes. Emma has been featured on BBC Radio, The Telegraph, the iPaper and in Marie Claire Magazine. Emma is also the host of The Six Minute Divorce Podcast. To find out more visit www.emmaheptonstall.com