Most separating parents manage to set aside their own conflicts and put their children’s needs first – and a significant need is for children to have a relationship with both their parents and their extended families.
This of course is highlighted for separated families at Christmas. Regardless whether or not Christmas is a major cultural celebration for a specific family, it is nonetheless a time of year which puts a large magnifying glass over life – and particularly over family life. Any cracks and splinters can feel enormous if there is ongoing conflict.
A few parents find setting aside their adult issues harder to do than meeting their children’s needs. It only takes one parent not collaborating to result in high conflict that endures.
Even where a parent has behaved badly (I am not describing a situation where there is a justifiable reason for a child to avoid contact, as with family violence), children mostly still want to repair and continue their relationship with the only parents they have.
The children in the middle have to cope – but the evidence is clear- enduring high conflict is very bad for children. Even adults struggle with such gaps in communication –and children are very aware of the tense handovers from one parent to the other.
Sometimes each parent will see the tense transition as a sign that the child does not want to go to the other parent. The vast majority of children that I see tell me that they do want to see the other parent. They just don’t want the transition to be so difficult. These handovers can be made easier with careful planning.
Difficult situations of this type most commonly occur where once there was a loving relationship between child and parent.
One result of children taking sides is a pattern where a child will start to resist post separation contact with a parent. Sometimes, if they have contact with both parents, they might side with whichever parent they are with at the time. But the more alienated child will overwhelmingly side with one parent against the other. Even if contact continues, we still find that strongly resistant patterns of behaviour from the child can take place. Then the parent who is being rejected needs to find a way to take the rejection and to try and find a way to grow a better relationship again.
Extreme refusal, which goes unmediated, can become overwhelmingly miserable, and in fact emotionally abusive for the child. Strong feelings and responses from the friends and families concerned can stoke the fire further, and the legal route struggles to avoid the adversarial process, which can inflame an already aggravated family context.
The situation is one of emotional abuse and it plays out in all combinations of gender of parents, and of children.
It is important to remember that whilst it may seem that a child’s rejection of a parent appears to be rooted in something the rejected parent has done, it is in fact a coping mechanism. Children who are facing enduringly high conflict between their parents are likely to cope in just the way most people do – they side with one parent against the other. It is a coping mechanism for the child who cannot be expected to understand why they feel compelled to reject their parent. Trying to make sense of a post separation world ,where their parents appear to be at war, creates pressures which are simply too great for the child or young person. The child will split off their feelings from the previously loved parent.
Finding an intervention, as parents, to work a way through this impasse is extremely important. Therapeutic mediation can definitely assist, if both parents will agree to try this route.
As I often say to parents “we all say we will do anything for our children – let this be the most difficult thing you ever do”
Restoring a child’s mental health is an imperative in responsible parenting – and worth all and any effort.