From Separation to Liberation
Children seen but not heard ?
Shortly before the birth of my first child, some 19 years ago, I was given a book ‘Your baby and child’ by Penelope Leach. At the time the book was a god send as I was quite clueless as a first time mother. I had forgotten all about it until recently when I heard about a new book by the same author called ‘Family Breakdown’. The book has been the matter of some debate in the last few weeks as the author asserts that shared parenting is not always beneficial for young children , in her words: ‘to be shipped from household to household’. While others in the debate say children are flexible, get used to it or adapt and it’s the only way to ensure the children spend time with each of their parents.
In my practice as a family mediator for the past 15 years or so, the issue of the time spent with each parent is a common one. In mediation I work with parents to reach realistic proposals to suit both parents and the needs of their children. However what often gets overlooked by parents when considering the future arrangements is not what their children need in terms of routines and ages etc. but what the children themselves want. I am not suggesting here that children should be making decisions or choosing between parents but older children, from about the age of 8 and sometimes younger, really do value having some input or a voice with their parents about the future arrangements.
Not so long ago I saw a couple of children in mediation who were aged about 9 and 11. Their parents came to mediation because the Mum was saying to Dad the children wanted to cut down on the amount of time they spent with him. Dad thought Mum had turned the children against him. The children told me they loved seeing their Dad but wanted to see him less often because when they stayed with him they were always tired and couldn’t do want they wanted to do. When I asked them to be a bit more specific about this they said Dad would take them out to see this exhibition or that museum or this trip or to see these relatives, when all they wanted to do when they were with him was chill out, watch tv, and just do ordinary everyday things with him. They felt they could not tell their father because they didn’t want to hurt his feeling as they knew he was trying to do what he thought they wanted-to be entertained . When I fed this back to the parents we looked at ways to ensure Dad and Mum could take into account the children’s views and so the children could find it easier to open up to each parent.In another instance I saw a teenager who lived with his mother. His parents came to mediation to consider the specific issue of holidays. Dad was baffled as to why his son did not want to go on holiday with him. When I saw their son he told me he did want to go on holiday with his father but felt he couldn’t leave his mother on her own who he knew was sad and lonely following the breakup of the marriage.
Children are a lot wiser that we give them credit. In my experience of seeing children in mediation, children are very sensitive to their parent’s emotions and are worried about opening up to them. All too often children worry about upsetting their parents and try to protect them at the expense of their own needs and childhoods. Or they simply feel that their parents are just unapproachable and not interested in what they want. Children can grow up far too quickly in such circumstances.
If you are trying to work out the future arrangements for your children do try to encourage them to share their feelings with you and listen to what they have to say. Some children may not want to share their feelings and views especially when they are feeling angry or sad which they might feel at times just like you do but it’s perfectly normal to have mixed emotions. Choose the right time to listen to your children and if they ask awkward questions at the wrong times when you are busy, emotional or preoccupied with something, try not to dismiss what they say but agree to set aside time with them to consider what they want to tell you. Try not to judge what you hear or make unrealistic promises and be positive about the other parent. Above all listen and take time to make time for your children to be heard.
Jane Busby is a family mediator and the director of Accord Family Mediation: www.accordfamilymediation.co.uk Jane is also a divorce coach at: www.janebusby.com