There is irony in the fact that in the fight for what we think is right for our kids, what they want is often overlooked.
When separated partners fail to reach a contact agreement without going to court, the subsequent legal battle will almost inevitably become emotionally fraught. And when that happens, it veers dangerously close to becoming a contest.
Worse still, for some parties it can be about revenge.
In cases that involve adultery or some other kind of deception, it is all too common for custody or contact to be used as a weapon. Some people will argue that depriving an ex-partner of contact with their children is entirely ‘fair’. Often the argument hinges on the fact that the person in question has proven themselves untrustworthy, and therefore cannot be entrusted to take care of the kids.
It’s an argument that in the wake of a separation can feel entirely real, too. But aside from cases where there is a risk to safety, it is rarely true that a child benefits from losing contact with a parent.
Most people know this, deep down. Withholding contact as a form of punishment is, alas, never the right thing. Why? Let’s circle back to the opening statement.
A custody case should always have two things at its heart – what is best for a child and what a child wants. And there are very few kids who don’t want to have a relationship with both mum and dad.
COMMUNICATING WITH YOUR CHILD
If you’re contesting custody, there’s a reason why Cafcass will want to talk to your child alone. But really you should already be talking to your child about the subject long before it gets to this stage.
Separation is scary for kids, and in a situation where so much of what is happening will be completely beyond their control, the best thing you can do for them is to help them talk about it. The first step in kids processing what they’re feeling is being able to be honest about it.
What you need to aim for is to get to a place where your child or children know that it is not wrong to feel whatever they’re feeling, and they will never be reprimanded for telling you about it. Whether you can solve their problems or not is an entirely different issue, but if you don’t understand them you don’t have a chance.
The same rule applies to both parents, too. Ideally, it would be great for both parents and children to have these discussions together, and for the adults to be able to talk openly and constructively in a united front with their children. This of course is a step too far for some, but at the very least you need to be able to discuss whatever issues were raised with your ex-partner, even if it’s only over email or text. Openness and transparency will help everybody.
TAKING IT ON THE CHIN
While my daughter coped amazingly well throughout my separation, one of the things she did struggle with was the fear of upsetting me or her mother. I suspect this was linked to the (of course incorrect) fears she harboured about the role she may have played in the split. To upset either of us again risked losing me as well, or perhaps pushing her mother further away.
That’s not me placing blame on my ex-partner’s shoulder, incidentally. I do worry that I maybe showed too much emotional fragility myself, and that my daughter didn’t want to add to it.
Wherever the truth lays, the lesson to be learnt from this is that children need to understand that they didn’t do anything wrong, and that being honest – even brutally so – will only result in listening and understanding. They will be loved unconditionally, and there’s no better demonstration than this of taking a bit of criticism on the chin.
WHAT CONTACT DO THEY WANT?
Central to this communication is the question of what contact arrangements your child wants. It’s entirely likely that what they want won’t be entirely possible, be that a return to how things were, 50-50 contact or perhaps something like contact every bedtime.
You might be surprised, however, with how sensible the proposed arrangements can be. My daughter always seemed comfortable with contact every other weekend, and while she would of course have liked to have seen her mum more than she did, she quickly adapted to the new routines once they had settled in.
Not all contact is equal, and kids should be comfortable to make suggestions about how it takes place. Do they want the absent parent to visit them in their home? Or would they rather go to said parent’s new home? Or perhaps it’s neither, and they’d rather go out and do something together?
Circumstances will likely dictate what is and isn’t possible in these situations, but acknowledging what a child wants and showing that you’re doing all you can to enable it will still go a long way.
UNDERSTANDING THAT YOU CAN’T FIX IT ALL
Of course there will sadly be lots of scenarios when what a child wants is not possible or not appropriate. It will likely not be possible to see an absent parent if there are legitimate safety concerns, for instance. Although in these situations it still may be possible for contact to take place in some sort of supervised setting. This won’t really be what your child wants, but if the choice is no contact or compromised contact, they will almost certainly choose the latter.
A key thing to remember, however, is that despite the importance of being able to talk to your child about these issues, it’s almost certain that you won’t be able to do it all. It’s very much a case of making the best of a bad situation.
The realities of separation mean that even when cooperative co-parenting is possible, meetings all the demands of your kids will probably not be. None of which reduces the importance of communication and listening.
Knowing what your child wants from this new situation is always a good thing. If you’re able to make it happen safely, then all the better. But even if not, just being able to talk about it all without fear will do your kids a lot of good. It will also mean you’re better able to explain why not everything is possible, and the more they understand the less scary it will be.
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Image (cropped) by Randen Pederson under a creative commons licence