The BBC published a story today about children from divorced parents. Whilst I agreed with telling the children and telling them the truth, this option relies on parents being reasonable and seeing things from their child’s point of view. More often than not, it is the parents who behave like children.
Parents often think their late night arguments go unheard and that children do not notice the tension around the dinner table but they do. They pick up on the atmosphere and without even parents talking about it, children know their parents’ relationship is in trouble.
Divorce and separation is hard for all concerned but children need to know why their parents are splitting up. I don’t mean the pettiness ‘Your Dad thinks he can find better elsewhere’ or the add extras either like ‘Mum had an affair’; they need to know the basics: Mum and Dad are no longer friends, Mum and Dad no longer love each other. They need to hear it to understand it but above all children need reassurance that this ‘split/separation’ doesn’t apply to them- both parents will still love them and be there for them.
Children cope better if they know the truth, however the truth must be age-appropriate and contain facts not bitterness. The worst thing a parent can do is bad-mouth the other, this creates anxiety and forces children into thinking they have to, at best mediate and at worst, choose.
T was eight when her parents divorced. Mum cited unreasonable and abusive behaviour, Dad disputed this. So T split her time between her mother and father- sometimes one week at a time. She had uniforms at both houses and wasn’t allowed to wear anything that had been bought by her mum at her dad’s and vice-versa. The parents had joint access and one week with each seemed like the fairest option- to the parents at least. T was often withdrawn and had a sadness about her which sometimes felt impenetrable. It transpired one afternoon (after she had been removed from a lesson for bad behaviour) that her father was saying horrible things about mum and preventing T from going home to Mum which T was having to lie to mum about. T was afraid that her father would actually hurt her mum if T told her the truth. This poor little 11 year old was torn between both parents who bickered over financial issues and access. No one had ever asked T what she wanted. When I did ask her, her reply was ‘Miss, I just wanna get older so I don’t have to go to my Dad’s and earn my own money so nobody has to pay for me. That way, nobody will ever get mad at me.’ When I brought the parents in to talk about this, they really didn’t realise the impact or take on board the emotional abuse T was suffering. They assumed that T was big enough to take it on board and set about blaming each other. A flurry of ‘sorry and I love you’ and promises followed. But they didn’t change their ways and T continued to be in the middle of it. She understood why her parents had split up and she surmised it was her fault. T suffered from low-self esteem and confidence and this was reflected in her academic grades. All we could do as a school was offer support and guidance for T.*
The headline always begins with ‘Schools should do more to…’ but how much can a school do? Self-belief and confidence comes from good parenting and from homes where children feel valued and safe. The big fear for any young person in the midst of a family breakdown is that they turn away from adult intervention and seek solace in alcohol and other forms of escapism. A big worry for T who had already displayed signs of EBD.
So we ensured that T had that safe space, where she could talk to me or the year group’s assistant Mrs. W, sometimes T and I would wash up the cups and have a chat about things that had happened at home or what she had watched on television. Sometimes we would eat toast and T would just want to sit quietly and think. Every now and then I would give her a big hug because she needed one. Talking about dreams, aspirations and life, explaining that grown-up’s frustrations over gas bills, interest rates and relationship breakdowns often came out as a shout to clean up a room or a demand to know what the hell you did with the car keys; most of it is just anger in the wrong direction because grown-ups are afraid of feeling inadequate or weak, or even saying ‘I love you’ who knows but it wasn’t T’s problem. She had plans for her future and so we kept on talking and making them.
T never stopped coming to school, her attendance was 100% throughout and she turned her safe space into her academic haven and she is now at a college studying Psychology among other subjects.
I smile when I think of her future and I bet you do too.
UK Parents can ask the school to:
1) Have separate meetings about matters such as attendance and academic progress
2) Ensure all communication is sent to both parents
3) That a name on a birth certificate means Parental Responsibility and only a court can take PR away.
Advice can be found here: http://www.cafcass.gov.uk/PDF/FINAL%20web%20version%20251108.pdf
*It should be noted that this level of emotional abuse doesn’t meet any Social Care thresholds and regardless of any low-level interventions such as core groups if the parents do not engage then there is very little that can be done.