Life & Culture

Family Matters: Warring parents must put their children’s needs first

When a couple go through a messy separation it is only natural to want to cut ties, but that is not possible when children are involved


Break up, divorce, shared custody of children and breaking family apart concept. Bad parenting. Legal fight about kids. Couple ripping a paper with man, woman and child icon.

Often, when a couple go through a messy separation, their first instinct is to move as far away from each other as possible. Each partner may go through waves of intense anger, needing to badmouth their ex one moment while, in the next, they avoid any memory of them like the plague. It is only natural to want to cut ties and start afresh.

But when children are involved this is not possible. As soon as a couple shares children these normal responses to a relationship ending need to be turned on their heads and thought about with the children’s needs in mind.

On paper, this may sound simple but, in reality, co-parenting during separation and beyond can be exceptionally difficult. It is not uncommon for even the most level-headed people to behave in emotional, illogical or even outright controlling ways during these transitions.

Parental alienation can be the tragic result. In some cases, separation triggers high levels of fear and one parent becomes so desperate not to lose connection with their child that they become intensely protective, convinced that only they have their child’s best needs at heart.

They feel scared about allowing the other parent contact when their own experience of their ex-partner has been so negative.

This becomes a self-fulfilling cycle and they start to see their ex-partner’s every move as damaging to their child. Before long, one parent’s narrative becomes so one-sided it leaves little space to give their child permission to have an independent relationship with their other parent. In other cases, couples are overwhelmed by competitiveness, parents seeing denying child contact as a way of maintaining control over their ex-partner. Child contact becomes leverage.

Family courts can become involved in determining parental contact, but complications often cause delays and parents may find many reasons to delegitimitise the other, each of which needs to be fully investigated.

The alienated parent’s mental health can deteriorate during this time, making them appear less capable of looking after their children. Parental alienation is messy and complex and, sadly, children are the ultimate victims.

Children are not able to untangle their feelings of split loyalties and often end up mirroring the biases of the resident parent.

They internalise these feelings of hostility towards their non-resident parent, intensifying the alienation. This may be the most painful part: when children develop anger and hatred towards one parent. The voice of children’s genuine wellbeing gets lost altogether. Everybody suffers.

Given the intense, complex feelings involved in couple breakdowns even the most level-headed parents struggle putting these to one side to focus on a child-centred co-parenting partnership.

The Tavistock Relationships clinic is one of the organisations dedicated to supporting high-conflict ex-partners to manage co-parenting.

They believe that, with the right specialist support, after even the most volatile break-ups parents can rebuild some level of collaboration. They support parents to put their children’s wellbeing first.

The most important part to keep in mind is that children are made up of both their parents and so they identify at some level with both these parts.

Any parental vilification, however unintentional, causes children acute internal distress and confusion. In my therapy room it is not unusual for me to see adult clients in their 40s and 50s who are still struggling with the repercussions of their childhood experiences, of being forced to manage split parental loyalties.

The confusion, guilt and misplaced responsibility lingers long after childhood has passed.
It sounds simple but, in reality, it is incredibly difficult for the separating couple to keep this in mind. As long as children are safe, it matters less which parent is right or wrong, which is more attentive or more abrupt, who can listen better or who can pay for more help.

The child’s need for contact with both parents trumps everything. As long as the children’s safety is not jeopardised, parents need support to give their child space to have a different type of relationship with their other parent.

Parents need more support than we realise with this and they need friends and family to be explicit about prioritising the children’s needs, because of how challenging it actually is.

As a community, we need to amplify the voice of children. This is not about “taking sides”, losing face, being right or winning. We need to encourage narratives that move beyond competitiveness and become child-centred.

We need to support efforts towards collaborative co-parenting and make space for whatever it takes to achieve that.

We need to honour every child’s innate rights: to be safe and be given the opportunity to have an independent relationship with both their parents.

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