Easing the children's heartache
WHEN PARENTS split up, it is not the separation itself but the way it is handled that really matters for any child caught in the middle.
But harmonious co-parenting after separation can be extremely difficult, particularly in the immediate aftermath when emotions are raw and grievances are being counted.
It is vital a couple draw up a parenting plan – ideally before they sit down together to tell the children they are separating – so that they have the answers to questions such as how and when they are going to see both parents, who is going to take them to their sports and what will happen for holidays.
Research shows that the biggest fears children have at the time of a family break-up is that they are going to lose contact with one parent, and the other is, “What is going to happen to me?”
“When parents separate, the principal thing they should be thinking about is not dividing the house and who gets the Waterford Crystal, it should be about the kids,” says Martina Newe, director of Help Me to Parent and a family mediator.
“If parents took note to behave in particular ways and avoid other behaviour, it would really help children through it.”
A parenting plan must focus on the children’s needs. “The less grey areas, the less room there is for conflict,” says Newe, who runs a one-day course on parenting after separation.
“If you have thought about it and agreed it, then you are not going to have conflict about it.”
It is also good for a child to see separated parents working together in his or her best interests.
“I am horrified by some of the stories I hear about people not letting the other half see the child, parental alienation syndrome and where a parent uses a child as a way to punish the other parent – that is so damaging for the child,” says Newe, a separated parent herself.
The course focuses on how best to support children through separation and enable them to lead peaceful lives, enjoying their right to loving relationships with both parents.
One Family, a national organisation for one-parent families, offers a number of services that can help separated people with their parenting.
Although things can be done differently in separate homes, estranged couples need to have a sense of shared values around their children, says Karen Kiernan, director of One Family.
It has introduced a shared parenting course, which is run over six weeks, and also offers one-to-one parent mentoring, during which people can focus on the small issues.
“Unless separation is amicable, they are not really going to want to spend time together,” acknowledges Kiernan. It is best if both people are willing to do some work but they don’t necessarily have to do it with each other.
“It can be difficult if one parent is availing of services and the other parent isn’t engaging – we are looking at ways of getting the other parent involved.”
One Family is developing a new course on co-operative parenting, as part of its work in piloting two child contact centres in Dublin, in conjunction with Barnardos, starting this autumn.
There is usually a high level of conflict among parents who use contact centres, which facilitate a child’s time with the non-resident parent.
The centres will offer family support. “The idea is that [clients] would then be able to move on to normal, external contact without the need for a centre,” says Kiernan. “If they don’t avail of services, it is highly unlikely they will be able to make those changes and move on.”
It has become more the norm in Ireland after separation for both parents to want to remain actively involved with their children.
In the past year there has been an almost 50 per cent increase in child custody applications to the family law court in Dolphin House, Dublin, according to figures published last week by the Chief Justice, Mr Justice John Murray, as well as an increase in court applications referring to children.
All sides, including many in the legal profession, recognise that resorting to court action to thrash out parenting issues is not beneficial for families.
So, apart from a few tailored courses, where else can separating couples go for help?
The Family Support Agency offers a free, family mediation service, which is run in 16 offices around the Republic – as well as a newly-opened pilot project in Dolphin House. There is a waiting list for what is a part-time service and some of the offices are open only two days a week (see fsa.ie).
For separating couples, parenting is usually a big part of what has to be negotiated, along with finances and property, says the service’s eastern area manager, Sheila Healy. People who have difficulty reaching an agreement when circumstances change can also use the service.
“The kind of situation you put in place when children are four or five is not going to be the same when they are 14 or 15,” says Healy. “It is something that needs to be brought for review, or that they can be flexible on between themselves.”
In recent times, mediation staff have dealt with cases where one partner, usually the male, has had to go to the UK, the US or even Australia for a job and the separated couple have to agree on a new way of parenting.
There are also private mediation services and the best place to find a mediator is on the website of the Mediators’ Institute of Ireland (themii.ie), which is the only accrediting body for what is a non-regulated service.
“We bring the voice of the child into the room as a mediator,” says Claire Kearney, who represents the family sector on the MII council. “A separating couple may think that they are thinking about their children when in fact they may not be.”
Mediators, she says, ask the difficult questions – ones the couple may be afraid to ask each other.
The Marriage and Relationships Counselling Service (MRCS) is seeing more people looking for help with parenting after separation. This is often many months after the break-up, when things are not working out, says counselling services manager Yvonne Jacobson.
In some US states, counselling on future parenting is mandatory for separating couples who go to court to settle their differences and she would like to see a similar measure here.
“Kids have a tough time. I think the State should be ensuring that the best is done for children,” she says.
As well as counselling services, the MRCS also has a support group for separated persons, which meets monthly in the presence of a counsellor and where parenting issues frequently come up. (For more information, see mcrs.ie or tel: 1890-380380.)
In the recession it is harder for couples to separate physically when alternative accommodation is financially out of the question.
This is more of a reason to get the parenting right after a relationship breaks down, she adds, because the close proximity means there is more likely to be tension and conflict.
Teenagers are particularly vulnerable when parents split up and MCRS runs a specialised service, Teen Between, for them (teenbetween.ie).
One Family’s parent mentoring service with trained professionals is “hugely popular”, according to director Karen Kiernan (see onefamily.ie or tel: 1890-662212).
Mentors take a very practical approach and can help parents understand what is happening with their children and look at ways of managing that behaviour.
“That’s really about the parent changing and then helping the child change,” she explains.
Parentsplace.ie, set up by parent mentor Paula McKenzie, has a list of independent, trained mentors in various parts of the country, under “referrals”.
'I WAS TRYING TO DO THIS [COURSE] FOR MY KIDS, BUT IT PROBABLY ENDED UP DOING MORE FOR ME'
When Louise heard about a new one-day course on parenting after separation, she was keen to go along to find out if she was taking the right approach to issues concerning her three-year-old daughter.
She told her former husband about it and they attended together, as is encouraged by the organisers, Help Me To Parent, although parents go independently too.
“I needed to know if I was on the right track,” says Louise. “I wanted him to go because I felt if he heard it from somebody else, he might believe it more and understand that I am just doing what’s best for our daughter.”
They split up two years ago and when she brought him to court over maintenance, they got a court order for access as well.
Under the order he has their daughter from 4.30pm until 7pm one evening a week and then has her for 24 hours every weekend – although Louise has varied that so they can take turns to have a full weekend with her.
Overall, their parenting goes reasonably smoothly, she says. Things they do disagree about include the handling of their daughter when she starts displaying anxiety about going with her father. Louise does not want to force her to go when she is hysterical but he thinks she should.
“The times she does not want to go would be if maybe she is not feeling well and wants to stay with her mammy,” Louise explains, because generally she likes going with him.
By attending the course together, Louise hoped they would be “on the same page” and would be able to move forward with the advice they received. “I am not telling him what to do, he is not telling me what to do – it is coming from somewhere else.”
She was surprised to see that the majority of the 10 people on the course that particular day were men. “At least they were able to tell my ex-husband about the positions they were in. It made me look good!”
One of Louise’s issues with her ex was his dropping their daughter back up to an hour late, without making contact. So she was glad he was there to hear Martina Newe, who presents the course, comment on how worrying and disrespectful that scenario is to the other parent. Advice on how to answer children’s questions was also helpful, as their daughter is just beginning to ask about things.
Louise explains that mammy and daddy are better off living apart but that they are friends. “As long as she can love both of us the same and can have the best of both worlds, I think we will be doing okay.”
The best thing was that she and her former husband did the course together, Louise adds. They could chat about it afterwards and apply what they had heard to their own situation.
Also on the course that day was Brian, who has been separated for 10 years and has a 13-year-old daughter and an 11-year-old son.
“I was having difficulties with my ex over a lot of issues, over behaviour – what they should do, what they shouldn’t do. There were completely different sets of rules in each house.”
What he learnt from the course was “you just have to go with that, it is part of being separated”, he says and that children adapt.
“They seem to cope with it better than me. I was trying to do this [course] for my kids but it probably ended up doing more for me.”
The children stay with him three weekends a month, which is about all he can manage, he says, with his work commitments away from home. His relationship with their mother has been up and down since they separated, cordial at times, but he reckons he has not spoken to her for a year.
Now his children both have mobile phones, he can ring them when he is picking them up. “When they are smaller, you have to talk about everything.”
He was in a new relationship for six years with a woman who also had a child, but he found it was a life of constant compromises – a “tug of war” over what was best to do for the children.
“I didn’t put myself and her first, I always put my kids first.” As a result, he has decided it would be better to stay on his own until his children have reached college age.
Did attending this course change the way he parents? “I have all the ideas and you try to put them into practice.” He thinks it might have been a good idea to write down all the main points and stick them on the door to the kitchen, “lest you might forget . . .”
Things have changed anyway over the past year for him, “mainly because of my lack of contact with my ex and the fact that I am not in a relationship at the moment. I have nothing to annoy me; I am a lot more laid back. I can talk to the kids better.”
Looking back, he believes he and his ex would have benefited from mediation for sorting out parenting issues after their break-up, rather than going in and out of court.
“Ninety per cent of the time we were in court for stupid, simple things that could have been solved if we had a mutual friend, which we didn’t. It was a complete waste of her time, my time and our solicitors’.”
He saw how the solicitors could come to an agreement over something in five minutes – “‘You want this, we want this, we’ll go half on it’ . . . Something we could have done ourselves so simply.”
Help Me to Parent’s next Parenting After Separation or Divorcecourse is on Saturday, June 18th, in the Clarion Hotel, Liffey Valley, Dublin. See helpme2parent.ie or tel: 087-6890582