This question was uttered in absolute exacerbation by Kent, a male client who has spent the past 4 years in a bitter, protracted and harrowing family court process that is the stuff of blockbuster movies. “I have spent the last 4 years being child focused and it has been used against me” he exclaimed. I saw his frustration as his body tensed up in a typical fight flight response. His face turned red, his veins protruded in his neck, his teeth clenched, his movements became swift and edgy. His tone sounded sharp and cynical, yet the tears welling up in his eyes spoke of the vulnerability and exhaustion he could barely contain.
I have worked with this man and his wife for some time and come to know the impact of the battle they both endured as they made their way through the labyrinth of the Family Law system. It certainly is not for the faint hearted. It has rocked their marriage, their blended family of 5 children and their individual mental health. After years of Affidavits, Police interviews, Child Safety investigations and a litany of costly Lawyers and Court Proceedings the exhaustion and cynicism is understandable. To make matters worse, there appears no end in sight for Kent and his wife. “The battle is never over” Kent asserted.
As I listened to Kent, I realised that he has heard the term “child focused” throughout his legal and Family Court process. The children’s mother continues to make claims that he is failing at this all-important requirement. It come as no surprise that Kent has come to associate the term with confusion, distain and mistrust.
Kent is one of dozens of clients that I have supported through a high conflict separation.
Clients faced with an acrimonious separation and embattled ex-partner areencouraged to remaining child focused as they face often highly charged, expensive and protracted legal proceedings.
So what is at the heart of this phrase “child focused” that is bandied around the Family Law Court Process?
Broadly speaking, being child focused refers to keeping children out of parental conflict including arguments, refraining from putting them in a position of messenger, not denigrating the other parent, not quizzing the child about the other parent, encouraging the child to enjoy their time with the other parent and supporting a healthy relationship with them.
In post-separated parenting there are three broad categories in terms of style of parenting. A third fall into the Cooperative Parenting category where there is trust, collaboration and mostly calm and constructive communication. Children in these families tend to do well in the long term. Another third, belong in the Parallel Parenting category where there is a kind of truce, structure and parenting arrangements are established. Communication minimised as a way to avoid arguments. Collaboration is minimal but children are not too stressed.
The last category into which a third of separated parents fall into is Conflicted Parenting where parents are locked into long-term conflict with each other. It is typically marked by intense emotions such as anger and defensiveness as well as toxic, hostile communication. In this dynamic parenting suffers, children suffer and the trauma of separation is intensified for everyone. Research reveals that the more intense, hostile, pervasive and long term the conflict is the more damaging for the children involved.
The meaning of “child focused” is about differentiating needs.
On a more subtle level, being child focused means the ability to separate your own needs from the needs of your children and adequately attending to the needs of your children. If this is done well enough they are more likely to be buffered from the embattlement of their parents. Being child focused is a critical parenting skill in general.
Yet, how does one do this when feeling overwhelmed with the losses that are part of separation? When parents are occupied with trying to protect themselves, their children, their livelihood and their own mental health all the while strategizing about a way forward? It certainly is a big ask. The needs of the parent for support, for understanding, for practical help such as legal and financial are absolutely paramount, yet they often remain unaddressed. And therein lies the problem. It is near impossible to attend to the needs of another in a stable and consistent way if our own needs remain unmet. “You cannot pour from an empty cup” as the Zen saying goes. We must place the oxygen mask on ourselves before we put it on our children.
How are the children coping?
I continually come across parents who are exhausted, worn out and often jaded by the system that they feel has let them down and is unable to hold abusive parents to account.
So where does this leave the children? How are they coping when one or more parents (step parents included) are struggling and fighting what they believe is a fight for justice. The short answer is that they cope as well as their parents are coping. Children’s nervous system are connected to their parent’s nervous system in what Dan Siegel calls “interpersonal neurobiology”. They are wired this way for survival. So, it is of no surprise that children become highly attuned to the stress, the needs and the trauma of parents. Often, they make attempts to “fix”, take care of or align with one or both parents in order for their own world to be more stable. Children have an uncanny knack of twisting themselves into all kinds of shapes to accommodate their parents needs and often become compulsive peacemakers. This comes at a high cost in the long term as they start a pattern of forgoing their own needs and this often marks the beginning of a life time of poor mental health, low self-worth and lack of self-confidence.
Children have an inherent need to love, trust and believe both parents. When they are exposed to conflict and stories about the other parent that does not fit with their view, it creates an impossible split within them that is difficult to repair. This is often referred to as a “loyalty bind” and is extremely painful and confusing for children.
Whether we realise it or not, the way we parent construct within our children what is referred to as the internal working model. This is essentially the core foundations for how children view themselves, others and life in general. It is the beginning of children establishing their trust in the world as their experiences become their internalised and fundamental beliefs about their world. “Is the world safe? Can I relax and have fun? Do I need to be on guard and in control? Am I good enough? In light of this, it comes as no surprise to learn that children who are exposed to high levels of parental conflict suffer emotionally, physically and psychologically at a much higher rate. Children tend to loose their ability to trust, are perpetually on guard and typically suffer low self-esteem, low confidence, anxiety, depression all of which are often disguised as behavioural issues.
How can parents continue to build and maintain a secure parenting base after separation? Being child focused involves protecting children from the conflict between parents and recognising the support that children require from each parent to transition well from one parent to another. The analogy of a bridge is often used to illustrate the experience of children transitioning from one parent to another. If children experience high conflict between their parents and where there is poor communication and little or no collaboration, the bridge is weak and crumbles, leaving children with a shaky foundation.
Some questions to reorient ourselves toward being child focused are:
What does this situation look like from my child’s perspective?
What are his or her needs right now?
If I were a child, is this how I would like to live?
In ten years’ time, how would I want my children to reflect on how I managed the separation?
How can parents who are so caught up in a battle, who are exhausted and overwhelmed be child focused?
It all starts with becoming more attuned. In a post separation conflict, parents can be more attuned to the conflict than the child and miss the impact the ongoing conflict has on the child. Attunement, in the context of parenting refers to the ability to see and hear the needs and feelings of a child as well as feel genuine empathy towards a child. It is like becoming a finely tuned instrument that allows parents to see beyond the surface and clearly assess the emotional needs of the little people that rely on us for safety, security and stability.
What then gets in the way of our ability to be attuned to our children? The short answer is our own stress, trauma and overwhelming emotions from the present and those sneaky ones from way back in our past that blind sight us (called procedural memories in attachment theory). So, it is of no surprise that to truly become attuned it is essential that we become aware of what muddies our lens through which we see the world, ourselves and most importantly our children. This is the point at which so many of the battle-weary parents arrive in my Therapy room and it is the perfect place to start unpacking the load that they have carried for too long and that wears them to their knees. We begin by placing the oxygen mask on them and work toward attuning to their own feelings and needs in order to clearly see their children’s feelings and needs. It is tender work that has the most rewarding outcomes and ensures that the relationship with their children is protected.
In the case of Kent and his wife it is revealed that both have their own histories of being children caught in their parents’ conflict. This tends to be a common occurrence and is often at the very core of what can ironically blind-sight parents to the needs of their children. It also places these parents in a unique position to connect to their children through genuine empathy for their experience of distress. This pain that is passed through the generational lines can be healed by a parent that is willing to write a new chapter in their family narrative
The aim of therapy is to resource parents in a way that they can endure this difficult journey in a sustainable way. It’s all about playing the long game so to speak as children tend to seek out safe, stable and attuned parents as their base of safety and security.