by Andrew Weeden | McKenzie Friend in Cambridge and Ely
When parents have separated, contact can be challenging and emotionally painful for the children and their non-resident parent.
It is important to make every contact count, and deliver what your child needs most.
A child has simple needs, believe it or not. Love, food, comfort, warmth, safety, stability and routine etc.
When parents separate, stability and routine are the immediate things which go awry. It is a confusing time for children, and they are emotionally caught up in not seeing both of their parents continuously.
We know that delay only causes harm to a child and damages vital relationships and bonds with, most especially, the non-resident parent.
It would be nice to think that separated parents can at least be amicable when it comes to shared care arrangements.
However in practice, this happens less frequently now.
The danger is that parents, caught up in the end of their relationships, forget the affect on the children.
Remember, when your relationship was still together, the children got a healthy balance of their needs, from the mix of the two parents.
But when one of those parents is taken out of the picture, what happens to those needs then? And who will provide them?
This is compounded, when, for large periods of time, contact has stopped.
New challenges arise, such as work patterns.
Before, when the two parents were together, the children accepted that they saw one or other parent in the evening after work. That was normal daily life.
So when work is an obstacle to navigate in making regular contact arrangements, the child misses out, and notices the absence of the non resident parent.
Then there are other concerns, such as parental alienation. This is where the resident parent, so embittered at the non-resident parent, sets about further damaging and distancing the relationship of the non-resident parent with their children.
Courts do not recognise parental alienation in primary legislation. There is limited case law, so it falls to Cafcass to decide whether or not alienation is a factor.
And when it is, it can be devastating to the child.
In promoting better contact, it is important to remember that stability and routine for your child has to be your primary objective.
All too often, I hear stories, especially from fathers, who describe how helpless they feel to prevent the relationship with the children becoming distant or estranged.
This is because contact has been infrequent and/or disrupted.
Parental alienation interplays with this because the mindset of the resident parent is to pour scorn on the lack of regularity in the contact relationship, and use that to pull the child more into their own arms, at the expense of the non-resident one.
So I say, whatever contact routine you establish between yourselves, or that has been ordered by the family court, it is imperative is that it is stuck to.
Your child is relying upon this.
If contact is only ordered or agreed for alternate weekends, stick to it. Even and despite the challenges you might face in friction with the resident parent.
Your child will become disillusioned and disheartened, even if you have to cancel just once. So try your upmost to plan your life outside of your child arrangements so that this does not become a problem.
It may well be the reason why your relationship with your child has become strained and distant.
Children do not process emotions in the same way as adults do. A let down to a child is very significant indeed.
Little do you know, but your child might be experiencing challenges. Especially when the resident parent moves on with their life, takes a new partner, and perhaps introduces a blended family environment to them.
The same could be said the other way round as well.
So applying a child focused approach, is to think that maybe the little amount of time which your child gets to spend with you, is sanctuary to them.
Maybe they just want love and cuddles and a bit of plain and simple normality.
Never underestimate this.
Recognise that your child will feel uncomfortable if you ask questions about their life and home. Don’t push them into a corner, it will make it more difficult for them to have a happy relationship with you.
Instead, let your child tell you about what is going on in their life in their own time and in their own way. When they become more mature and older, they will remember that, and you will be seen as the kindhearted parent who just allowed your child to decompress and feel like they are someone’s special.
Also, remember your child’s right to privacy. You might have been the one to bath them and dress them when you lived together as a family, but time away from this might have changed your Childs perspective and they might feel embarrassed or awkward about you trying to fulfil that role again.
Let your child guide you on at least some of their needs. They will love you all the more for it.
And rise above any friction or tension about communication and sharing your child with the other parent.
At handovers, try to make them as vanilla and normal as possible. Children pick up on tension, even unspoken tension.
If information needs to be exchanged such as when I last ate or when you needed to last give them some Calpol, for example, consider sending that information in an email. Just tell the other parent but you’ve sent an email so they have an update.
A child learning to live in the new environment of separate homes and separated parents, will be incredibly sensitive to criticism or judgement.
So avoid that where at all possible.
And if you are in the middle of a child arrangements case, and are currently living with an interim contact order, be careful not to find yourself accused of case building against the resident parent or vice a versa.
It is alright for your two homes to have separate routines and separate best practices, but try not to make it at the expense of the other household.
Be careful not to replace love, cuddles and normality with substitutions through excessive gifting and presents.
You want your child to enjoy being with you, not see you as the promised land for everything that they want in their life.
To promote better contact and exchanges of communications, expense tracking and scheduling for contact times, think about looking at one of the separated parent apps now available on most mobile platforms. One that I find used a lot, he is called our family wizard. It helps to take issues out before they become significant problems.
Your child’s future is important.
Something to keep in mind, is that, in your Childs future, there are going to be times when your child is going to need both their parents to be present.
Events such as first day at new school, significant birthdays, and long into the future when they get married.
It would be nice for them, if they could have a photograph with both their mum and dad in it — because when the parents have separated, things like family photos are rare or non existent.
It is important to visualise a time beyond what has happened and the difficulties experienced in separation, divorce and child arrangements.
At some point, both parents have to let go of the past. It only serves to keep you bitter.
Better to accept that relationships do fail and that things don’t always last forever.
Then you can move forward and try and create a brighter future.
Your child will absolutely appreciate you for doing that.
Nobody is saying that you have to be friendly and intertwined in each other’s lives as separated adults.
However, finding a way to be cordial and affable for your child’s sake is something you need to make your peace with.
And the sooner the better.
To recap, remember that your child needs stability and routine. They don’t need to be constantly showered in gifts. They have basic needs around love and comfort, nutrition and warmth, and to be able to find happiness as they, like you step into the future.
* In these pandemic times, with limited choices for fun and entertainment outside of the home, don’t forget that it is the little things that count.
You can still make a picnic and go to the park. make the time count.
Give your child the happiness that they deserve.
And give yourself the happiness that you deserve and which children bring.
It is after all, why you had children in the first place!