One of the biggest problems that we encounter when working with family separation is the neurological impact of the separation itself on everyone concerned. Family Separation is a ghastly experience, it rips apart the family system, devastates all around it and attacks the nervous and endocrine system in everyone concerned. This charging up of the fight or flight reaction puts everyone into red alert as the brain begins to go into danger signals overdrive. And we wonder why, during the first phase of separation, everyone is on the attack and conflict escalates.
Coping with this reaction is one of the tasks of adapting to being a separated parent. As we tell all parents we work with at the Family Separation Clinic, welcome to your new world. This is how your life will be from now on. It will be tiring, it will be frustrating and it will be about you finding ways of coping with the pain so that your children don’t have to. It sounds harsh but its true. No matter whether you are the leaver or the left, as parent your responsibility is to cope with the pain that family separation brings so that the impact on your children is minimised.
Many parents struggle with the concept of being a separated parent and spend their time waiting for when things will go back to normal. I am convinced that this notion, that one day things will go back to ‘normal’ is one of the biggest barriers to shared parenting that face parents. Because ‘normal’ for a lot of parents means that they are back in control. ‘Normal’ for other parents, means that life goes back to how it used to be and children go back to the ordinary, everyday, rough and tumble of their relationships with both of their parents. In the words of one of the children I worked with this week however
‘er – HELLO??? This is earth calling, time for a reality check, there aint nothing ever going to be the same again in my life… why should it ever be the same in yours?’
These words, spoken by a rather upset and angry teenager, say all there is to say about what parents need to do with their children after separation. Rule number 1 is don’t expect everything to ever be the same again. Rule number 2 is don’t push the river, meaning this is about the relational world and you cannot force things to happen in the relational world, Rule number 3 is whether you are the leaver or the left, your leaving or being left will have an impact on your children, don’t expect to simply pick up and carry on as you did before in the belief that your kids will not be affected, because they will, they are and they need you to do the emotional work so that they don’t have to.
Before this turns into a lecture on how not to do it however, I thought I would share with you something that has been put my way in recent hours and which I have been thinking about for some time now. I am a great believer in Jung’s theory of Sychronicity and so, having had this pushed under my nose just as yesterday I had returned to the practice of it, I have been thinking about its use in my work with alienation. The topic is mindfulness, which put in a different way is –
Combining meditation, breathing techniques and paying attention to the present moment, mindfulness helps people change the way they think, feel and act. (thanks to the Mental Health Foundation for that interptretation).
Being mindful, that is, being in the present moment, is incredibly difficult for separating parents who are coping with all manner of issues dragged up in the cross fire of the separation itself. As accusations fly and each side begins the process of reconfiguring their psychology, much time is spent in the past, in the future, on the other side, on analysis of who is doing what, where, when and why. In short, both sides spend an inordinate of time anywhere but the present moment and both sides find themselves propelled into flights of emotional, mental and psychological madness as they try to make sense of what is happening to them.
I often meet parents in this kind of state, they sometimes have their children with them. Their children often look confused, uncertain, unnoticed and unloved.
When I point this out to parents they are sometimes quite shocked, also at times offended, as if by pointing their children to them, I have somehow crossed a boundary. One mother said to me that it was ‘abusive’ to point out to her that her children were suffering, had she not suffered enough without having to feel guilty about her children as well? I asked her what she preferred, feeling guilty herself or her children feeling that way and worse.
There is no question that children suffer through divorce and separation. Mostly they suffer because for a period of time they ‘lose’ their parents to the madness that is the process of separating. This is why mindfulness, in its theory and practice is something that I am working on, not only with myself but with the parents that I work with. Being in the present moment, allowing yourself to know that ‘this too will pass’ and for as many moments of the day as possible, refocusing upon your children and their experience, is not only good for them, its good for you too. Recent research shows that mindfulness alters the brain wiring, it can treat depression and it can protect against the worst of what stress (and lets face it, separation is stressful) can do to you.
But it can do more than that too and this is where I firmly believe that mindfulness in relationship with your children after separation can really help. Mindfulness, can reorientate you away from your focus on the past, on what was wrong, was is wrong and what might be wrong. Mindfulness, being in the present moment and being with yourself and quietening the mind, can help you to retrieve the lost self that the separation is forcing you to find. It can calm you through the dark days and hold you through the anxiety and it can, when practiced regularly, bring your children through those times too, with a sense of you always by their side. Most of all it can prevent you from becoming fixated on the other side and assist you from becoming stuck in blame and fear and anger, all of which are toxic to your children and toxic to your relationship with them. Because when your family system is infected by fear, the only way to go is on the attack and that creates the kind of environment that leads to the real problems that children suffer, withdrawal from a parent, transition difficulties and high anxiety.
As the days get longer and the warmth begins to return, try being mindful, even if it is just for a couple of minutes every now and again. Stop, look around you. Listen to the sounds. Smell the air, breathe in and out and notice what that feels like. Just for a minute or so, let go of the anxieties, the need for control, the fear, the loss, the anger. Know that you can’t push the river, all things change in their own time.
Look at your childrens faces. Remember who else made them with you.