This week I have been challenging myself to broaden my thinking again about family separation. This is part of my ongoing professional committment to ensuring that when I work with families I am seeing the whole picture and not simply pieces of the jigsaw. For those of us delivering whole family support to separated families, the key element of our work is to always be able to see how each person within the family, contributes, for good or bad and how working with this contribution can help to shift and shape change. The overall goal being to create within each family we work with, long lasting sustainable change that is beneficial to children.
Family separation is a field in which practitioners must constantly be alert to their own personal and professional prejudices. It is not enough to feel that one ‘knows’ the territory that is being traversed. Each and every practitioner should check that knowledge, renew that awareness and test whether, in the longer term, what is being delivered is truly relevant to the needs of each and every family facing change.
Given the column inches that I have devoted to the problem of prejudice within the policy and practice which surrounds family separation, particularly when it comes to serving the needs of fathers and ensuring that children maintain a strong and meaningful relationship with both parents, you could be forgiven for thinking that this and only this is what I am concerned about. Indeed, I have been accused of being an MRA (men’s rights activist), and advocate for the equal parenting movement and in the nastier assumptions common amongst feminists, a danger to the families that I work with. In truth I am none of those things, I never was and I never will be. What I am is an advocate for children and their relationships with their families and my work, rather than being focused upon one side or the other, is only ever about how we achieve the kind of balance in our service delivery that truly supports each member of the family to give the very best of themselves to their children always.
And so this week, in the spirit of being mindful (one of my new year resolutions which is paying dividends already) and in the spirit of examining the work that I do, I am considering the reality of what happens to children when one parent is not interested in their children and either leaves and starts a new life or is never there in the first place. For although each side of the parental rights based movement struggles to face this reality, it is a fact that some mothers and some fathers are absent from their children’s lives by choice. What happens then to the children that they leave behind and how do we as practitioners face this reality and work with it. Put simply, when a child says ‘where is my other parent’ and the other parent is not there by choice and is simply not interested, what do we say and how do we compensate (or not) for that in a child’s life?
Those of you who are reading this who have been prevented from seeing a child and who have fought tooth and nail against insurmountable odds to retain your relationship with your child, may struggle with this conversation. You may struggle because you feel that it is simply not possible for a parent NOT to want to see their child or be part of their lives. Others, particularly those in the parental rights movement, may simply deny that a parent ever walks away from a child, preferring instead to believe that every child whose parent is not involved in their lives has been somehow prevented. Some of you will say that parents walk away because they don’t want to be controlled in their parenting by the other parent, some will say that there are a myriad of reasons why a parent walks away and we cannot assume that this is because they are not interested. But those of you who are parenting a child whose other parent HAS walked away and other parent HAS shown no interest will know what I mean when I say that some parents, quite simply, walk away. Some walk out of the door never to be seen again (my own father), some are ambivalent and come and go as they please blowing hot and cold depending upon whether they have ‘better’ things to do with their time and some are simply disinterested from the start. Although we can never know fully why this happens, we can and I would argue, should, pay attention to what children need if this is what happens in their lives.
The problem with the parental rights approach to supporting children after separation is that it is focused upon the majority group and in order to uphold the position of the majority group, it can never be acknowledged that some parents act in ways that harm their children. Just as parental rights groups concerned with mothers (Gingerbread), will refuse to acknowledge that mothers DO prevent their children from seeing their fathers, parental rights groups concerned with fathers (F4J/FNF) will refuse to acknowledge that some dads can and DO disappear from their children’s lives. This polarisation of the argument never allows for open discussion of what happens to children when mothers prevent and fathers disappear and it completely silences any discussion about the impact of fathers who prevent children from seeing their mother or mothers who disappear from their childrens lives. And yet these things happen. These things are within the spectrum of childrens experiences after family separation and it is vital, as child focused practitioners, that we know what to do when children are affected by them.
But this post is primarily about what happens to children when parents leave or are ambivalent or do not show up on time or do not show up at all or, as in some cases, simply disappear. What impact does that have on children and how can we help parents who are literally left holding the baby, to help their children to cope?
One of the core needs of children is to know that they are welcome in the world. Children who feel welcome are those whose parents offer them the kind of unconditional positive regard and consistent attention that is necessary to inculcate (build an internalised sense) self esteem, positive self regard and individual security. Attachment to people is an instinct in children which enables them to survive in the world and those parents who are present on a constant and predictable basis, paying attention to the child’s needs consistently, are those who are building for their children a safe and psychologically as well as emotionally secure future.
A parent who is not there consistently or predictably however, is giving the child a message that they are not importsant in the world and when this is a routinely delivered message, the child begins to build an insecure sense of self, an uncertainty within about whether they are welcome in the world. Parents who disappear and reappear on a regular basis (as in the case of separated parents) can still offer the child the predictable sense of having their needs met that builds self esteem, if, when they are with the child, they are paying very close attention to the child’s needs over time. This is why co-operative parenting is so important, working together, parents can come in and out of a child’s life and still build and maintain that sense of being welcome in the world that is so crucial for children. A parent who comes and goes as he or she pleases however, constantly interrupting or disrupting a regular routine at their own personal whim, is NOT offering the child what the child needs but simply taking what they as adults need. This kind of absenteeism, is detrimental to children and eventually creates such uncertainty that the child begins to wonder whether they have done something to deserve it. Children in these circumstances will blame themselves and not the parent for the distress that they feel.
Recently I have been discussing with colleagues the issue of fathers who walk away because they don’t want to be dictated to by the child’s mother. The kind of circumstance in which the mother is dominating the parenting agenda and is unable to allow the father to parent effectively by himself. There are indeed some mothers who will go to extreme lengths to control what the father is doing so unable are they to allow him to parent as he is able to or as he would wish to. These are particular cases in which there are elements of alienating behaviour in the mother, which was likely to have been present BEFORE separation as well as after.
There are other cases however of fathers who are quite simply not invested in their children and for whom putting children first in terms of their needs as central to the role of parent, is an anathema. There are also many cases of mothers who parent in such a way that their needs come before the child’s, only we do not pay very much attention to those cases at all, because mothering, in our culture, is synonymous with sacrifice, nurture and care (something I also intend to write about this year).
But this post is about parents who are not invested after separation and about how we help children to cope with the parent shaped hole that opens up when the other parent is not there by choice. In the absence of the right to go to court to make a parent be a parent, what can we do to help children?
The major thing we must do is to help the child to understand that the absence of that parent is not their fault. That it is not because they are not good enough or not loveable enough that the other parent cannot or will not be there. Resisting the urge to over compensate, it is vital that we allow our children to understand at an age appropriate level, that the other parent is simply not giving the kind of good enough attention that children need. Rather than saying that a parent is no good however, we need to find a way to let our children know that good enough parents are there for their children on a regular basis and that they put children’s needs before adults needs. Gentle reassurance that the child has other good enough people around them who can offer the love that the missing parent is unable to offer, is a way of buoying up the child’s sense of self. Central to the task of helping children however is naming for them the reality of what is happening. Far better to say that dad/mum is not acting in ways that the child needs or deserves, than make excuses that eventually to a child sound hollow and defensive of the other parent. Acknowledging the child’s sadness, loss and disappointment will eventually allow the child to come to a place of understanding that this is not about them, its about what the other parent cannot offer. Focusing on the behaviours of the parent rather than making it about them being a good or bad person, means that is always possible for the other parent to demonstrate change.
Absence by choice is a tough reality for a child to grow up with but it is possible for them to grow up with confidence and self esteem if the parent that they do have is able to be confident and calm when they deal with the issue of the other parent’s role in the child’s life. Unfortunately, for too many parents, the only help that they can get after separation is based upon stereotypes rather than what they really need. The ‘single parents you’re brilliant’ strapline being a prime example of how upholding parental rights misses the point of what so many single parents really need, which is support around how to help children. Similarly, the fathers lobby, in their concentration upon equal parenting, legal changes and justice, overlook the reality that for some children, fathers (and mothers) are absent by choice and that this has devastating consequences for children.
Collectively and co-operatively, we need to brave enough to look within our binary and polarised parental rights approaches for the reality of what our children face when their parents separate. We need to recognise that building services upon stereotypes and majority need, leaves some families floundering without help. Only when we do this can we call ourselves whole family, child focused practitioners.
In considering famiy separation, we need to look at what is missing in our conscious awareness, to ensure that we plug the gaps in support to parents for whom the absent parent question does not often get answered.