There is a trend within family services to listen to the voices of the children who are in the midst of family separation. This trend, which appears to me to be growing stronger, is focused on the need to put the child in the middle of the separating couple’s relationship breakdown so that they, not their parents, can determine what should happen in the years hence. To me this is a tragedy nothing less than child abuse because the very last place a child should be is in the middle of the breakdown of the relationship between parents, with all of the attendant horrors that brings. Never-the-less, from the birth of CAFCASS’s Wishes and Feelings reports, to the training undertaken by Social Workers and Mediators, listening to the voice of the child seems to be all about making sure that children say what should happen when the family separates. So much so that slavish devotion to the voices of children, even when it is abundantly clear that those children have been deeply damaged by the relationship breakdown, seems to be a trend which is going to be hard to change.
But that doesn’t mean that those of us who understand children living through family separation shouldn’t try to change it. In fact those of us who work closely with children affected by family separation have, in my view, a moral duty to try and change it. Here’s why.
Children are not born knowing everything there is to know about human relationships. They learn what they come to know through being in relationship. In fact there is sound neuroscientific evidence which clearly demonstrates that children’s emotional and relationship experiences build the capacity of the brain for emotional literacy, critical thinking skills and more. Children depend upon the adults around them to be in relationship with them, their very development of self rests upon the healthy relationships they are able to count on. When children are faced with broken and fractured relationships, with two parents now snarling at each other instead of smiling, their route to healthy relationships on which their emotional and psychological selves depend, are closed off. This causes children to have to adapt and when children adapt they also build defences and when children are defended the energy that should be going into building brain capacity and strong neural pathways is shut off. Little wonder that children who face adverse life experiences such as the divorce of their parents, can be seen to suffer emotionally and psychologically. They are also, if neuroscience is to be believed, suffering physiologically too.
So why, in our wisdom, do we consider that the best people to tell us what should happen to relationships with parents after separation are the children who are negatively affected by that? Would we ask children to drive our cars if we were unable to do that or go to work for us? Asking children to decide what should happen to their relationship with a parent when the family separates is like asking them to do just that.
So, your mum and dad can’t drive the car to work Jimmy, here’s the keys, perhaps you could do that for them.’
So, your mum and dad can’t agree where you should live or when you should see your dad Jimmy, perhaps you could tell us what you think you should do.’
Before anyone snorts with derision at the comparison and starts telling me how ridiculous a comparison it is let me explain this. The part of the brain which is engaged with driving a car is the same part of the brain you are asking a child to engage in critical thinking about their relationship with their parents after separation. There is a reason we don’t allow children to drive cars until they are 17 (UK), that is because we consider that their developmental selves are not ready for that responsibilty. And yet we routinely see practitioners not only asking children what they think should happen but relying upon that as ‘evidence’ that their work is child focused. It is nonsensical, it is not child focused and it is frankly, terrifying. I don’t know why we even bother with parenting sometimes so utterly fixated on what a child says are some of the family practitioners who work with children in this field. Better to simply hand over the responsibility to the child to get on and bring themselves up.
What a godawful state of affairs. So godawaful that in some situations children who have clearly been abused by a parent, who are clearly unable to know their own mind let alone express it, are handed all of the control for ‘deciding’ what happens simply on the basis of what they say. The disgrace is that as the voice of the child juggernaut trundles on, becoming ever more trendy and the focus of family services up and down the land, generations of children are being subjected to what is, in my view, an absolute abdication of adult responsibilities.
Children’s voices should be set against a backdrop of understanding about their developmental needs, it always used to be when parenting meant taking care of all aspects of a child’s life. Now that parenting can seem at times more like being a child’s friend or mate, family services reflect that same lack of boundaried care and adult responsibility.
Hearing children’s voices in the experience of family separation, without critical analysis is wrong, it is abusive to children and it causes them harm. It requires children to carry the toxic burden of their parent’s unresolved issues and it denies them the right to the loving relationships and freedom from defended behaviour that bring emotional and psychological health.
When a child says ‘I don’t want to’ and family services simply report that as fact and act to uphold the child’s ‘decision’ the child is placed firmly into a double bind from which they cannot wriggle free. When family services examines ‘I don’t want to’ and sets that against the need to help the family to adjust to liberate the child, the child is freed to drop the defence and move back into the flow of living.
Which is what we all want for our children isn’t it?