Spotting and curtailing emotional harm during separation and divorce
by, Triena McGuirk as appeared in The Lawyer’s Daily on April 16th, 2018
Separation and divorce, herein referred to as separation, is a human experience in a legal world. The dissolution of a union is a legal and emotional process for our clients, as they dismantle their old lives and embark upon building a new life for themselves and their child or children. Emotional harm to children through separation is an insidious form of maltreatment. It is subtle and slow, but with time and consistency the presence of adult conflict through separation can eat away at the fabric of children’s mental health, parental bonds and the healthy functioning of families as a whole.
I am of the opinion, as helping professionals we not only have the responsibility to ensure our clients are informed about the law in separation, we are also accountable to inform our clients about the longitudinal implications of adversarial conflict.
Conflict is inevitable in separation; however, it doesn’t have to be adversarial. The act of separation doesn’t cause risk of emotional harm to children and youth, it is the manner by which conflict is manifested and addressed. The emotional roller coaster that accompanies separation is a shared human experience, which impacts all persons regardless of demographics.
By acknowledging that this is an emotional (and legal) journey at the onset of separation we can create awareness for our clients about how to minimize risk of emotional harm and open pathways for our clients to separate well and access support to manage emotions, without shame or stigma.
What does emotional harm look like? Some signs of conflict that place children at risk of emotional harm:
- Speaking negatively about the other parent, other parent’s family/friends;
- Blaming the other parent for the separation;
- Arguing in the presence of the child (i.e. in person, telephone, e-mail or text. Children will seek out information);
- Sending messages through the child;
- Treating children like adults (even teenagers);
- Ignoring the other parent during the child’s events (i.e., school concerts, sporting events, extracurriculars, etc.);
- Not permitting the child to move between households with their belongings;
- Interrupting time with the other parent (i.e., calling often, planning activities of interest on the other parent’s time);
- Not permitting the child to attend family functions with the other parent (i.e., family reunions, weddings, etc.) outside the regular access schedule;
- Speaking about adult content to, or in proximity to, children (i.e., details of divorce, finances, court, conflict);
- Asking the child to keep secrets from the other parent;
- Making the child feel bad about enjoying time with the other parent, deterring child from talking about the other parent;
- Using guilt or pressure for children to choose between parents or have the same relationship with each parent;
- Child refusing to see one parent, with no clear reason as to why they do not want to; Questioning children about the other parent, or the other parent’s household. Asking children to spy;
- Asking children where they want to live.
Possible mental health and/or behavioural concerns for children and youth who have been exposed to ongoing adult conflict, and are at risk of emotional harm:
- Regression behaviours (i.e., return to co-sleeping, thumb sucking, incontinence, baby talk);
- Difficulty with transitions (this can be a challenge in separation without conflict);
- Parental alignment;
- Depression, generalized anxiety and separation anxiety;
- Increased aggression, defiance and displaced anger; Withdrawal from activities of interest;
- Quick to tear or cry;
- Disengagement from academics or reduced performance;
- Disengagement from extracurricular activities; Engagement in high risk behaviours;
- Poor problem-solving skills;
- Poor social skills/peer relationships;
- Non-suicidal self-injurious behaviours;
- Suicidal ideation;
- Drug/alcohol use/misuse;
- Eating disorders;
Considerations for parenting plans to help minimize risk of emotional harm:
- Access community or private services about co-parenting through separation;
- Mutually agreed upon codes of conduct such as, not to speak disparagingly about the other parent or allow others to do so in the presence or proximity to the child, not to send messages through the child, etc;
- Access exchanges are neither the time nor the place to discuss parenting issues;
- Determine response time for all non-urgent matters (i.e., 24 hours);
- Limits to length and frequency of non-urgent correspondence. Filter correspondence for tone (i.e., emotional vs. logical statements;
- Use of communication tools such as text, e-mail, Our Family Wizard;
- Awareness of statements that are indicative of conflict (i.e., “you always,” “my child,” “you never” insults);
- Encourage “I” statements;
- Mutual agreement regarding where access exchanges take place (i.e., police station, school, house to house);
- Communication log about the child’s care, particularly if the child is younger or has extenuating needs;
- Identify mutually agreed upon third parties for access exchanges, if needed;
- Utilize the support of a clinician versed in custody and access every few years, if unable to do so independently or as needed to review parenting plans;
- Utilize joint calendars regarding through tools such as Our Family Wizard or Google Calendars; Guidelines for parental attendance at extracurricular events, parent teacher conference, etc. (i.e., staggered entry, sit with each other, in proximity, picture with child after);
- Ensure family/friends/new partners attending child’s events can refrain from behaviours indicative of conflict;
- Children can move between homes with their belongings;
- Idiosyncrasies for exchange of the child’s items to be determined by the parents;
- Consistency in rules and discipline between households;
- Parental agreement regarding vacation, extracurricular registration, etc., prior to informing the child;
- Determine guidelines for changes to the access schedule and make up of time;
- Mother’s Day and Father’s Day with the associated parent.
Conflict is inevitable in separation; however we can create a culture of awareness that by withdrawing from adversarial exchanges, between separating parties, we can nurture the new co- parenting relationship, complement the legal process and reduce risk for emotional harm to children and youth.
Triena McGuirk is a social worker in private practice with a unique triangulation of knowledge working with children and families through CAS, the Office of the Children’s Lawyer, and education.
Visit Family Fundamental or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.