What we can do to protect our children and ourselves from emotion fallout when a relationship breaks down
by Family Law Barrister Paula Rhone-Adrien
Family Law Guru and Barrister Paula Rhone-Adrien joins us as part of Children’s Mental Health Week to talk about the devastating effects relationship breakdowns can have on children. With years of experience in the field, she has some interesting and valuable insight and advice on what we can do to protect a child from the emotional fallout of a relationship breakdown. You can also hear Paula talking with Finn on this subject on our IGTV here.
So tell me, when did you finally accept, not realise, but accept that your relationship was over? A year before you separated, two perhaps? The point is, in my experience, and that’s over 20 years of practising Family Law at the English Bar to date, my clients accepted the end of their relationship long before they cared to admit it aloud. Why? Because it’s tortuous, no one enters a relationship believing it will come to a painful end… and even if they do, because yes, some among us are cynical, you can never predict the intensity of the fallout, whether you were married or not. So if we agree it took you time to get your head around the end of your relationship, how do you think your child deals with the psychological shock when they hear the news?
The effects a relationship breakdown can have on a child’s behaviour
Child experts are unanimous in their conclusion that regardless of the age of a child, the breakdown of their parents’ relationship applies a noticeable level of stress and confusion upon their psyche. Noticeable, because the child’s behaviour, dependent on their age, will reflect this. For example, those from newborn to 2 years exhibit behaviour such as sleep disruption, becoming overly clingy (separation anxiety) making contact with the non-resident parent fraught, and irrational disturbed behaviour, which can be difficult to appease. It is right that such behaviour can often be displayed in a child of this age not living through their parents’ separation. However, some experts have opined that the changes are prominent, and although initially overlooked by the separating parents, can become a feature of the separation. I see this all the time.
Putting the child at the centre of their parents’ thoughts
I represent both men and women, and each will tell me how the child acts in a particularly negative way because of the behaviour of the other parent. Sometimes, of course, they are absolutely right! However, that does not mean that the other parent is wrong, they may also be right too.
Herein lies the problem for many separating parents, particularly those who find themselves engaged in costly legal proceedings: sometimes there never is a right or a wrong answer, but simply finding a way forward that means the child is placed back at the centre of their parents’ thoughts, from whichever angle their opposing stances are taken. People will often tell a Judge that their view is the right one because they are being child focused. However, experts often interpret this to mean that a parent, consciously or subconsciously, places their child in the centre of the dispute as opposed to at the centre of their thoughts.
The guilt associated with a relationship breakdown
Who can honestly be surprised that two individuals, uniting to form a family, will not face conflict along the way. With the personality traits that vie for attention within us, is it any wonder that we see, after thousands of years in attempting to get it right, that some families break up and marriages end in divorce.
I say this because it is important to understand that the guilt one feels when you decide to leave your partner, the parent of your child/children can be felt for years to come, even in circumstances where it was no one’s ‘fault’. I have seen cases where clearly one parent is carrying that guilt and by engaging in protracted legal proceedings they seek vindication from others, or even a Judge, that they were right all along. In the meantime they suffer, their child watches them and the other parent suffers, and of course their child suffers too.
The emotional fallout for children
Unfortunately, as much as we may not want to accept it, experts have found that divorce has a detrimental effect on children. Children of divorced parents often perform worse in school and are more likely to have emotional behavioural disorders. Such children are sadly found to suffer with lower self-esteem and engage in more problematic social relationships than children from intact families, regardless of their age. It is argued that this impact can last for decades and is regarded as one of the ten major adverse incidents that can impact on a child’s life.
It is right that the reason why your child may be struggling with their mental health is a complex one. However, my personal experience certainly tallies with the professional consensus: break-ups are confusing and stressful for children, no matter their age, in the same way they are, for at least, one of the parents. To suggest that the child will not be impacted by this trauma is to close your eyes to an abundantly clear reality for so many.
What can you do to protect your child?
So how can you protect your child from the psychological fallout? No, you’re right it won’t be easy, but it will be one of the best lessons you can ever teach your child: how to conduct themselves during conflict. Healthy relationships don’t only mean when things are going right. When things go wrong, how would you like your child to see you? Children, of course, are not stupid, they sense your emotion, and as a young baby, remember its all they have to go on when they are unable to place that sensory perception into context.
You may note that your child, regardless of their age becomes overly needy, overtly emotional, fears being abandoned or separated from a parent, or the opposite; they avoid one or both parents and become lost in their own world, trying to decipher their maturing emotions without wise assistance or guidance. These are just some of the examples of how children exhibit worrying behaviour both during and after the separation of their parents.
Ask for professional help
Firstly, you should not feel lost or in despair. If anything you read herein resonates with you, on the contrary, feel grateful that your insight has led you to recognise that something is not right... and feel confident that there are steps that you can take to help your child.
Don’t be afraid to ask for professional help. You don’t know everything - that’s impossible! So take the time to research your concerns. I always advise people to consider their local council website first. They are a great resource, even during the pandemic, for identifying specialist help that you can access in your area, which may be free or subsidised. If your local resources are unable to assist then they are definitely equipped to identify other organisations or online literature that you can access. Your child’s school should also be made aware. They are used to managing separated parents and they too may be able to indicate useful literature that is child friendly without patronising you or your child. It may be a tool that you could also share with your ex too.
Use the STOP Mantra
Some of the next points sound obvious, but as the unfurling storm of an argument stretches over your awful day when nothing is going right, it’s easy to forget, no matter what good intentions you had, to never get into another argument. However, if you repeat this mantra, it may just be enough to help you break the cycle and help you protect your child’s mental health.
Your child is always watching, and even when you can’t see them, they are listening. The old adage, if you have nothing nice to say, then say nothing at all is a useful aide to remind yourself that sometimes it is really better to say nothing at all. Most arguments are, after all, about nothing, it’s just one of us wanting to point score against the other. The sooner this cycle is broken the better.
Give yourself time to process what the actual problem is that you are having to manage and how the outcome impacts on your child. It’s hard to hear when you are mad, let alone when we throw heartbreak into the mix. Correspond via email as opposed to speaking directly if you are feeling fragile and never ever respond when you know you are upset, your answer will never be productive and may make the situation worse.
Friends and family are amazing, but sometimes they can be blinded by their, understandable, love for you and wanting you to achieve what they consider is the best for you. So in seeking advice be prudent, preferably speak to a professional or access trusted material from reputable online sites.
This should be your ultimate goal, for you and your child, but for your child to achieve it, you will need to too. If this means you will need to access your own therapy, then don’t be afraid to teach your child that emotions are not to be feared or buried, but explored and considered in both good and bad times.
So the next time you are being drawn into that furious row repeat after me: STOP, STOP, STOP.