You may have heard the terms “child-focused” or “child-centred” used in connection with separation and divorce. What do those words mean?
Being child-focused means seeing the separation and the new family structure from your child’s perspective. Before separation, your kids were used to seeing both parents every day. That’s challenging now that you live in two different houses. When parents maintain (and encourage) consistent contact following separation, you show the kids you both intend to be actively involved. Something as simple as lunch or a phone call to say goodnight, particularly when your kids are reorienting to the different structure, can relieve anxiety during the early stages of separation. Bringing a child-centred approach means thinking of ways to make the separation and transition easier for your children (even though it may bring greater discomfort to you).
Many parents worry their children won’t adapt or adjust to the new family structure. Here’s what I know: when parents adapt and adjust to the new structure, their children do, too. It’s easier for kids who continue to spend time with both parents to understand they’re not being asked to take sides or align. When parents make room for texts, video calls, a walk in the park or a dinner with the other parent when the child is feeling lonely, the child’s sense of stability and security are enhanced. The message you’re sending is, “You’re not going to get in trouble for loving both of your parents.” Children sometimes hear the other parent is “bad” or “untrustworthy” and they may attribute those characteristics to themselves because they look like that parent or because they love someone who has been assigned those labels.
Being child-centred means keeping the children out of parental conflict. A child does not need to know there was an affair or that one parent “stopped loving” the other parent. Hearing this, your child might wonder if that parent will stop loving them too. Children who know too many details about the separation can also experience divided loyalties. A child may feel they are betraying the parent who didn’t initiate the separation by loving the parent who did since that parent “broke up the family.”
When I caution parents not to influence their children, I often hear “but I never say anything negative”. While that may be overtly true, as a child lawyer, it was common for kids to tell me how guilty they felt when told:
- “I miss you so much when you’re gone.”
- “I get lonely without you.”
- “The house is so empty when you’re not here.”
- “I don’t cook when you’re gone — there’s no point.”
Nothing negative there, right? Wrong. These statements are not child-focused. They may lead children to align. They also make your child responsible for your happiness. Your child needs to feel safe, secure and loved. Being child-focused means distinguishing your needs from those of your child. Fill your needs in appropriate ways. Talk to a counsellor or therapist, utilize your support system, or write your feelings in a journal.
Finally, never ask your child to choose where to live. You wouldn’t allow your 12-year-old to decide to have ice cream for dinner every night – why would you let them decide where to live? Parents often say “It’s okay, we’re close. She tells me everything. I’m the one she comes to.” Don’t fall into this trap, and don’t put this kind of pressure on your child. It’s common for kids to tell one parent one thing and the other parent something else to make you both happy and keep the peace. Allowing children to make adult decisions takes away your authority as a parent (which will come back to bite you in the butt), and it takes away the child’s sense of security because you have put them in charge.
Debbie Hoffman is a collaborative divorce lawyer and coach with more than 25 years of experience. Debbie is also a former children’s lawyer and advocate. Debbie’s firm is HD Collaborative Law in Waterloo, Ontario, and she is part of the Best4All Collaborative Practice Group of Waterloo. Find her at http://www.hdcollaborativelaw.com/ and on Facebook at HD Collaborative Law.