A change in living arrangements need not be a distressing experience for your child. Parents should work together to deliver a clear and consistent message, conveying to their child that they agree with the arrangements and ensuring the child does not feel they are the cause of the change. If your child knows you don't approve of the new arrangements, they are more likely to respond negatively to them.
CONSISTENCY OF MESSAGE WITH THE OTHER PARENT
Imagine this scenario: two separated parents reach an agreement about their child's living arrangements. Their agreement means the child will spend more time with one parent and therefore less with the other. Neither parent is happy with the new arrangements, for differing reasons. What message should the parents convey to the child and how?
In my experience, parents rarely talk to each other first about how they will communicate the change of arrangements to the child. Typically, the parent who next sees the child after the agreement is reached will just tell them in a direct way, without considering whether the parents should use a joint script to convey a consistent message.
If your relationship with the other parent is problematic, it might not be possible to agree on a consistent script.
However, assuming you are on speaking terms with the other parent, you should try and discuss conveying a message to the child which reflects that:
- The parents both agreed on the arrangement. While this might be very far from the truth, it can help a child if they believe their parents were involved in the decision-making and they both consented.
- The child is not the cause of the change and has not done anything wrong. Children often feel they are to blame when their parents fight and can become anxious that they have upset the parent they are now spending less time with.
It is important both parents are consistent with the message and understand why it is for their child's benefit. If one parent says to the child the parents jointly reached agreement about their arrangements, while the other complains that it was an outcome forced on them, the child will know it was an acrimonious dispute.
Try to put your personal reservations aside about how you feel with the new arrangement. Focus on formulating a script with the other parent that conveys a joint message and will put your child's mind at ease that you are okay with the change.
CONVEYING THE MESSAGE TO THE CHILD
The easy part can be formulating a nice joint script with your ex-partner. The harder part is delivering the message.
Most of us find it difficult to be positive in situations where we are unhappy. Trying to deliver a message to your child that you approve of an arrangement you might strongly oppose, can be very difficult for parents.
Here are some tips to help you:
- Recognise your own emotional limitations. If you know you cannot sit down for an extended period to talk to your child about such an issue without becoming upset; don't do it. Instead, keep the discussion short if this will help you contain your emotions. You could have the other parent communicate the message first if you are comfortable they will do so in a child-focused way.
- Convey that you agree with the outcome. Phrases such as 'your Mum and I agreed that' etc. indicate that both parents were involved in the process and are more likely to comfort your child. Avoid using words that suggest that it was outcome forced on you.
- Be careful of your non-verbal communication. It is in our nature to believe non-verbal behaviour over verbal communication when the two conflict. For example, if you tell your child you are happy they are now spending more time with their father – while you are crying – they will not believe you are sincere.
Regardless of the script and delivery of the message, some children may become upset upon hearing their arrangements will change. This is perfectly normal.
However, if both parents communicate in an appropriate way with their child, it will help shield them from any unnecessary distress and limit their exposure to adult issues.
Cooper Grace Ward is a leading Australian law firm based in Brisbane.
This publication is for information only and is not legal advice. You should obtain advice that is specific to your circumstances and not rely on this publication as legal advice. If there are any issues you would like us to advise you on arising from this publication, please contact Cooper Grace Ward Lawyers.