Breaking up is hard when kids are involved

Making a decision to end a relationship with your partner when you share children is difficult. If you’re the one making the decision to leave the family home you will have your reasons for wanting to end the relationship but it may have a massive impact on how much time you can spend with your child and their relationship with you. If you’re not the one who made the decision, you may be upset and annoyed you no longer have the life you wanted and anxious about the impact it will have on your relationship with your child.

Break ups are particularly hard on kids. Children of broken families often harbour a desire for their parents to reunite. They feel grief and loss for a parent who was once with them every day and who they now see less frequently.

Most parents faced with the end of their relationship will do everything they can to smoothly transition their family from a united family structure to a separated family structure where they co-parent with their ex to ensure both parents meet their child’s emotional and development needs. Working together in this way, putting aside your feelings about the break up to focus on successfully helping the child to adjust to the changing family dynamic leads to the same levels of success of long term outcomes for children as those who are in intact families.

Problems co-parenting

For some parents co-parenting is not achievable. This is most often where one parent and in rarer cases both parents have difficulties processing the loss of the relationship. Where they focus more on their negative feelings and needs rather than those of their child. A child needs love, time and bonding with both parents in order to feel secure and loved.

Parents who struggle to co-parent harm their child’s emotional and psychological development. They teach their children a pattern of behaviour which will severely impact on their ability to value themselves or relationships with others. It teaches them a pattern of coercive control or compliance and dependence. For this reason it is vital that parents do everything they can to co-parent.

There is little support for separating families and many parents struggle for years trying to work amicably with an ex that does not want them to have a relationship with their child. The ex, who is struggling to process their sense of grief and loss may engage in behaviours that are successful in:

  • increasing conflict between the other parent and the child
  • eroding the time the other parent has with the child and
  • eradicating any positive view the child has of their parent.

Often things get worse if a new partner is introduced in one of the parents’ lives.

Children in this type of family dynamic will be placed into the middle of parental conflict (triangulated). Parent’s will fight about things that appear to be related to the children and often using the child as the means to communicate their displeasure towards the other parent. But the issue may not be about the children, the issue may be what is going emotionally and psychologically for the parent. Children who become triangulated into parental conflict may display protest behaviours. They may become angry at both parents but most usually their anger is directed at the parent who is no longer living with them. They may become depressed, cry, shout, call you names, hit, kick, get in trouble at school and resist seeing you. Conversely some children may become overly compliant in an attempt not to anger/upset their parent and they may do very well in school, seeming older than their years.

Over time a parent who is being rejected may react with increasing anger as they are denied a relationship with their child. They may react angrily to the child’s hostile behaviours. Normal range parenting and discipline practices that once used to work may no longer do so as the child’s behaviour is no longer normal.

Showing anger in front of a child gives “evidence” of why the child is “right” to reject them. A rejected parent may not pick up on the awful situation the child has been placed in or that the child is actually feeling completely unloved. Based on the child’s hostile behaviours a rejected parent may believe the child really hates them. This is not true, the child loves them but they’re just doing what they feel they must to cope with situation they are in.

If a parent who is targeted for rejection can’t find a way to reduce the conflict or help the child to overcome the strong negative feelings they are experiencing, the child may completely reject them and refuse to see them. This is what is called an emotional cutoff. It is very rare for a child to emotionally cutoff from a parent and is an indicator or severe pathology in the family.

Dealing with an emotional cutoff

Given there is little support for separating parents they are often left with limited choices, none of which are a quick fix. For many it involves an application to Family Court which is an arena ill equipped to deal with the emotional and psychological needs of separating families. It often leads to the rejected parent having to make the decision to give up their relationship with their child thus impacting on their parental responsibility to provide love, protection and guidance to the child through life. This has devastating emotional and psychological impacts on that parent and on on the child.

This type of controlling family dynamic where one parent seeks to limit the role the other parent plays or how the child views that parent, may have been present before the relationship ended. It is likely to have been a contributing factor in the break up. Most often it is the parent with residency that has the control issue but on rare occasions it may be a family member such as a grandparent, a new partner or the non-resident parent who drives the child to reject.

Parents faced with the loss of their relationship with their children may find that professionals such as lawyers, therapists, teachers, judges and social workers also become triangulated in the conflict, aligning with one parent over the other. Through a lack of understanding and not completing proper assessment they may offer interventions that make things worse. It is vital that families experiencing this dynamic get the right support. An emotional cutoff in a child only occurs as the result of severe abuse. It requires proper assessment of the family system and the reasons for the failure of the child’s attachment system. aims to provide resources to parents, children and extended family members in this situation.