“We cannot escape from our need to be loved by the people that created us.”
Gisele Mendonca, Oxford based child psychotherapist.
It’s not surprising that parents who come into mediation to make decisions about their family always want to put their children’s needs first. But they often have different ideas about what those needs are. So I asked Oxford-based child psychotherapist Gisele Mendonca to give an insight into the impact of separation on the emotional development of children. I wanted to get to the heart of what children really need from their parents when their parents separate, and I wanted to share her expertise with you here.
As Gisele explains, the need to be loved by our parents is fundamental to all children and so when parents put barriers in the way, then they hurt their children.
Of course, she acknowledged, parents never intend for this to happen but they also need to step back and think carefully about the impact of their words and actions on their children. For example, when a parent bad-mouths the other parent or behaves in a way that their bad feelings leak out of them, it creates confusion in a child. Here is one parent that the child loves and wants to be loved by, bad-mouthing the other parent, who the child also loves and wants to be loved by.
“We must not equate the relationship between Mum and Dad to the relationship between a parent and their child. Just because Mum and Dad don’t get on any more, it doesn’t mean that they love their child any less or are choosing to separate from their child. And just because Mum and Dad don’t love each other any more, it doesn’t mean a child loves their parent any less,” explains Gisele.
Our child’s relationship with the parent who has hurt us is different to our own relationship with them, explains Gisele. “Our children may have come from us and have some of our DNA, but they are not us. They are separate to us. We must not confuse our feelings and our agenda with those of our children.”
So how would Gisele advise parents facing some of the common problems facing separated parents? I put to her some of the challenges that I hear often from my clients:
‘I am happy for my children to see their father/mother, but they say they don’t want to and I don’t want to force them.’
Gisele: We need to remember the need for all children to feel loved by both parents. If a child is refusing to see the other parent, it is crucial that we understand what is going on for that child. Childhood choices like this tend to be embedded in outside influences. So we need to understand why they have made the decision and we need to do all that we can to re-assure the child of the other parent’s love and support.
Naturally this can be hard for a parent who has been hurt by the other parent, but it is our duty. Our children are separate from us and we must not equate the hurt and betrayal we feel, for the feelings of our children.
It is complicated because while children lack emotional maturity, they are also highly attuned to emotions. They will easily pick up emotions and feelings from the resident parent and will not want to alienate that parent. So a parental alliance can be created with the parent providing most of the care. This alliance is important for the child because they rely on the resident parent for their security and stability. It is important for the parent because it serves as a justification of their feelings about the other parent. But it damages the child in the longer term because it does not allow for the child’s true feelings to be felt and heard and acted upon.
It is important in these circumstances for the parent to let go of their own agenda and be curious about what is going on for their child. Parents must resist the urge to gather their child’s hurt or anger and join it to their own. The parent’s emotions and the child’s are separate and different.
It is further complicated because the child may appear happy and be doing well at school. Whilst this may seem to be the product of avoiding one parent, it is often instead the product of avoiding difficult conversations that, if not addressed, will cause the child lasting harm.
‘My ex won’t let me see my child, what should I do?’
Gisele: Children need to love and feel loved by both parents and it is part of our responsibility as parents to facilitate this, even if it hurts us. Our relationship with the other parent is completely separate from the relationship of our children and the other parent and we must not confuse the two. If parents want to do the best for their children, then they need to be mature enough to work together and put their child’s needs first. If they are unable to do that, then they are doing a great dis-service to their children. We have to constantly compromise for our children, and some parents are not prepared to do so. It is too easy to say that it is the other parent’s fault, without looking at our own contribution to that.
Parents need to attempt to engage in a reflective way that puts their children’s needs first and separates their children’s needs from their own agenda. Whatever has happened between parents has nothing to do with their children.
Going to court forces each party to strengthen their position and just fuels the fire. It creates a vicious circle rather than building a circle of understanding. It is the children who will lose most.
Parents often say that they want decisions made in their children’s best interests. What are the child’s best interests?
Gisele: A child needs to be free to love and feel loved by both parents.
What do children need from parents when they are separating?
Children need from their parents:
- Even if the situation is unstable, the parenting can be stable
- Firm handedness
- Friendliness (which is different from friendship)
- And to feel heard without agenda.
‘My ex is unreliable and it upsets the children. I don’t want to bad mouth him/her, but I don’t want my children to learn that this is how you behave. How should I respond?’
Gisele: It is fine to be factual. You can say, ‘Mum/Dad finds it hard to be on time’, but what is important is how you contextualise it. If that statement is the beginning of a barrage of abuse towards the other parent, then conflict is created in the child’s mind. This person being bad-mouthed is someone the child loves and wants to be loved by, yet they are being told how bad that person is.
It is much better to acknowledge that the parent is late, but not to add additional emotion around it. Even better, to add in some positive emotion like: ‘Mum/Dad finds it hard to be on time, but you have a great time when they do get here and you know they don’t mean it to hurt you.’ Of course, if parents are both really choosing to put the child’s interests and feelings ahead of their own, they will also have a mature and calm discussion between themselves about this.
What are the risks of children losing contact with one parent?
Gisele: Firstly, the children miss the opportunity to have a relationship with one of their parents. So there is a lack of balance of strengths, life experience, perspectives, parenting styles etc. in that child’s life. Even if the second parent is unreliable, the child has a right to know their parent and to make their own decisions about him/her.
Secondly, without a first hand experience of a relationship with both parents, a child may take on a view of the absent parent held by the resident parent. If this perspective is less than positive, it creates a conflict in the child. ‘How can I want to love someone like that or be loved by someone like that, and yet that person is my parent and I do want to love and be loved by them?’
Lastly, there is a risk that the child will take their experience of relationships into their own future relationships. We learn how to relate to other people by how we relate to our own parents.
How can we do the best for our children when we are only just coping ourselves?
Gisele’s advice for parents asks a lot of us at a time when most people are struggling to manage their own emotions and the practicalities of separation. But you do not have to do it all alone. Gisele is there to help Oxfordshire parents work out what might be going on for their children and how those children might be best supported. She is highly experienced and knowledgeable but incredibly approachable and practical.
Gisele works with children and their parents together and with children on their own and parents on their own. She helps children to access their feelings and process them so that they are better able to cope with their new circumstances. Or she can work with parents alone to help them become the best parent they can be.