How important is the voice of the child

One of the hardest things to navigate is knowing when it is appropriate to bring your child’s voice into decision making and when to keep them secure by making decisions as their parents.

Children’s voices – Decision Making

Even though you are no longer an ‘intact’ family, you are still a family unit. You are still your children’s parents and you are still taking decisions that will put their best interests at heart.

Understanding the new perspective

The first thing we need to understand is the change in the way the relationships happen in your new family unit. You’ve moved from being two parents in a loving relationship and parenting your children from that place, to being two parents who are no longer in a relationship, not living together, and sometimes not liking each other. And it’s from that new place that you have to find a way to parent your children. You may be noticing that your behaviours are changing and that your co-parent’s behaviours are changing. They may seem childish and have lots of emotions going on. This can make it really hard for you to make decisions and even harder to make them with someone else about the most important person in the world to you, your child.

Decision making with my child

It’s really important to remember that your parenting decisions create necessary boundaries for your children. These boundaries provide the structure in which your children grow up and flourish. When these structures are not secure, that is when children can run into behavioural difficulties and struggle emotionally. The voice of the child is all about including your children, where appropriate in some of the decisions that you will take whilst you are establishing your new normal and beyond. It’s hard to know when to include children in the decisions. It’s certainly not ok to include them or exclude them all the time as this can make them feel overly responsible or left out.

When you’re making decisions, one thing that can be helpful is to use a traffic light system. The traffic light system is usually appropriate to start at age 5 and up.

  • Red – for really big decisions. These may include – where do they live, what school do they go to, how do we divide their time between us?
  • Amber – for significant but not critical decisions. For example; How much screen time should they have, how often do they need to do homework, what time should they go to bed?
  • Green – for simpler decisions such as: Which friends do they want to see, what food should we feed them, how much screen time should they have ?

It’s really important that your child has a voice in your decision making, particularly in the Green and Amber areas. A child needs to feel heard when their parents are separating and not having a voice can feel very stifling and can end up making them feel insignificant.

Red Decisions

Red decisions are where most of your parental and child contact structure will come into play. It might be about where your children spend Christmas and holidays and significant dates, or how many days a week your child spends with each of you. These are decisions that are important for you to make with your co-parent. The tip here is to make it fair. So if your children spend Christmas with one parent, perhaps they can spend New Year with the other, and then swap it around next year. Children often have a very strong value of being fair to both their parents and to ask them to choose where they want to spend a significant time, can be the same as asking them to choose which parent they like best. It’s not nice. Don’t do it.

Amber Decisions

With Amber decisions there is more flexibility built in. Here your child can really have a say and feel respected and heard as you take their view into account. In an ideal world, sit down with your child and your co-parent and bring the topic to the table. Perhaps you’re going to talk about bed-times, screen-time and boundaries around homework. A really simple technique to use is called a ‘Thinking Round ’. Each of you take turns to give your opinion and ideas and thoughts on the subject without being interrupted by anyone else, and then move around to each person in the same way. Everyone should have the same amount of time and the rule is no interruption. This way, everyone gets their voice heard and everyone is really listening. When you’ve done that, have a discussion about what the decisions should be based on what you’ve heard. Your child will feel loved and respected and as they have been involved in the decision making process and they are more likely to stick to the boundaries that you have set together.

Green Decisions

For Green decisions there is no reason why these can’t be child-led. Agreeing with your co-parent which decisions should be child led is a really good way of enabling your child to feel empowered in a situation that can be very disempowering for them. And if you and your co-parent can agree on which decisions you are happy for your child to take the lead on, then it can be really nice to watch together as your child learns the art of decision making.

A note on ages

The younger your child, the harder it is to work with the structure above, because naturally it is not appropriate for small children to be making big decisions. However, starting early with small decisions that have very little impact is a really good way to open up ways of talking and negotiating that will help them to be involved with decisions about their lives as they grow older.

When not to involve my child?

When a decision can be contentious, or there is going to be high emotions surrounding it, then that’s the time not to involve your child. It’s much better for your child’s emotional wellbeing if you are able to present a united front wherever possible as it tells your child that you are communicating, that you can still be parents together even though you’re not together. That’s the job your child needs you to do. If you’re finding it difficult to make a decision or to talk about a decision, try to see things very truthfully from your co-parent’s point of view. Remember they too love your child. If it’s still hard to resolve, seek the help of a co-parenting coach, mediator or family therapist.

What about for separation decisions?

There has been a great deal of research about the impact of separation on children.  One key point established is the importance of listening to a child’s wishes and feelings to enable them to be heard in decisions that are going to impact them.  There is a clear difference between being heard and putting the responsibility of a decision on a child’s shoulders.  Letting a child (of an appropriate age) know that their parents’ would like to hear their view, whilst making it clear that it will still be up to both parents to make any decision together, can be a useful tool in empowering a child.  This needs to be done carefully to make sure a child does not feel they are ever being asked to pick between parents.

Children’s reactions to separation

Children, like the adults involved, will have an emotional reaction to the separation of their parents. Their experience may depend upon their age and personality and can also be affected by the way in which their parents decide to deal with the separation.

Some common experiences and feelings for children include: –

Denial        – Changes to their parenting and family structure may feel overwhelming and children can avoid accepting this by pretending it is not happening. This can include not telling people, changing the subject, making excuses and attempting to reconcile parents.

Anger        – A child might test the limits and rules and there may be more emotional outburst and disrespect. There can be blame and temper tantrums and often unkind things are said that are not meant.

Bargaining/Trying to save the family

– Children often feel very responsible for their parents separating and will make promises to be good or to become the perfect child in the hope that this brings the family back together. Sometimes they can create physical symptoms and illnesses to seek attention, or misbehave in the hope that their illness or bad behaviour will  force a reconciliation.

Despair and Sadness

  • Children may withdraw from family and friends. Their concentration may be affected and they may have trouble sleeping. Children can become tearful, agitated and have a change in their school performance.

Children may also feel guilt, jealousy, rejection, isolation, have a crisis of identity and feel powerlessness. There may be frustration, confusion and anxiety along with fear and shock.  Some children may feel relieved, calm and hopeful. These feelings can be different child to child and between siblings and they can move between different stages at different times. These feelings may be different to your own. It is really important to listen to your child and hear what is going on for them where possible. Being honest that you’re not going to get back together and tell them that you both love them and will always love them even though you are not together anymore.

How quickly a child may adjust will depend on the level of conflict, their parents ability to adjust and the support they get from their parents. This will also be impacted by their personality, age, gender and stage of development.

Common age related responses from children in response to separation

As a parent managing these reactions from your child can be difficult and it is important that you reduce the stress of separation for children as much as possible as this can have physical, psychological and emotional consequences. General ways to help include:

  • Listening (active listening). Follow up on conversations and provide a constant channel of communication. Don’t force a child to talk if they are not ready. Really focus on what your child is saying, being fully present and not distracted can really help them feel heard.
  • Provide comfort, stable, calm and consistent parenting; focus on the needs of the child and respond to those needs.
  • Minimise exposure the child may have to any conflict there may be between you and your former partner. Make sure you maintain boundaries around adult issues, keeping your issues separate. In other words, don’t talk to your child about your ex’s behaviour.
  • Provide space to the other parent to enable quality time with the child with both parents, where appropriate. Do not try to influence a child, however strongly you may feel.
  • Acknowledge the child’s feelings are normal. Ensure they have a safe space to express how they are feeling. Try not to judge or criticise their feelings even if they may be different to your own. Try to understand things from their perspective and discuss healthy ways for them to deal with the feelings they may be processing.
  • Try to keep routines and consistent predictable arrangements for them.
  • Make it clear that it is not their fault.
  • Acknowledge how they may be feeling and that it is okay to feel sad/angry/however they may be feeling but work to develop positive coping strategies and healthy ways to deal with this and talk about it.
  • Let them know that they are not responsible for making decisions.
  • Let them know they are not responsible for the break-up.
  • Let them know that they are loved by both parents and leaving each other does not mean either of you will be leaving them. Let them know that the love that you have for them will last forever and that they do not need to take sides. This may need to be said more than once.
  • Allow them to spend time with siblings and extended family.
  • Access other help or support when needed (page xxx)
  • Be aware of taking on too much responsibility or trying to be an adult. Allow them to be children.
  • Be honest with age appropriate information but not giving details of why you are separating all the financial issues.

There will be a period of acceptance and adaptation and then resolution. This can take many months and much longer than it takes parents to come to these stages.