When parents live apart following divorce or separation, children are often caught in the middle. Rosanne Cubitt considers how to support effective co-parenting so that everyone can thrive.
Do you work with parents who are living apart and struggling to co-parent their children effectively? Do you see children caught in the middle of their parents' divorce or separation? Relationships Scotland (www.relationships-scotland.org.uk) has developed 'Parenting Apart' groups which are proving useful in supporting families following a split.
There was an identified need from parents, and a gap in services, for a more 'educative', or information providing, intervention. Parent education groups for separated parents have been available in the US for several years, and in 2008, Relationships Scotland invited Christina McGhee, a renowned divorce coach and parent educator, to Scotland to speak to professionals and politicians. Using this experience and that of programmes from other countries, we launched Parenting Apart groups.
Parenting Apart groups are single session, three-hour workshops for parents to learn more about the separation process, particularly the emotional aspects. They provide information on children's reactions at different ages and stages, and focus on what parents can do to help their children. Research on what children think about separation, with key messages for parents, is powerfully presented through a film produced by young people, and participants discuss how to maintain a co-operative post-separation relationship with an ex-partner. Mothers and fathers attend the same workshops, although ex-partners generally choose to attend different groups.
Parents who attend the groups have been overwhelmingly enthusiastic about the insights gained, particularly from sharing experiences and perspectives with others going through the same process. A common response is reflected by one parent, who said the most helpful thing about the group was 'hearing other people's experiences ... you think you are the only one going through this'.
They also say that they have gained a much better understanding of what their children are going through and that they will be able to respond better to their behaviour and emotions.
'I have learned to "listen" to my children more and to appreciate that there is confusion on my oldest daughter's part about what is happening between mum and dad.'
Parenting Apart groups work well alongside the other support parents need when they are separating. The insights gained help parents communicate and negotiate more effectively with each other, whether this is privately, through solicitors, or with the help of mediation. Parents are better able to put their children's needs first and to make arrangements that take into account the stress everyone is experiencing.
Paul and Joanne were participating in family mediation sessions, trying to work out arrangements for their two children following an acrimonious split. They had very different ideas about how the boys' time should be spent between their two houses, and argued at length without making any progress. Their discussions had become stuck. They agreed to give mediation one more go before going back to court to get a sheriff to make the decision for them.
In between mediation sessions, Paul and Joanne attended separate Parenting Apart workshops. Joanne was not keen to go as she said she knew what was important for children, she was the main carer, and she did not need anyone else to tell her how to parent her children. Paul was ambivalent. He thought he would go along and maybe find out something that would support his argument for how much time the boys should spend with him. He was fairly sure the professionals would recognise the importance of fathers to boys, even if Joanne did not.
Both were surprised by the experience. They found themselves in small groups of about eight, with other divorcing or separated parents. They did not find it awkward and they were not asked to share anything they did not want to. The group facilitators discussed research findings about the process of separation, and the need to grieve the ending of the adult relationship.
Joanne realised that she had not thought about the children needing to grieve the loss of their family, and she could appreciate afterwards that some of their behaviour was the result of feeling angry or sad that their dad did not live with them anymore. Watching a film made by young people that gave the children's perspective when parents split up, also based on research, Paul realised that his boys were probably really struggling with trying to please both parents. He decided he should be more careful about not having a row with Joanne in front of them.
Joanne and Paul were both struck by meeting other parents going through a similar experience. Joanne joked to a friend afterwards, Paul isn't the only ex who is a pain to deal with. Paul told a friend there had been another parent at the group who was also really protective about her children, and so perhaps Joanne wasn't being so unreasonable after all.
They returned to mediation a couple of weeks later. The session went much more smoothly than previously. Paul and Joanne were both much better at understanding their boys' needs. They put aside some of their individual concerns to develop a plan that worked well for the children. They agreed how they would communicate in the future, and participated in a further mediation session to finalise the details.
Rosanne Cubitt is head of professional practice for mediation for the national office of Relationships Scotland. She oversees the professional development of family mediators working within the network. She leads on strategic developments, working with external bodies and the Scottish Government. She has led the development of Parenting Apart groups in Scotland. She is an experienced registered family mediator and Parenting Apart group facilitator and a member of the College of Mediators.