Parenting is full of joys and challenges. Sometimes there is more joy than challenge and then there are those days when there seem to be only challenges to face with little joy. This is the case whether you are parenting together or apart. For parents who find themselves navigating the end of their relationship there can be some new and very significant challenges to face. While you may not have agreed on everything while you were together, chances are you found a way through. But now that you have separated it can seem like you are parenting from seemingly different worlds.
Thanks to countless amounts of worldwide research we know that relationship breakdown does not of itself damage children. It is the conflict that can ensue for years and years after a divorce that will ensure that children don’t achieve their full potential in life. This conflict for many separated parents is played out daily in their communication with each other- the inability to share a civil word without it turning quickly into a hateful argument. The children who experience this type of high-conflict parenting for the duration of their childhood are at significant risk of developmental harm. These children may:
- Lose their ability to trust others
- Have low self-belief
- Have little capacity to manage their own emotions
- Demonstrate their distress by acting out or through poor behaviour
- Have difficulty maintaining friendships and relationships
- Not perform as well at school as other children
- Have difficulty forming healthy adult relationships later in life
High-conflict parents will be the first to tell you that they are not at fault – it is always the other person. They will be so far involved in their own conflict that they won’t be able to see the ‘wood for the trees’. Only with specialised professional assistance can these parents improve their parenting techniques.
The legal system is rife with high conflict parents and yet we are so limited in our capacity to offer any meaningful assistance. We can draft long and detailed Orders that will ensure that these parents have almost every moment of their parenting lives accounted for in an attempt to reduce points for conflict, but at the end of the day it requires a significant shift in the mindset and behaviour of both parents to really save their children from harm.
The place to start any change for conflictual parents is in how they communicate with each other. But this is a real challenge. The problem here is not surprising- often a relationship has ended because the couple have not, for some time, had any capacity to communicate well and then of course as a part of their separation, this only becomes worse. It is a big ask for anyone to suddenly turn this around, to change things and to start communicating sensibly.
I was speaking with a friend the other day who is a psychologist working with separating families and she shared with me a great tip for parents who find themselves in the situation where they are not able to talk and when they do it is only unhelpful. She spoke to me about ‘communication books’. Now unless you are a family lawyer or a parent in the middle of a highly conflictual parenting dispute you may never have heard of a communication book before and even if you have- let me assure you this is a new take on these age old exercise books!
A communication book is normally a 48c notebook from Coles in which parents who refuse to talk, write notes to each other every other week to inform the other parent of ‘important’ information regarding their children. The trap for most conflictual parents is it is just too tempting to add the occasional snide titbit at the end of each page to ensure the other parent is constantly reminded of their displeasure.
I have never been a fan of communication books I think because I don’t like the idea of children ‘carrying’ what can be toxic notes between their parents, particularly as once they reach about 7 or 8 years of age there is a good chance they will be able to read and understand the contents of their book. Communication books are still used by separating families but perhaps not as frequently as in years gone by thanks to email, text and other internet based options.
But I think there is something refreshing about my friend Maria’s take on communication books. She said to me she has her clients each sit down with their kids and decorate every page of the communication book using glue, textas and all things glitter! That way, each week as the parents are writing their messages to each other they are reminded, page by page, just what this book is meant to be about. And perhaps more importantly their children have a sense of personal pride in the piece of art that they carry between their two homes.
I have seen many a communication book but never have I seen one decorated page by page by parents and children together and this is an idea I love.
So if you have found yourself in a painful situation of toxic communication remember you can change. It won’t be easy and it will take some time but the place to start is to consider whether you really need to communicate at all. I recently set a client a challenge to not text, telephone or email her ex-husband at all for a week. It might sound easy but for these two, who could not go a day without a toxic exchange, this was going to be a real challenge. She struggled, but got there and I could see the change in her when she quickly realised that if she just stopped, so too did the conflict.
In our day and age of email, text and social media I sense there could be something very powerful in a sparkly exercise book to at least get some families back on the right track when things have gone too far.