I've been really surprised over the last couple of weeks about the amount of chit chat going around about Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes. I guess I've been surprised that we could think that yet another Hollywood separation could be even a little bit interesting. The separation itself was hardly surprising - Katie was eventually going to wise up to Tom's bizarre ways.
What is more important is what happens for their daughter Suri now.... According to the tabloids (so it must be true) Katie plans to go for full custody. Sure, we might be quietly cheering Katie for finally breaking out, because Tom has seemingly been pretty weird these last few years, and scientology has clearly stolen his mind. But like any separation, where the players are personally known to us or not, it's very easy to come out with a view regarding who is the most wronged. But what I've been especially thinking about, is that in amongst all this is a child who is still entitled to good quality parenting input from both parents. Unlike thousands of kids around the world who have parents separating, Suri (is that her name? I do get her name mixed up with the name of the iPhone robot) is now going to be relegated to living out her two home existence from the covers of the magazines.
It is not her fault that her parents could not resolve the issues in their couple relationship. It's important to remember that whilst the parents (and all other separating parents) might be finishing their couple relationship, their parenting relationship is on-going. Once a couple become parents, subsequently separating will not magically remove the ex-partner from the world of the aggrieved person. Instead it must now be about needing to re-negotiate a new relationship as co-parents, so that the child/ren get the type of good quality parenting that they were and are still entitled to.
Like the thousands of parents in the world who separate every day, Tom and Katie will need to negotiate a way in which they can still collaborate as a parenting team. They need to stay focused on this, and so do the teams of expensive lawyers who will now be employed, who will potentially further antagonise the parents against each other, knowing that they (ie. the lawyers) will do better, the more hostility can be generated. But choosing to overlook that when they do escalate the conflict, means that Suri can then only fare worse.
Recent research indicates that for around 70% of couples separating, there will be at least one child under the age of sixteen involved. The following points are really important for separating parents to keep in mind:
1) You started out your relationship as being just a couple. Once you had kids, you also commenced a parenting relationship. You might be finishing your couple relationship, but your parenting relationship is on-going.
2) There will be huge implications for the future well-being and mental health of your child, if you expose them to on-going residual conflict & hostility following the finish of your couple relationship. There is now heaps of research available which demonstrates that being openly and continually critical of the other parent in the presence of the child will have psychological impact. For instance your child or children will be more vulnerable over time to mental health issues such as anxiety or depression. They will be less trusting in their own relationships. Even little things which may seem inoccuous to a parent, can have an impact. This includes complaining in the presence of the child, that the other parent has not paid their child support, and that's there is not enough money to do this or that. Or just eye-rolling, or even sighing loudly when the other parent's name is mentioned is potentially damaging.
3) Remembering that when you are critical of the other parent in the presence of your child, you are covertly asking them to take sides. You are also 'bagging' someone who is hugely central in your child's world. You are also bagging someone who you may not love now, but once did love - and your child still loves, and is entitled to love, regardless of your own current views about that other parent. One of the best things you can therefore do for your child post-separation, is speak positively about (regardless of your own views) the other parent in the presence of your child: " your mum is a great person who loves you very much. She can hardly wait for you to go to her house on Friday..." Or "I bet Dad will have some really fun things to do at his house over the holidays. Remember last time when he took you skiing? He loves taking you guys to the mountains."
4) Remember that kids are usually loyal to both parents. But following separation, they become highly attuned to what they think the parent that they are with at that time, will want to hear. So it's not unusual for a child who actually has a good relationship with mum for instance, to be digging her heels in at dad's house, and not wanting to get in the car and go back to mum's, because she is aware that at the moment, dad can't stand the sight of mum.
5) Kids will also try to minimise the stress in their own lives (as do we all), if it seems there is a potentially easy answer to give. So a request such as "you've had cold all day today, so it's probably better if you don't go to dad's for dinner tonight, OK?" is often likely to be met with agreement, even though they might be pretty keen to see dad. In the end, if it means by agreeing, mum will continue to be in a good mood, then the agreeing happens.
6) The point above highlights the potentially stressful stuff that parents can be (often unintentionally) leading their children towards. This can lead to the biggie for parents who have recently separated: "who do you want to live with?" A huge No No of a question to ask kids, as it is loaded with stress for them. Not only is it asking a child to choose between their parents, which is totally unfair, but again it is asking kids to choose sides (see 3 above), as the parent asking the question, is usually expecting the child to choose them. Kids instinctively know that deciding who they should be living with is important enough for adults to be sorting out. Parents do need to work this out between them. Sure, they might take the opinions of an older child into account, but in the end, there is peace of mind for the child to be told something like "your mum/dad and I have been talking, and we've worked out that you are going to be living with.....But we are both going to make sure you have plenty of time to also be with ......"
7) Stay focused on your child post-separation, give them guidlines, give them reassurance (remembering that in the absence of information, kids can even blame themselves for parents separating), give them structure. Because you might feel guilty about bringing upheavel to their lives (and yes, there will be unpheavel), don't let routines slip away, and don't let them get away with stuff that you would have normally been focused on. It's likely that you will see some decline in their behaviour, but this can be minimsed if you reassure them (and answer their questions without burdening them with your worries), and provide as much semblance of "life as usual." The very time that parents are likley to be caught up in their own anger or grief is in those weeks and months post-separation, happens to also co-incide with when kids are most likely to need their parents.
8) Don't use your child because of your hurt and anger, to get at the other parent. Most parents are aghast that they would ever do this, yet it happens so often. (If nobody is doing it, why is this point the one that is most commonly mentioned in all the literature relating to parenting post separation??) Maybe they don't see that they are doing it, maybe they might be somewhat ashamed to admit they might be doing it? Who knows..... The most common form that this takes is a child not being made available to spend time with the other parent, even though that other parent and the child are expecting to see each other: "I know I should have brought Ella over to your place this morning. But she watched a late movie last night, and I just couldn't wake her up this morning..."
I've written about this stuff before and I could bang on and on about it forever, because it is so important. The points above only begin to touch on this. Please contact me here if you have any questions about parenting post-separation. If you live in New Zealand, chances are you would be entitled to access free counselling to assist you with this.
"Some occasional thoughts about families, relationships, and other things that distract us...."