How involved should your kids be in your divorce?

A new Australian study reveals that when it comes to divorce and separation, keeping kids out of it may not be as kind as previously believed.

Parenting through a divorce is a tricky task. You want your kids to pull through with as little damage as possible, and to avoid making your issues their issues. And this is a key reason many a parent will keep the details and decision making on the down-low, says relationship counsellor, Clinton Power.

“A lot of couples worry about their child’s capacity to deal with an impending breakup and the long-term effects of the divorce on their child’s development. For this reason, they often try to shield them from their separation proceedings,” Power says.

Unfortunately, a new report released by the Australian Institute of Family Studies reveals children and young people want to be heard more often in family law decision-making and to have their views taken seriously by both parents and professionals.

Having interviewed 61 children and young people aged between 10 to 17 years old, the study found many felt dissatisfied with their level of input and with how well they were kept informed in the decisions about their living arrangements after their parents’ separation.

A whopping three-quarter of those surveyed said they wanted their parents to listen more to their views when they were working out parenting arrangements. Most also wanted to be heard better by family law professionals, and stated they wanted to have ‘someone’ to listen to them, then communicate their views so that they could be considered when it came to making decisions.

Essentially, kids living through a divorce felt the legal process focused moreon what their parents wanted than their concerns. Even more worryingly, some described distressing breaches of trust when, having recounted experiences of family violence, they were reunited with the perpetrator during the family report sessions or when they faced repercussions from a parent on the release of a family report.

One horrific example includes a child who, upon recounting tales of abuse by one parent, then had to sit in the room as the said parent was bought in, their comments shared, and the parent then asked to confirm they would no longer be physically abusive now that it had been reported.

The future of child-friendly divorce

While there’s realistically no bulletproof way to separate and spare your kids feelings, the report has highlighted the need for changes in how children are consulted during the process. In terms of service, the report has recommended the following steps to make the family law system more child-inclusive:

• Enabling children to contribute to, and be accurately heard in the decision-making process, and keeping them independently informed of the nature and progress of this decision-making process.

• Giving children a clear and accurate explanation of any decisions made.

• Providing access to ongoing therapeutic support and assistance as required.

• Allowing the potential for flexibility to change parenting arrangements and have ongoing and meaningful communication.

• Providing relevant training to professionals to improve their ability to build trust with, and support, children and young people.

So what does that mean for parents currently undergoing a divorce?

As well as talking openly with your child and advocating for them when their needs are being overlooked by the professionals, Clinton says there needs to be a balance between the privacy of the parents making adult decisions, and the inclusion of the children in making important decisions about their future.

“That said, healthy parenting would involve taking your child’s input into account, though their input might not determine the final outcome,” Clinton says.

He adds the strongest and most robust families can have open and honest communication with each other. Conversely, families that are closed, rule-bound, and have tight boundaries can have a negative impact on the development of the children in the family.

“If you can communicate without conflict, it can be very helpful to have a family meeting to discuss some of the issues. During this time, you can describe in concrete terms that the relationship between the parents is ending and the family is going to change,” he suggests.

But what if you and your ex just aren't on the same page?

Even if you’re not able to do this as a pair, you can still be mindful of their needs yourself, Clinton stresses. Listen to your child with empathy and reassure them they have a right to feel how they feel. Ask if they feel they are being heard by all involved – including by you as well as their other parent.

Therapy can also be useful, says Clinton, providing a safe and facilitated environment so everyone's view can be heard. This can be done as a family, as a one on one session for them (or yourself – no one is suggesting hearing their feelings or the process of divorce itself isn’t sometimes going to sting!) - or both.

Need help finding help for your children?

You can search for a qualified therapist specialising in children and divorce through the Australian Psychology Society (or ask your GP for a referral). There are also plenty of online resources available to help you navigate this time with them, and provide them with a helpful, confidential way to talk to someone about any worries they may be reluctant to share with you. Here are a few of our recommendations

•  Kids Help Line
•  Headspace 
•  Youth Beyond Blue 

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