By Leigh Moriarty, The Conflict Clinic
A little less than a year ago, myself and my colleague Ashley Palmer published the UK’s first ever Handover Book which is a communication tool for separated parents. The book was conceived in the context of our relationship with many separated families who were searching for a resource that enabled them to reduce parental conflict, improve communication and create a more robust co-parenting relationship post separation.
This article aims to provide an explanation of why the book was created in the context of our many years’ experience of working therapeutically with children and families.
Since it’s delivery to the world of family law, the book has been gaining momentum both in the UK and Australia. It is fast being recognised as an invaluable tool in the context of Family Mediation, Court ordered parenting programmes and across the field of Alternative Dispute Resolution.
In the UK, the Handover Book is now court ordered for separated parents involved in court proceedings and is recommended by Court Consultants in their Section 7 reports.
As a Systemic Family Psychotherapist, Mediator and consultant for Collaborative Law, I have for many years immersed myself in the world of working with families presenting with a myriad of difficulties and dilemmas in many contexts. My curiosity has grown over time in relation to how best to support clients through the transition of separation and divorce. How to assist parents with being able to navigate their own journeys of separating whilst centralizing the emotional and physical needs of their children.
Conflict is a normal and inevitable part of family life. However, the inability to resolve conflict and move forward in a constructive way can have a negative impact on parents and children’s psychological well-being both in the short term and over time. Wittgenstein (1958) suggests that if mediation is deemed a success then parties involved know how to ‘go on’.
Reflecting on my work with separated parent’s positions me to consider some of the common dilemmas presented in the context of my work.
Entrenched stories of conflict, blame and hostility towards one another. Winslade and Monk (2000) suggest that for those of us working with separated parents our goal is to contribute to building a story of a relationship that is incompatible with the continuing dominance of the conflict and that we need to open the space for people to make discursive shifts.
When this can be achieved, we create new future possibilities for enabling parents to be able to mentalize about their child’s emotional fragility and to consider what needs to be different in relation to facilitating a smooth transition between homes post-separation.
Whilst consulting with children in the context of this work, I have heard all too often a dominant narrative of experience which is punctuated by episodes in which a child feels painfully positioned between waring parents. A sense of divided loyalty, blame and a responsibility for passing and filtering information from one parent to another. In its extreme these children will resist contact with one parent and align themselves with the other because the turmoil is too great to bear. Sadly, the unresolved parental conflict will often lead to long and protracted court proceedings and the presentation of emotional difficulties for the child in the future.
Research over the last decade has provided deeper insight into not only the outcomes for children of exposure to destructive conflict but also how children are affected and why some children appear more vulnerable or resilient than others. Research has also focussed on how family relationship patterns are passed from one generation to the next. One explanation is that conflict between parents disturbs other relationships within the family such as between a parent and child. (Grych and Fincham, 2001). There is also evidence to suggest that a family environment marked by destructive conflict affects normal developmental processes, such as brain development, which in turn affect children’s emotional, behavioural and social development. Goozen et al, 2007)
An integral part of my work with separated parents is to support parents to understand the importance of their own emotional regulation in order that they hold in mind the positive effect that this will have on their child’s emotional development by increasing their child’s sense of security and belonging. In turn, this will enable them to accept and trust in the attachment relationship.
A child transitioning between both homes may experience a parent presenting as highly anxious before and after contact with the other parent because the parents are conflicted and distrustful of one another. This may be verbalized or covertly communicated through action. Often, in my experience children of highly conflicted separated parents are highly attuned to the subtle messages of concern that parents display.
When a child feels unable to talk about their experience of contact in either home this can also exacerbate parental anxiety. A vital component to children feeling able to have the emotional permission to have a close and loving relationship with both parents is their ability to express their feelings and emotions without fear of upsetting a parent or contributing to the already conflicted parental relationship. This process is often referred to as emotional literacy which is the ability to recognise, understand, manage and appropriately express emotions. Children who are able to do this are often more able to initiate a helpful response from others and develop strategies for coping and building resilience.
In my experience, it becomes essential for children of separated parents to be able to develop these skills. Sometimes as part of the therapeutic work this is about supporting and developing one or both parent’s ability to do this with their child. If a child is only able to achieve this with one parent they will feel the need to ‘hold it together’ for the duration of the contact with that parent but on returning to the other parent whereby they feel emotionally contained their presentation is often one of ‘emotional dysregulation’ which in turn raises that parents anxiety about their time in the care of the other parent.
Arising from our work with separated families, the issues of concern highlighted in this article are common, regardless of the context in which parents are engaging in a service to resolve issues arising from the separation. Whether that be mediation, collaborative law, parenting programmes or therapy. What appeared to be evident was that armed with a plethora of information about the need to develop a workable co-parenting relationship which centralized the needs of the children, parents were often unsure as to how to implement this approach.
The Handover Book creates the opportunity for children to see their parents working co-operatively and diminishes children feeling a sense of divided loyalty. Furthermore, it increases their ability to develop their emotional permission to have a loving relationship with both parents.
The book which is passed from one parent to another aims to reduce conflict and improve communication post-separation.
It is designed for separated parents but it will also be a fantastic resource for any professional working with separated parents who believe in a constructive and non-confrontational approach to Family Law. It centralizes the practical and emotional needs of the child and the completion of the book creates the development of a robust co-parenting plan. The book is divided into sections relating to all areas of a child’s life which parents need to be involved in such as contact arrangements, education and health.
Because this is a book which should be shared with all family members, there is also a children’s section in order for their voice to be heard. Through the correct use of the book, children are encouraged to talk positively about their experiences in both homes which in turn will enable them to have the ’emotional permission’ to have a positive relationship with both parents. We have also included some therapeutic tools for parents in order to support and encourage them to talk to their children about how they are feeling.
In the UK, a number of family law professionals have undergone training to deliver Handover Book sessions for parents wanting to get the most out of the book. We are in the process of developing an on-line training programme for our colleagues in Australia in order to equip them with the skills needed for delivering these sessions with parents alongside FDRS already currently offered.
The aim of the Handover Book session is for an experienced practitioner to guide parents through the process of implementing The Handover Book which is a working tool which if used correctly will improve parental communication, reduce conflict and create a robust co-parenting relationship post-separation.
At the Handover Book session, the practitioner will navigate parents through each section of the book in relation to what information needs to be shared as well as the practicalities of using the book so that their children can transition from one home to the other as smoothly as possible thus reducing the likelihood of fraught and stressful handovers.
The Handover Book is in its infancy. In light of this, to date research is qualitative. Feedback from professionals working in the arena of Family Law has been extremely positive. For professionals working with parents involved in on-going court proceedings, the book is being used as an evidenced based assessment tool for ascertaining parent’s commitment to working cooperatively in developing a co-parenting relationship. Court ordered parenting programmes are integrating the book as part of the course programme to give parents a workable tool to implement their knowledge gained on the course. When used as part of the mediation process, completion of the book forms the basis for a robust co-parenting plan.
But let’s bring it back to what this book is really about!!
On-going conflict and hostility can have a profound effect on children’s emotional wellbeing and shape the formation of their relationships for years to come. The ability for children to transition smoothly between both homes, talk openly about their experiences to both parents and be confident in the knowledge that having a close and loving relationship with both parents post separation is integral to their development.
Whilst in principle parents understand the importance of shielding their children from conflict and hostility, in reality this can be a struggle. Quite often, parents can be blaming of each other, fearful of losing their relationship with their child or resentful about the breakdown of their relationship. This conflict is played out post separation through the use of destructive communication, exposing the children to explosive handovers or positioning the children to pass information from one parent to another. In its extreme, parents can alienate their children from the other parent exacerbating the child’s sense of divided loyalty and inability to feel that they have the emotional permission to have a close and loving relationship with both parents.
It is our hope that The Handover Book will assist professionals to support separated parents to strengthen their parental alliance and in doing so develop a co-parenting relationship for the future.
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