When you are young your parents are the centre of your world. I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that. Your world revolves around them. They don’t just provide the practical necessities like a roof, food and toys – it’s so much more than that. You draw your sense of identity from your parents and they teach you how to understand the world around you. They provide that vital sense of safety and stability we all need as we undertake the complicated business of growing up.
Or at least they should do. Sadly, however, many children are not so lucky and grow up with difficult and selfish parents. Relationship breakdown is a common trigger for such emotional turmoil. Of course, many parents divorce or split up in the 21st Century, but some really struggle to put their children’s needs first when this happens.
In a quietly moving article for the Guardian, Cafcass highlights the plight of children caught up in parental acrimony and the emotional harm they can suffer as a result. The service notes one of the more neglected differences between care proceedings and private family disputes:
“By the very nature of care proceedings (where a local authority takes action because the threshold for significant harm towards a child has been met), children’s mental health is often an issue that the court and professionals are aware of. Around 60% of looked after children and 72% of those in residential care have some level of emotional and mental health problems.”
The article continues:
“In contrast, a child involved in private law proceedings is not seen as being overtly ‘at risk’ of developing mental health issues. However children’s long-term emotional and mental health can be put at risk through enduring family or parental conflict, sometimes with long-term, detrimental effects.”
The service sees many cases in which parental acrimony inflicts emotional damage on children, the article states. Some see their parents arguing or behaving badly towards each other, and others attempt to emotionally manipulate their children.
“All too often children are caught up in adult disputes, with children forced into the position of playing inappropriate roles – that of spy, messenger, judge, or witness, for example.”
It would not be too strong to say that such behaviour is a form of abuse. The emotional and behavioural consequences can be very plain, says Cafcass.
“In one case a boy of six regularly hit and swore at his peer group. In another, a Cafcass officer could do nothing at that first meeting with a young person in her first year of secondary school but allow her to cry silently. She had ‘been caught in the middle’ for years, desperately trying to please both parents and the emotional distress she was suffering as a result was both acute and chronic.”
Such accounts are always distressing to read, and reading them it is very hard not to wonder about the parents who help to inflict such misery on their children. I’m sure few of them have genuinely bad motives – many, I’m sure, simply get caught up in their own dramas and can no longer see the wood for the trees. Some perhaps had similar experiences when they were young and so such behaviour seems normal on some level to them. Whatever the reason, you can be sure their kids will carry the scars for years.
Children will always be upset when their parents split up. Their world has been rocked. But Mums and Dads can make it so much easier for their children by not rowing or arguing in front of them or criticising the other parent when they are within earshot. They can do so by not forcing the children to take sides, by not distorting their perceptions of the parent who has moved out or denying them the chance to build a relationship with them. As far as children are concerned, that parent is – or was – half their world.
The courts take a dim view of parents who fail to grasp these very basic principles.