What About Henry? – How Do Children and Teens Think?
FLiP family law associate and mediator Nicole Phillips is the family lawyer guest on the six-week training programme, “What About Henry?”. In this blog Nicole summarises the top tips coming out of the first session on the impact of divorce and separation on children and teens (Wednesday 3rd November 2021). Details of how to sign onto the course can be found at the bottom of this page.
I am delighted to be the family lawyer guest on the six-week training programme, ‘What About Henry?’. The programme is delivered by Clinical Psychologist Dr Angharad Rudkin and is aimed at professionals working with separating parents.
Understanding the psychology of separation and divorce from the child’s perspective has not always, in my experience, been recognised as a vital part of skills training for family lawyers, so I am really pleased that the ‘What About Henry?’ course is here to fill that gap.
Some key takeaways from the first session include:
Age really does matter!
The child’s age has a significant bearing on their understanding of separation and divorce. Angharad explained that children under five understand far more than we as adults may think. Even as babies, children are perceptive beings and remarkably in tune with the emotions of their caregivers, as this video illustrates so well.
Angharad explained that children are naturally self-centred, and it is only as they grow and mature, especially beyond the toddler years, that they develop ‘theory of mind’ enabling them to see the world from another person’s perspective. The way children see the world makes it far more likely that they will blame themselves for their parents’ separation, even when, from an adult perspective, it is clear that they are not to blame.
Attention seeking behaviours in children are often a symptom of underlying anxiety.
Angharad explained that around the time of separation older children often exhibit attention seeking behaviours. Whilst adults may be perplexed and irritated by these disruptive behaviours, they are so often the child’s way of communicating feelings of anxiety. What children are often really saying to their parents is ‘help’. Parents can alleviate the behaviours by naming the emotion behind the behaviour to the child, for example, fear, and giving the child extra reassurance that they are loved and that the separation is not their fault.
An agreed narrative of the separation will help children make sense of it.
If children are not actively helped to understand the circumstances of their parents’ separation, they will probably fill in the gaps with beliefs which are profoundly unhelpful for them, such as self-blame. Whilst parents may have very different narratives to explain their separation, they are usually capable of agreeing some neutral statements to explain their decision to separate in simple terms. Delivering an agreed explanation to children will help them make sense of their parents’ separation and will reduce the likelihood of children internalising feelings of blame.
Reassurance, reassurance and more reassurance.
Every child is impacted by the fact of their parents’ separation and many children will experience fear and worry. As adults we all have rituals which pepper life with moments of comfort or joy; for example, a coffee in the morning, lighting a candle or enjoying a long bath. Children can be helped to do the same by compiling a ‘tool kit’, which can be kept in each parents’ home. The child’s tool kit can consist of objects which bring the child reassurance; for example a prized toy, stickers or a favourite book which will be there for the child to turn to as and when needed.
This week Angharad will cover attachment theory and how it can help us to understand the needs of children and parents experiencing separation and divorce. I am sure this will make for a fascinating session. Further details can be found here.
Nicole Phillips is a specialist family lawyer and mediator at FLiP. Nicole’s aim is to lend a listening ear and navigate her clients through their divorce and separation with dignity and sensitivity. Nicole strives to provide first rate legal guidance and clarity around different options whilst providing tactical and commercial advice and emotionally intelligent solutions.