Television drama “Dr Foster” is pulling in millions of viewers every week with its tangled storyline of an embittered divorced couple.
The nail-biting series is an abject lesson in how not to co-parent following divorce. In the latest episode viewers turned to Twitter to vent their anger about the parenting skills of Dr Gemma Foster and ex husband Simon.
The couple’s 15-year-old son Tom, caught in the middle of his parents’ acrimony, finally cracked under the pressure. He was excluded from school for punching his best friend; he sexually assaulted a girl at a party and trashed a café.
The episode ended with Gemma and Tom leaving their hometown after the father had banned his son from the new house he shares with his much younger second wife and baby.
So just how wrong are Dr Foster and her ex when it comes to parenting– and how could they do it better?
Teenagers like Tom are particularly sensitive to feeling that mum or dad may not want to see them, so changing arrangements about where they live at the last minute is disruptive and may be emotionally damaging.
Agree and stick to where the child lives, and how often he or she sees their other parent. Be practical – if one parent lives some way from school then how realistic is it to have midweek stays? Teenagers will have their own views too, particularly if mum or dad has a new partner or there is a new baby.
Dealing with an ex
It can be hard to keep feelings about an ex under control, particularly if the divorce was acrimonious or if they have a new partner and family. However, angry confrontations in front of children of any age, but particularly teenagers, are unhelpful.
Do not use a teenager as a go between for messages, or quiz them about time spent with the other parent. They should be able to feel comfortable in their relationship with both mum and dad, and not fearful of taking sides.
Certainly do not antagonise an ex by secretly filming them, or photographing them when they are drunk (“Dr Foster” again) – and do not even think about sharing such images with your teenager.
Reassure and listen
Listen to teenagers and encourage them to talk about how they feel – but do not force them to talk. Often teenagers find it easier to talk to a close relative or family friend – someone who is objective and not taking sides.
Above all, reassure teenagers that both parents love them – and give them permission to love the other parent. One of the few things that the fictional GP did get right was to tell her son that he was loved unconditionally, despite his violent outbursts.
It is helpful to let school know about any change in domestic arrangements, or to flag up concerns about the child’s emotional wellbeing. Both parents need to agree a joint approach to dealing with school matters, and if called to a meeting at school about behaviour or performance they should present a united front.
If a teenager is unhappy at school then discuss and agree together what action to take, and involve him or her in the decision making process if a move to a new school is an option.
Ask the school about the emotional support they can offer – perhaps there is a sympathetic teacher who will listen to the teenager’s concerns in confidence. Probably the least helpful action any parent could take is to follow Gemma Foster’s example and embark on an affair with their son’s teacher!
Privacy and space
Teenagers need their own space – and for their privacy to be respected. Ideally they need their own room at each parent’s home, but if that is not possible then at least a quiet corner where they can do their homework.
All teenagers will shut themselves a way in their rooms at some time, but do be aware if they are doing this too often, or if they are spending a lot of time online.
Respect their need to see their friends – and to acknowledge that this might sometimes affect the time they spend with one or both parents.
Seek expert help
Sometimes parental support and love is not enough and parents may need call on expert support. If a teenager’s behaviour or wellbeing gives cause for concern then it is time to turn to the professionals. Silk Family Law can help parents find experienced counsellors and therapists, and there are a number of useful online resources:
CAFCASS, the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, offers an online parenting plan, which may assist parents in formulating and collating their agreed arrangements in writing. There is also lots of useful advice on the website https://www.cafcass.gov.uk/grown-ups/parenting-plan.aspx
Voices in the Middle is a website run by young people who have been affected by divorce – resources include powerful case studies and videos http://voicesinthemiddle.org.uk
Mental health charity Young Minds has resources for both parents and children http://www.youngminds.org.uk/for_parents/worried_about_your_child/divorce_separation
Relationship charity Relate has extensive online information on parenting together, including dealing with teenagers http://www.relate.org.uk/relationship-help/help-family-life-and-parenting/parenting-together
Do you have any questions about children in divorce or any query about separation or divorce? You can contact Nia directly on firstname.lastname@example.org or phone her on 01748 900 993. You can follow Silk on Twitter @silkfamilylaw