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Ex-Partner vs. Other Parent

Having had a bad experience with an ex-partner can leave such a suspicious imprint that it’s hard not to hold a dim view of them once you separate. Having proven so unsuitable as a partner, it’s all too easy to convince yourself that they must be a lousy parent too.

Questioning and reflecting back on the relationship, you may have felt frustrated by their ‘lack of presence’ when you were together but have noticed that since your separation your ex is suddenly laying claim to being ‘parent of the year’. Or they appear to be doing all the things you wished you could have done together as a couple and as a family. Now suddenly they want ‘more time’ with your child compared to when you were a couple and they were far too busy working. And just when you were hoping to keep the contact to a minimum after separation – now they are taking you to court over it!

But let’s say your couple relationship was simply not working well and the other parent was not at their best – and possibly neither were you. Then, of course, any changes in their behaviour may now seem highly suspicious. However, the chances are that your negative views of your ex will seriously skew your aspirations for your child as you are likely to react towards them with a lack of confidence or belief in their parenting skills or disregard them by literally not wanting to discuss parenting issues or even think about them.

There is bound to be an overlapping of co-parenting issues that affect your child’s relationship with their other parent. Also your difference in parenting styles will become more obvious and you may perceive this as an irritant or obstacle to your newfound solo parenting style, believing “it’s better not to have to deal with them or have them around – it’s far too much bother!”

Sometimes separation can change someone. They may not be the same person you once knew. Most parents want to be the best possible parent they can be for their child. Of course they may not live up to your ‘standards’ and there are going to be times when your child comes back exhausted and cranky from spending time with the other parent. This does not necessarily mean that your child is not in safe hands.

A child experiencing divorce or separation can be both emotionally and physically tired moving between different homes and adapting to different parenting styles. There is a period of re-adjustment for them – just as there will be for you.   Getting used to being without your child and missing them is very hard and ultimately avoiding any contact with the other parent is highly unlikely.

Some parents are eager to find fault in the other parent, contributing to persistent negative profiling and intent on building a ‘case’ against them, claiming that everything they do is ‘in the child’s best interest’. Behaving this way helps vindicate and reinforce reasoning behind separation.

Your child has a legal right to see both parents and confusing your intimate couple relationship with your ex’s parenting skills could be seen as depriving them of that right. Denying your child a meaningful relationship with their other parent is an active criticism. And honestly assessing the difference between your wishes or those of your child can be a tricky conundrum to disentangle, especially when your child is probably telling you exactly what you want to hear. Sometimes seeking professional support can help you achieve a more neutral stance and filter out the emotions from the situation.

Unless there are safeguarding issues and concerns over child contact arrangements, your child has more rights than you do as a parent. The term ‘parental responsibility’ focuses on the parent’s duties towards their child rather than the parent’s rights over their child. Ask yourself if you are really doing the right thing for your child.  As tempting as it may be to overrule your child’s right to see their other parent and to overtly or subtly criticise your ex, it is ultimately up to your child to decide what they think of each parent and they will be the judge of how well you each fared as separated parents.

Experiencing Divorce/Separation: The Effects of Stress on the Brain

Going through divorce/separation is extremely stressful for most people as they try to find a way through the minefield of legal and financial implications, whilst navigating the complex parenting and emotional issues that arise during the process.

Over time, elevated levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) can chip away at our physical, mental and emotional health. Links between chronic stress and the potential for mental health conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression and other mood disorders, is well established.

Here are four ways that stress changes and affects your brain: 

  1. Stress triggers a chemical change that makes you irritable 

Many of us know that we’re not pleasant to be around when we’re feeling stressed. We are more likely to get irritable and possibly express this in negative ways towards others i.e. lacking sociability, avoiding interactions with peers, demonstrating dissatisfaction, impatience, mistrust, etc.

We may also experience impaired memory or understanding as under pressure, we are more likely to get distracted and forgetful – a sign of the destructive effects of stress in the brain.

  1. Chronic stress can shrink the brain

Stressful life events can harm your brain’s memory and learning capacity by reducing the volume of gray matter in brain regions associated with emotions, self-control and physiological functions. Chronic stress and/or depression can contribute to lost volume in the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which is associated with emotional and cognitive impairment.           Researchers found this is particularly true of people with a genetic marker that can disrupt the formation of synaptic connections between brain cells. Even short-term stress can lead to communication issues among brain cells associated with memory & learning.

  1. Even one stressful event can kill off brain cells 

As we learn new information, we are constantly generating new neurons in the hippocampus, a brain region associated with learning, memory & emotion. But ongoing stress can halt the production of new neurons and may also affect the speed of connections between cells. Studies have found that even a single stressful event can destroy newly created neurons in the hippocampus as this region of the human brain is especially vulnerable to ongoing emotional distress, because of the damaging effects of cortisol.

  1. Stress triggers the brain’s ‘fight-or-flight’ threat response

While cortisol hampers the learning & memory activity of the hippocampus, it increases the size and activity of the amygdala, the brain’s main centre for emotional responses. The amygdala is responsible for processing fear, threat perception and the fight-or-flight response. This increased activity can lead to a state of panic or alarm, constantly reacting to perceived threats, restricting our ability to take in new information. It can also heighten our emotional reactions in such a way that we demonstrate irrational, angry, confrontational behavioural responses due to extreme duress and distress we experience.

Anxiety & Depression in Children: are your kids riding a cortisol roller coaster?

Concerned about your child who seems fatigued, frazzled and lacking in motivation?  This could be linked to their cortisol levels and over exposure to stress when they were younger.

Research has discovered a link between child behavioural issues, high cortisol levels and poor performance at school. Cortisol is the steroid hormone produced by the cortex of the adrenal gland that helps in responding to and coping with stress, trauma and environmental extremes. It regulates our blood glucose, the immune system and helps to increase energy and metabolism and regulate blood pressure. But when cortisol is over-secreted during our ‘fight or flight’ response, it can cause physical and mental health issues and over time can become diluted.‎

It would seem that the body adapts to long-term exposure to stress by diluting or shutting down the cortisol system – which affects our overall health if not functioning well and helping regulate our hormonal responses.

Children demonstrating either ‘internalising’ behaviours, such as depression and anxiety or ‘externalising’ behaviours, such as aggression or attention deficit are on the cortisol ‘roller coaster’. Over time, too much internalising or externalising can create a blunting affect to cortisol levels.  It’s like shaking up a cola bottle. The bottle once containing a normal amount of bubbles, becomes so full of energetic bubbles that it either explodes or erupts in short, sharp bursts until there is virtually no fizz left or it’s all gone flat.

Teenagers who deal with prolonged stress issues become disengaged and less reactive to normal stresses. They often don’t step up academically or get busy studying for exams as quickly as their peers.  A frazzled seemingly ‘not bothered’ attitude can become the norm. Fatigue can ensue and this impaired stress response can lead to further anxiety and depression.

Mood disorders, as well as ongoing anxiety and depression can manifest and lead to physical changes in the brain. The brain shifts into less functional patterns, altering mood and affecting short-term memory function.

So what are some of the contributory factors to high cortisol levels? Over-worked at school; separated or divorced parents and exposure to their conflict; bullying; long-term friendship issues; poverty; family loss and abandonment are just a few indicators.

How can we tackle the issue? By seeking professional help from nutritionists and therapists; trying to avoid stressful situations and keeping the channels of communication open. Following a healthy diet, regular exercise, reducing caffeine, ensuring more rest and better care of oneself is key.

Don’t let it get to a state of crisis! If young children are showing signs of stress then seek help as soon as possible!

Depression in Adults: feeling weighed down in an old deep-sea diving suit?

Almost 1 in 4 adults are being diagnosed with a mental health illness in the UK today, of which the most common diagnosis is depression. That’s a quarter of the population who have or will experience depression at some point in their lives.

Depression is the fastest growing ‘silent’ illness with many people suffering in silence and abject misery, feeling too ‘ashamed’ or embarrassed to seek any kind of help. Some become so fearful of being tagged with a mental health label, they increasingly isolate themselves, hiding in the shadows and remaining undiagnosed.

Some may have been advised to ‘get over it’ or told ‘you’ll be fine’ and believe they need to maintain a ‘stiff upper lip and all that’.  Either way, depression is still a subject and issue that is hard to bring to the surface and talk about openly. By nature of the effects, most sufferers of depression find it extremely hard to reach out and ask for help.

Working with people who have suffered various levels of depression, I would liken the symptoms to the feeling of being stuck in an old deep-sea diving suit in the deepest, darkest seas, far from land.

Incapacitated, as if wearing lead-filled boots that keep you stuck at the bottom, with your neck and head weighed down by heavy metal helmet,  you’re hoping that your only access to oxygen – through a plastic tube – does not fail. Land, people and society seem so far away and all sound is muffled by the crashing waves and turbulence of dark sea. Ocean creatures seem all the more menacing. You feel ‘cast away’ from the delights of what seems to be the happening in outside world, on safe land or from those even enjoying the beauty and tranquillity of the sea.

‎Sufferers can have numerous physical symptoms too such as constant tiredness, insomnia,  loss of appetite and libido, lack of motivation as well as other physical aches and pains. Emotional symptoms range from lows to highs with frequent peaks of anxiety. When feeling in ‘low’ spirits, many feel overwhelmed, crying frequently, experiencing extreme lethargy and finding it hard to concentrate.  When ‘high’ one can feel useless, like a burden on others, perhaps not being able to get out of bed, struggling to function at work or socially, with possible persistent suicidal thoughts.

If the above sounds familiar, please don’t suffer in silence – seek help! There is a tendency for people to leave it at crisis point, believing it will pass. If you are unsure why not carry out a self-assessment by visiting the NHS link: ‎http://www.nhs.uk/Tools/Pages/depression.aspx

Many single, separated parents feel unable to parent their children, feeling weighed down and stuck in their own kind of diving suit. So if you are still feeling depressed or recognise the above symptoms after a couple of years of separation then please do seek specialist support.

If you are feeling particularly alone and unsupported during separation or divorce please take a look at our Separation S.O.S. page or consider coming along to a Kids Come First Separated Parent Support Workshop.