Over the past two weeks I have found myself talking about yellow cars over and over. As a family lawyer I do not profess to be an expert in motor vehicles but I can assure you my “yellow car theory” seems to have a lot of application in the mine field that is post separation parenting.
My first car (by first I mean first bought by me, not handed down from my parents) was a gorgeous yellow car. I called her ‘Florabelle’. Florabelle was a soft yellow with beige interior and I just loved her! Just after I bought Florabelle I began to notice so many other ‘Florabelles’ on the road. They were everywhere! I was so disappointed as I had bought Florabelle thinking that she was going to be unique and then everywhere I turned I found someone driving a car just like mine!
I of course realise now that there were just as many Florabelles on the road prior to my Florabelle, but after I had one I started to pay so much more attention and actually started to see them! And there it is- “yellow car syndrome”- unless you are looking for them you won’t see those yellow cars, but once you are looking for them, they will be everywhere!
I understand my creation- “yellow car syndrome” is referred to as a part of the theory of filtering by psychologists- the idea that the human brain, in order to function, filters information into ‘important’ and ‘not important’ in order to process the world. After I bought my perfect little yellow car, my brain was all of a sudden much more aware of the ‘yellow cars’ and was no longer filtering them into the ‘not important’ category. It wasn’t that there were any more yellow cars around, just that I was suddenly so much more aware of them and my brain was processing the information in a new way.
So what does this have to do with families and law? In the last two weeks I have seen some fascinating examples of ‘yellow car syndrome’ in action. Situations where good parents are all of a sudden seeing and hearing only yellow cars when it comes to their children.
When yellow car syndrome finds its way into post separation parenting it can create havoc very quickly. Even the most calm and sensible parent can start to see their world through a filter that can very quickly distort a situation.
Let me give you an example- Max is 6. He comes home from dad’s house and says to mum “Mum, I don’t like going to Dad’s house anymore because his new girlfriend is really mean.” Mum of course asks something like, “Max, what happened?” or “Max, what do you mean?” and the answer might be something like “She screamed at me over and over for no reason.” Now here is the crossroads- what does Mum do? In my experience it all depends on ‘yellow car syndrome’. Hopefully Mum pauses, calms and has a good enough relationship with Dad to call him and ask (calmly and non-accusingly about what Max has just said) but in my experience it does not always go that way.
If there has been a breakdown in the relationship between Mum and Dad then often I see this situation very quickly escalate. Max may be asked lots of questions, be told “Things will be ok, you don’t have to worry” and gets lots and lots of attention from Mum. Before we know it Max is becoming aware that his statement generated a lot of positive attention so next time he comes back from Dad’s he says something similar and sometimes more serious. Mum is now on ‘yellow car alert’- each time Max says anything about Dad, Dad’s partner or his experiences in their home she is looking and listening for ‘yellow cars’- signs that Max is at risk or not happy- as she is a good parent and wants more than anything for her son to be content and safe.
Here is the conundrum that so many of my clients who are parents face- how do they really know what has happened? How will they ever know and every good parent is rightly concerned when they child suggests that they have suffered harm.
I am not saying discard statements from your children like these but I am saying pause, think and be careful how you react and then question your child. The age of your child is crucial here. Remember too that many children want their parents to get back together after a divorce, so sometimes statements about a new partner are designed by children for two reasons-
Firstly as they believe they are in fact showing you their support for you by ‘disliking’ the new partner (even though they might quite like that person); and
Secondly, the new partner is a clear roadblock to their parents getting back together so this is an easy way to ‘get rid of them’ as such.
How then should parents deal with such a serious minefield when children raise concerns?
Ideally you will be able to speak to the other parent, openly and constructively, without accusation or jumping to conclusion to gain more information. If this is not possible then consider having that conversation facilitated by a professional, a family mediator perhaps.
Additionally, I have lately had a great deal of success involving experienced child psychologists to speak with all members of the family- the children, parents and new spouses- to gain independent and expert feedback on how the children are coping with their parents separation and how they can better be supported. This process can be undertaken in half a day with feedback to both parents almost immediately and I have found it incredibly powerful for my clients in having some clear answers to how their children are coping and why concerning statements are being made to their parents.
We have to filter the information in our world to enable our minds to function. Be aware of your own ‘yellow cars’ whether it be with your partner, your children, your friends and colleagues. If you at least can be aware of the filter through which you see the world it will be a lot easier for you to consider your actions and reactions in any situation.