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A better way to break up

Barrie lawyer advises parents on how their behaviour can be impacting their children

A marriage contract holds a family together, but when that contract is broken, it can rip a child apart. Anxiety and depression caused by parental separation and divorce take a toll on a child’s mental health.

Joanna Shaw is a Children’s Lawyer and a mediator in Simcoe County. As an agent to the Office of the Children’s Lawyer, she represents children in custody and access disputes involving separation, divorce and child protection matters. “My role is to bring the child’s views and preferences, including the context of those views and preferences to the table and I give a voice to the children in a court process.”

A family breakup shatters a child’s world

Because separating parents are struggling to keep their head above water, Shaw said, “It’s difficult for parents to see, feel and connect with what their children are struggling through.” When parents are fighting and children splitting time between mom and dad, it can be a scary time for a child. Adults who have a difficult day can drown their sorrows in a glass of wine or call a friend. Children can’t confide in their friends and often because of the chaos they can’t even function amongst their peers.

Lost their will to dream

Joanna Shaw would often ask the children she represents, if they woke up on Monday morning and could do something they truly love, what would it be? “One of my clients, a 15-year-old said 'Joanna I can’t even think beyond tomorrow because I don’t know what will happen with my parents.'" For children, home becomes a place filled with anxiety and everywhere they go they worry.

Sometimes parents burden the children with their adult issues. Shaw said, “Parents will sometimes turn to their children for comfort or use their child as a pawn against the other parent. The parents are not horrible people, they’re simply trying to function in a very chaotic space and time.”

Children parenting their parents

Shaw has had children tell her that they feel like they’re parenting their parents. To keep their parents happy, they feel pressured to tell them what they want to hear. Shaw said, “So, the children can’t even feel happiness. Their sense of joy is taken from them because they’re so focused on their parents’ joy.”

Parents might turn to substances to numb the emotional pain which then creates a sense of insecurity in children. They can’t call somebody and share what’s been going on for fear of the consequences if they do. They’re focused on survival. Shaw said, “When you’re in survival mode, you can’t think about how to grow, how to do wonderful things in the world. If something happens to their parents, they’re worried about what will happen to them.”

Children can’t reach their potential

The emotional chaos at home causes grades to suffer. Shaw has had child clients who did not complete school because of the pressures between their parents and even some children who had need of child protection. “It makes it difficult for children to learn because they’re in a fearful state of fight or flight. They can’t be emotionally ready to learn, to be the best they can be, to fulfill their own potential in life.”

Teaching parents how to manage chaos

Many children go through separation and divorce and do have hardships in their lives, however Shaw said adults can make it easier on children. “It’s about learning and practicing strategies to model for our children so they can learn better strategies on how to cope with chaos in their world.”

Joanna Shaw offers a parenting program for individuals going through separation and divorce. She gives them tools to better manage their emotional state and negotiate with the other parent, while keeping the kids out of the conflict. Shaw said, “If we as adults aren’t prepared to manage chaos, then we can’t teach our children something that we don’t know how to do. I try to remind parents that they are a role model.”

Every Parent is a Leader

The question Joanna Shaw presents to parents is,

  • How are you going to show up to lead today? 
  • Who do you want to be in this situation right now?

When you show up to lead in an empowered way, your children will become empowered. We are all leaders. Shaw asks parents, “On your deathbed, what are the things that will truly matter to you. And when they understand that they know what they must do today.”

Shaw reminds parents that they need to find their inner peace and teach their children that the world will not create their happiness. “When we’re looking to other people to create our own happiness, we’re looking for disaster. I try to teach parents that when you find your inner peace, the world gravitates toward you because everyone is looking for that.”

Parents personal growth

The program offered by Shaw shows parents how to see the impact their behavior is having on their children.

  • She helps them see the change in their mindset from the beginning of their relationship to the where they are currently on the brink of divorce.
  • She helps them create the mindset they need to get where they want to go and how to create a different future.

Shaw said, “It’s not about blaming or shaming because we’ve all made these mistakes. The question is, what do we do with it?

How do we become the individual we’re supposed to be?”

A better way to break up

When you consider that children are often in the middle of the mudslinging that occurs during a breakup battle, Shaw believes that before filing an application, a parenting course around separation and divorce should be mandatory, so that adults understand the impact on the children. The program Shaw offers focuses on transforming the individual and causing them to think in a way that promotes personal growth. Parents need to model forgiveness, kindness, and compassion for our children which results in long-lasting and cost-effective resolutions that benefit the entire family.

For Joanna Shaw the goal is to help the community. “I believe that healthier families lead to healthier communities which in turn lead to a healthier world and a healthier future.”

Contact Joanna Shaw at JMS Law at (705) 797-2681 or visit: