Helping Children through Separation

Helping Children through Separation

Separating parents almost always feel worried about how their children will cope with their separation.  Our instincts as parents are to want to protect our children and it makes sense that we feel anxious about anything that might hurt them.  Whilst some worry is normal, it is important to try to remind ourselves of two things:

  1. Many children experience their parents separating. It is something that thousands of children can, and do deal with, very frequently in our society.  
  2. While most children do experience some (often mild) sadness, anxiety and adjustment difficulties when their parents separate, they can survive it, learn from it and some aspects of the separation can become positive elements in their life.

Five ideas to help minimise children's distress are below:

1. Some research suggests that the majority of children's worry and sadness comes not from the actual separation itself, but from the conflict between separating parents. This means for some families the separation actually eases the distress for kids, if indeed the conflict between parents diminishes after separation. On the other hand, if conflict between separating parents increases after separation, distress for the children can increase.

2. Therefore, it is essential that wherever possible, parents ensure that the kids do not observe, guess at or pick up on conflict between parents. Knowing that their parents are in constant conflict is usually harmful for children. In this respect:

  • Do not argue in front of the children
  • Do not talk angrily about one parent in front of the children
  • Do not talk angrily about one parent to the children
  • If children do observe you being angry or in conflict, explain to them that it is not about them, nor is it permanent.  Depending on the age of the child, you might like to use words like: "Dad and Mum are feeling a bit angry at each other right at the moment.  People do get angry at each other sometimes.  It's not your fault and we are going to work it out.  Is there anything that is worrying you about us being mad?"

3. It is also important that children are protected from “adult knowledge” about the separation. For children who are not at high school, this is especially important. Children should not know the details about why the separation occurred, details about financial arrangements, opinions about the parent and so forth. If the child asks they should be told, “you don’t need to worry about that, that’s for your mother/father and I to sort out. What is important for you to know is that we love you and are going to look after you”.  The child should also not be asked to do "adult communication".  In other words:

  • Do not endlessly ask the child about what is happening in the other house
  • Do not use the child as a messenger

4. Children often think separation is their fault, wonder what will happen or continue to happen or have other incorrect ideas about separation.  As well as asking (on a regular basis) children about whether they have any questions and whether there is anything they are worried/sad about with respect to the separation, parents should reassure the child, more than once: that

  • The separation is not their fault.
  • That both their Mum and Dad love them
  • That they will continue to see their Mum and Dad

5. Contact and living arrangements vary between families. Many different arrangements can work well, provided there is good communication between the parents. A number of guidelines apply:

In general, routine and consistency works better than random or spontaneous arrangements. 

  • In general, it should not be up to the child (unless they are older teenagers) to “decide” when to see the non-custodial parent – this can give the child the opportunity to “take sides” and is too much pressure.
  • It is important the child feel that they have “two” homes, rather than one home and one place to visit.   Helping the child feel as though they have ownership and importance in two homes can be a way of making the separation easier.

6. It is also important that similar standards of discipline and routine continue to apply after the separation. Most parents feel guilty about various aspects of separation and it is very tempting to overcompensate for this guilt by failing to discipline, giving presents and trying to help the child feel good at any cost. This might make the child feel good for a short period of time, but over the long term it will be harmful for them. We should acknowledge our guilt and sadness but be vigilant to make sure we do not let this affect how we parent.

Of course, we are only able to take control of what we do, not what other people do.  It might be that the other parent is not willing or able to follow the guidelines outlined above.  In this case, remember that children do cope and thrive under less than ideal circumstances and it is likely that your kids will be fine.  If there is ongoing conflict or problems in managing the separation, it is a good idea to get professional support.

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