Articles by Jacqueline McDiarmid, Break ups, Children, Mental Health

Post-separation and Children

“What about the kids?” Separation or divorce can bring up difficult parenting issues.

It is usually a very sad day when two people decide to end their relationship. It’s not an easy time no matter what the circumstances are, whose fault it is or who wants it most.  It hurts, and it leaves at least one – if not both – parties to move on in life without the person they were most intimate with.

Separation can be even more emotionally taxing for couples who have a child or children together.  The sense of failure and guilt a parent feels is beyond words, and can be further magnified if a parent has come from a broken home themselves.  There are invariably times in the post-separation period where these feelings are even more intense – when setting up a new bedroom for a child, attending school functions or birthday parties, or simply seeing another couple do something with their child together.

Years ago, it wasn’t so common for couples or separated individuals to seek therapy. But nowadays most people agree it’s more cost effective and less emotionally taxing to stay out of the courts.  As a result, Family Therapists like me commonly see post-separated couples who want help with mediation, or individuals seeking emotional and psychological support after a separation.

So how do you help your children deal with their parents’ separation? Despite parents’ best intentions to do whatever it takes to look after the children, egos, emotions and distress during the breakup of the adult relationship can get in the way of the best outcomes for the children.

This article looks at some of the issues and challenges facing parents in this difficult time – and looks at ways to prevent the most common mistakes.

Telling your child/children the news

A lot of parents ask me how they should tell their child/children they are separating.  A common mistake is that one parent wants to tell the child without the other there.  The bottom line is it doesn’t matter who did what or what led to the breakup – both parents have the right to tell their children about the separation.

Ideally both parents should tell the child together.  This prevents any kind of confusion or distortion over who is to ‘blame’ for the breakup, and presents a solid and united front.  Remember that children process things in different ways to adults.  They may not say much at the time or ask any questions – but they can still wonder and worry about something that was said.  For this reason, you need to go back to them later to ask them about their thoughts and give them a chance to ask questions or say more.

If it is not possible for the parents to tell the child together, it’s still important that both parties have an opportunity to tell the child the news individually – and I would always advise a shared, consistent script.

What do you tell your children?

There is a fine line between too much information and too little.  Remember your children know more than you think they do.  They have been watching you both from birth.  For this reason it is important to be as honest as possible in an age appropriate way.  Emotionally dumping all of your thoughts and feelings on the child creates anxiety and worry, but it is also healthy for the child to see that you are upset about the separation and that you do care that it has occurred. Children snoop around parents’ things when something is going on and often make up stories about their parents – believe me I hear it!  So it is better, and often reassuring, if you are as honest as possible with them.  Sometimes the reality is better than what they had imagined or believed.

What’s the most important thing your child needs to hear?

Your child needs to “get” that the separation is not their fault.  They need to hear this no matter how old they are.  They need to hear it from both parents, and they need to hear it time and time again through to adulthood.  Just because your child doesn’t speak about the separation doesn’t mean they don’t think about it.  I’ve seen many children of separated parents who appear to be doing well in middle childhood – only to show adverse reactions and responses in adolescence.

What about routines?

Children require predictability and thrive on routines no matter what age they are. It will help if both parents are transparent about what’s going to happen – in practical terms – after separation has occurred.  Even small children as young as two years of age can look at a calendar and start marking off the days when they will see the other parent again.

Unfortunately this can be really hard when a parent needs time to grieve and come to terms with being single again, or when there is a new person on the scene.  However, your children don’t understand this.  They need, perhaps more than ever before, the comfort of a routine.  They also need to know that parents with follow through on anything they say or promise.

Predictability helps a child to feel secure – and reassured that things in their life still have some order.

Help! You both want to see your kids

This can be the hardest aspect in the decision to separate.  A lot parents struggle with separating knowing that they may only spend half of the time with their children – a great loss which requires careful managing.

When two parents look at custody arrangements they need to be very realistic about their careers, social lives, family support and any other commitments they have.  It is also important to think about the child’s age.  For example, it is not in the best interests of a baby under two years of age to be moved around between houses and parents.  I see many parents who become emotionally driven to argue for certain custody terms, then be unable to follow through with them.  This is extremely upsetting for a child and it is damaging to the child/parent relationship.  It’s better to be upfront about which parent is best equipped to do what, and to arrange custody on that basis.  This ensures that the child is always put first – your emotional needs might be to see him/her at a certain time or on a certain day – but that may not be the best for the child.

Do you need new rules?

Parents and all other involved adults (step parents, grandparents and carers) need to be watertight when it comes to rules in the household.   Rules include bed times, nutrition, homework and treats. Setting these rules up with strong consequence can prevent the child from “splitting” – which essentially means playing one parent off against the other one.  It also reduces the chances of a child getting confused about their feelings toward one parent or the other.  A big mistake I see time and time again is one household having a different set of rules and expectations that the other other household.  The result is usually behavioural issues that disrupt learning and emotional development.

What about discipline?

Parents often have a harder time enforcing discipline when they no longer see their child full time. It’s common – and natural – that a parent is so glad to see their child that they just want to have a good time with them.  As a result it can be harder to dish out the consequences.

However, it is still your job to be a parent and that means ensuring your child knows their place with boundaries and consequences.  You may not always be liked by your child but you will always have their respect and appreciation if you provide these boundaries – this translates to happy, well adjusted children who do well in other areas that require good boundaries like school, friendship groups and interests.

Again all households need to be on the same page with discipline and consequences.  It is important that one parent doesn’t undermine the other.

Introducing other partners?

This is probably one of the biggest questions clients put to me – when, how, do I introduce the children to a new partner?

It’s important that you are sure that the new partner is here to stay.  There is no point going through introductions and negotiating new dynamics if the relationship breaks down months later – this is confusing and distressing to children who are already trying to make sense of what new partners (and possible other children) mean to their life.

Be honest about new partners and say who they are.  A good way to introduce partners to children is to ask the children to request an activity that they enjoy and that they would be happy to ask the partner to.  Having the new person spend time with your children doing activities your children enjoy goes a long way to building new relationships.

It is important when new partners appear that children still get to spend time with their parent without the new partner.  You also need to establish – and communicate with the children – some rules around the place of a new partner when it comes to meal times, bed times and general expectations and discipline.  It is important to find a balance so the new partner doesn’t feel like a third wheel, and the children and have enough quality time alone with their parent.  Introducing new people to the family is a long process – and it should be taken slowly.

There are many more complex issues and hurdles that need to be navigated when separation occurs.  It’s a long grieving process with many stages and each
stage brings new challenges.  The most important thing to remember is if both parents act with the best interests of the children in mind, and with integrity and respect for each other, then they will get through the loss of the idea of the intact family.  Many parents report to me further down the track that they are experiencing better relationships than ever before with their children because they as a parent are happier within themselves – even though they acknowledge the journey hasn’t been an easy one.

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