As a separated parent, you are not alone; four out of ten UK marriages end in divorce and more than one in four children will experience their parents’ divorce by the age of 16. Separating from your partner can be a long and difficult process for everybody but it does not need to be the end of the world for you or your child.
Children can cope well with separation itself it is the conflict that can accompany separation that causes difficulties for children. Research has shown that the level of conflict experienced by children has a direct influence on the number of negative outcomes they experience including behavioural and emotional ones.
How well your child does depends a lot on you – you can decide to put your children first and protect them from hurt. Give them time, patience, understanding and hard work – that way, your children will be fine and so will you.
Consider what you need to do for yourself to help you move on with your life, if you move on so can your children. Consider what you need to stop doing and what you need to start doing to help your child. What does your child need? Think of ways you can address this alongside what you need.
It is important to remember that although following separation you may no longer be partners you will continue to be parents. You will both always be parents to your children and maybe even grandparents to the same children one day so it is a good idea to address any issues as swiftly as possible.
The Negative Effects of Separation on Children
Most children from separated families are resilient enough to cope, but it is still difficullt for them. Even after separation, how parents behave is the most important factor in whether or not children are at risk. Children of separated parents are in danger of losing a sense of themselves and their family, feeling angry and sad about the changes to their world, feeling guilty or responsible for what has happened, or worrying about being able to maintain good relationships with both mum and dad. Children can lose their normal routine and feel insecure. They can lose their hope for the future and feel like they have to become a part of the parental conflict.
‘Typical’ reactions of children include:
- Clinging to one or both parents
- Rejecting one or both parents
- Being upset and crying
- Being ‘withdrawn’ or withdrawing from parent or family life
- Being aggressive and blaming
- Behaving differently or having problems at school
- Becoming more adult and “looking after” one or both parents
- Either being very good or misbehaving in the hope that this will bring parents back together
- The way they respond can depend on how old they are
However, remember that you as parents can make a difference and help your children to avoid having these negative experiences..
What Children Need
Parents have the ability to be their children’s most valuable resources. A child depends on their parents to resolve any difficult situations for them, so they do not have to worry. Information and support is best when it can be provided by both parents. However, children still benefit considerably even if one parent focuses on minimising the conflict and making child-focussed decisions.
Things that help children adjust include:
- Having supportive relationships with both parents and their wider family
- Keeping the speed and number of changes they experience to a minimum
- Not being exposed to parental conflict
- Having access to other forms of support should they need it – therapy and professional support can help with providing information, sharing feelings and developing coping skills
- Seeing their parents adjusting well and moving forward
- Having access to accurate but child friendly information
More of what children need:
- To be told what’s happening and how their lives will change
- To know that it is not their fault
- To know that it’s OK to feel angry and sad
- To know that it’s fine to talk and ask questions
- To be listened to
- To know that their parents understand how they feel and still love them
- To feel OK about loving both parents
- To know that it’s all right to have different family rules in different houses
- To be allowed to distance themselves from their parents’ conflict
- To have a predictable routine with consistent boundaries
- To know that they have two homes where they belong
- To be able to stay in contact with extended family like grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins
- To have access to other types of support if they want it
- Have hope for the future
- Above all – to be allowed to be children
It is important to remember that your child has other people around them that can help, and to support your children in identifying who these people are for them. It is helpful for children to have people to speak to both inside and outside of your family. Both sides of your child’s family can provide the love, support and reassurance that a child needs. So can teachers, family friends, brothers and sisters and professionals.
Separation or divorce is not a single-moment event, but a lifelong process that involves lots of changes for children and families over time. It’s important to reassure your child that it’s okay to feel a range of emotions, and that these emotions will settle as new routines and ways of seeing family are decided.
What Children Don’t Need
No matter how much you love your children or how good a parent you are, there is no way to take away all the upsetting feelings as your children go through this process. However, if you try to keep conflict with your ex-partner to an absolute minimum you will make the best of a difficult situation.
Children don’t need:
- To witness their parents arguing with one another
- To hear or see their parents complaining about or blaming each other
- To hear criticisms or negative comments about either parent
- To feel that they may be asked to choose one parent over the other
- To pass messages from one parent to the other
- To feel like an outsider in one parent’s home
- Adult information about the reasons for the divorce or details about child support
Remember, you cannot control how your ex-partner behaves, but your child will still benefit substantially if one parent is a stable nurturing influence in their lives.
Talking to your child about separation
Be honest with your children (bearing in mind their age), but don’t be tempted to try and set the record straight about why the separation occurred. Even older children won’t feel comfortable hearing adult information or complaints about their other parent. A child certainly does not need to hear about adult issues such as affairs or criminal behaviour. When talking about why parents are separating, it is best to come up with a short, general, yet honest explanation that does not place blame. For example:
“We think we’ll be happier not being together.”
“We decided we want different things.”
“We have agreed not to be married/partners anymore.”
“We feel like we would be a better mum and dad if we were in different homes.”
Children need to know that your decision to separate is not their fault. It is also important for children to understand that they cannot change what has happened. It is important that they hear regularly that both their parents still love them and will continue to be involved in their lives, and that it is fine to love both parents; and that they will not be asked to pick or choose one parent over the other.
Children can worry about things that adults might not even think of. They need to know how life will change in practical ways, for example, when they will spend time with each parent, what will happen in school holidays and where the family pet will live.
Things to consider:
- Tell them what’s happening – there’s a problem between the parents, and that it’s not their fault
- Tailor a discussion to the children’s age and temperament
- Let them know that you are available to them: there will be other times to talk
- Listen to them and let them know it is possible for them to talk about their feelings to you
- Avoid asking children to choose sides
- Try not to argue, make sarcastic remarks or lose your temper about the other parent in front of them
Things to avoid:
- Children need to remain children; exposing them to adult information increases anxiety
- Children need to be shielded from parent conflict. While you cannot control the other parent, you can control how you react with your children
- Children never benefit from hearing bad things about one of their parents
- Parents blaming each other for the separation
- Negative comments, statements that judge, criticise or put down the other parent
- Information about adult issues or adult reasons for the separation
- Information about child support, court matters or disagreements between the parents
In the beginning, you may need to have several conversations with your children about separation. Don’t try to have one sit-down talk where you discuss everything. Let your child know that you understand they’ll have questions and it is fine to share these concerns with you, and help your children to identify other people they may want to talk to.
Communication with your child’s other parent
Parents will usually find a new way of communicating, with many successfully treating their new relationship like a business one. It isn’t always easy, but then nobody ever said parenting was an easy task. Both parents are not always equally co-operative, and you may feel that you are always the one compromising, or putting up with the other unreasonable parent. It is hard, but you must remember that your child needs you to make contact work. Just as you would do absolutely anything for your child, so you must find a way to co-parent with your ex-partner. While your relationship with your ex-partner has changed, your children’s needs have not.
Tips for having a difficult conversation:
- Stay Calm
- Take a ‘time out’, large or small, when needed
- Approach the conversation in the same way you would a conversation with a work colleague – professional and non-emotional
- Actively listen to what your child’s other parent has to say, it may be important for your child
- Respond in a non-confrontational way
- Use ‘I statements’ – refer to yourself, what you feel/can offer rather than what you want your ex-partner to do/not do
- Stick to the point – remember what the main point of the conversation is and focus on it
- Make simple offers that can help to bring a disagreement to an end
Written communication can be a useful addition or alternative to face to face communication for some parents. This can include things such as; emailing, text messages or a communication book. Written communication allows people to keep accurate records of discussion or decision making and can also result in improved communication in general. For example you can re-read and make adjustments to an email before sending, something you can’t do easily with verbal communication.
There are also a number of professional services that can help parents to communicate more effectively such as mediation. A Mediator can help ensure that conversations do not get heated, and remain focussed on the needs of the child. If you wish to try mediation, and your ex-partner does not, do not give up suggesting it. This will communicate to your ex-partner that you are serious in wanting what is best for your child, and that you are prepared to work hard to achieve it. If your ex-partner will not attend mediation, try writing a letter to them explaining how you feel and why you think mediation might work. If you keep copies of the letters, it will demonstrate that you want to make contact work and meet your child’s needs.
Of course, courts, judges and solicitors are sometimes necessary for communication between parents and to help make sure that contact does not stop between a parent and child. However, it is important to acknowledge that the court process can be a long and stressful one and that it removes the power from you as parents to make the decisions about your child’s life. As solicitors become more involved in family difficulties, tensions can increase and it becomes harder for both sides to communicate effectively with each other. This again places power and influence with the solicitor, instead of the parents.