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  • Writer's pictureDr Martine Prunty

Children & Parental Separation

Updated: Sep 29, 2021

When families are faced with the situation of a parental separation, parents naturally ask themselves what they can do to help their children through this difficult time. There is no easy way to say that children will be hurt, worried, confused or even angry, which obviously adds to the family’s distress. Separation is traumatic, especially when there is ongoing conflict about arrangements and shared care of children. A common myth is the thought that if a child is young (say between the ages of 0-3) then they aren’t fully aware of what is happening. But significant environmental changes impact a child’s development so it is important to help children adjust to these changes and ensure that their psychological needs are being met in a time of uncertainty.

Children have to deal with a range of changes and adjustments as a result of their parents separating: changes in family lifestyle, rules and discipline. There may also be a lot of other changes, for example, a new house and a new school and sometimes a new partner. Invariably a lot of adjustment is required. Not only do parents have a huge impact on how children cope, the personality of the children themselves is a critical variable. Some children are robust and cope with change readily, whilst other children are more anxious about change and find it difficult to adjust.

How to break the news?

It is generally recommended that the family sit down together with both parents present. Whilst honesty is important, so is leaving out any ugly details and making sure the truth is age appropriate. Ensure you tell them many times that they did nothing to cause this, and that you both love your children as much as always.

Some common reactions from children include:

· surprise and shock

· Grief (sadness is most common in children under 8 whilst anger is more commonly expressed amongst 9-12 year olds)

· Feeling they are to blame

· Fantasising their parents will get back together

· Feeling insecure and fearing abandonment

· Behaviour changes (clingy, moody, bed wetting, thumb sucking, school refusal) – often this can be a recurrence of behaviours that they have previously grown out of

· Changes in sleep patterns – difficulty getting to sleep/staying asleep, nightmares

Encourage your children to talk about their emotions with you and help them put their feelings into words if they are unable, or too young, to do it themselves. Be open to whatever they put to you in order to support them no matter how difficult it is for you. Normalise their feelings as it is natural for them to be sad in this situation.

Helping Children Cope

While separation is a stressful period for children, their adjustment and recovery is enhanced when parents remain sensitive to their children's needs. It is important to try to shield children from the conflict within the parental relationship. The factors which have the greatest impact upon children in a parental separation are the emotions, reactions and behaviours of each parent.

It is important that parents find a way to cope with their own hurt and grief at the end of the relationship. The usual time frame that it takes for these heightened emotions to settle down between the parents is about two years. Unfortunately this is not a reasonable time frame for children to wait for their parents to become amicable and a lot of damage can happen in the mean time. Children need their parents to at least put on a façade of reasonableness – such as saying hello and goodbye, and not arguing in front of them. If this does not happen, children are more likely to feel the tension between their parents, feel the need to take sides, be responsible for transferring information between their parents, and protecting one parent’s feelings from the other. If this is too difficult for you, seek professional help. You also need support so that you can move on and continue doing the best for your children.

Put simply, keep your children out of the fight:

· Don’t speak badly about your ex-partner in front of your child

· Don’t force your child to choose sides

· Don’t use your child as a messenger

· Don’t discuss child support issues in front of your child

· Don’t probe your child about information about the other parent

Transitioning Between Homes

Often the hardest aspect of separation for many children is the transition between one home and another. They often need a little push to go to the other home, but once there the children function well. The saying, “out of sight, out of mind” is sadly true. Young children form secure attachments with those who care for them and who they see often. Ideally young children should spend equal time with each parent, with frequent transitions between homes (for example every two nights). Obviously when violence is a factor, a different set of rules will apply. Until a child is truly old enough to decide for themselves it is important to stick to a routine. Let your children take familiar objects with them when they go between homes.

Separation is difficult for everyone involved. Remember that there is no one way to parent, but using similar styles is important. Try to observe similar discipline styles and routines where possible. Ideally both parents remain equally involved in their children’s lives without long separations. Try to support your children as best you can with nurturance and structure. You may be ex-partners but you will never be ex-parents.

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