For couples with children who separate / divorce, one of their first concerns is often how their children will be affected, and most children do find the experience of parental separation distressing.
However, research in the last 20 years shows that it is not parental separation that causes long –term emotional distress to children. It is the ongoing conflict between parents, whether they are together or apart, that can be very damaging. The parenting relationship does not end when the couple relationship ends and the way this is managed by both parents will significantly affect the way their children cope with the separation / divorce. Many parents talk about wanting to put their children first as they separate and below are some general principles as to how this can happen.
Minimising the impact of divorce / separation on children
Key to minimizing the impact on children is the parents’ ability to separate totally the parenting relationship from the couple relationship. When couples separate, there are often difficult feelings such as anger, fear and bitterness between them as they struggle to deal with the end of the couple relationship. Unless there is violence or abuse in the relationship, children need both parents. If ongoing parenting together is difficult, it may be helpful to seek the support of a relationship counsellor or seek mediation.
Helping the children through and after the break up – parenting together when you’re no longer partners
Every child is different and every experience of break up is unique. In families where there is more than one child, it’s likely that they’ll respond differently and at different times. Nonetheless, Parenting Together when you’re no longer partners will make all the difference to children.
Parenting Together when you’re no longer partners means you both:
• Tell the children, whatever their age, that you both still love them. This message needs to be supported by long - term assurances that this love will continue.
• Make it clear the separation isn’t about them. Children may blame themselves. Reassure them that your love for them as parents is different from the love you had for each other. A common fear for children of separating parents is that if the adults can stop loving each other, they can stop loving their children.
• Accept that your children’s feelings towards your ex are likely to be very different to yours. They need to know it is ok with both of you to love both parents.
• Let your children know its ok to talk about what’s going on either with you or with someone they trust – e.g. another family member; a teacher; a counsellor
• Recognize that practical arrangements affecting the children need to be agreed away from them: the small as well as the big details– e.g. when they will see each parent, where they will live, where the rabbit will live etc. you. As children get older you will need to take account your children’s wishes by asking for their views, but don’t put them in the position where they might feel they have to choose between you.
• Let school/ nursery know what is happening at home.
Parenting Together when you’re no longer partners means neither of you:
• Tell the children the details of why you have split up or of any ongoing issues between you e.g. about money / your views on new partners.
• Criticize your ex in front of your children. Whatever your feelings for your ex, he / she is your child’s parent. The children themselves may say angry things about the other parent but if they hear anyone else criticising their parents, they feel they are also being attacked.
• Use the children as messengers – e.g . ‘Tell your dad you need new PE kit.’ ‘Tell your Mum I need to pick you up earlier next week.’ If you feel your partner is uncooperative it can seem easier to communicate via your children but that puts them in the middle. If it’s difficult to communicate face to face, agree to text / email and stick to factual arrangements.