When we meet our partners and choose to be with them, for most it’s for our lifetime, and having a family is a big part of that. When a couple decides to go their separate ways, it can be extremely difficult for both the adults and children involved, as their family life has changed significantly.
Young children are not only dealing with and adapting to the physical changes of a separation but the emotions that go with it. For so many, it can bring up feelings of grief and loss as they adapt to significant changes in their lives. As a parent, we want to do what we can to protect our children; to make sure they are comforted and supported in the best possible way. There are a few ways that parents can help to provide support and stability for their children during a family transition.
Help your child understand what separation means
No matter how many children are in the family, it is important to remember that every child is different. Depending on their stages of development, your child’s understanding, reactions and ability to manage their emotions will be different. Try and keep the initial explanations of the separation as simple, straight-forward and honest as possible. Reassure them that they are not the cause of the separation; remind them of this regularly as children can sometimes blame themselves. They don’t need to know all the details; but by using simple language, you can reassure your child that although you will no longer be living together as a family, you will always be their parents who love them very much, will protect them as you always have and provide for them what they need. Reassure your child that everything will be OK again, but like many things, it will take time for everyone to adjust and get used to a new routine.
Acknowledge and talk about feelings
Allow your child the space and time to talk, if it’s what they want. Big changes in a child’s life can affect their behaviour in many ways, for example, regressing in toileting, eating, sleeping patterns, becoming clingy, or acting out. Talking things through can be of great benefit and relief for your child, reassuring them that their feelings are normal and OK. Listen to what they are sharing with you, and acknowledge and name their feelings, as some children find the big emotions overwhelming. Having an adult name these emotions can help the child to understand and process the big feelings more easily.
Don’t be afraid of the tricky questions
Children naturally ask questions - they are usually straight and to-the-point! Children and adults alike need to make sense of significant changes, whether that is a separation, bereavement or a house move. Often, adults will avoid talking to their child if they don’t know what to say: if this happens, it’s OK to share that you’re not sure of the answer. One of the things that might help is to let your child know you have heard them, and you will have a think about their questions and let them know as best you can. Children pick up on when we are not too sure about things, so try to keep the communication channels open, and this will naturally encourage them to feel a little better in what is already a hard situation.
Keep routines as normal as possible
There is no doubt that children thrive on routine, creating predictability, consistency and security in their lives. When we go through such big changes, it can be hard to stay upright; however, our children are resilient and love familiarity and routine. Although you may see the effects of the family separation in their behaviour – big or small - they need to know their lives will stay at a similar pace with the day-to-day routines and activities remaining the same wherever possible. When big events happen that are out of your child’s control, they may look and grapple for that control in other ways like seeking out negative attention or refusing to following directions or listen. Allow them to be part of making decisions too; for example, making a dinner plan together or picking activities to do, handing over some ‘healthy’ choices gives children a chance to have that ‘healthy’ control.
Parenting together while separated
Living separately is one aspect of a relationship breakup, but parenting together when no longer a couple is another real part. It’s important to put yours and your partner’s emotions aside and make a ‘parenting plan’, so you can encourage open and effective communication with each other. Avoid discussing difficult conversations in front of the children; arrange times when you can sort out the practical elements with the other adult, and this will allow time with the children to run more smoothly. Don’t hesitate to seek professional advice and support if needed.
Keep communication open with your child’s school or childcare service
It’s always helpful to keep those who care for your child during the day informed of any significant changes that have occurred for them, whether that be at crèche, preschool or school. Although this is your decision, take the time to figure out how comfortable you feel sharing with others about the changes in your family circumstances. This will allow childcare staff, child-minders or teachers to support your child if they need it, and provide you with important feedback about your child’s moods and behaviours.
Be aware of your children’s rights
According to Barnardos, “like all human beings, children have rights in order to protect them, promote their well-being and provide them with the things they need in order to grow and develop their potential“.
The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child states that children have a right to express an opinion and to be consulted on matters affecting them, according to their age and maturity. During separation or divorce, this translates to putting your child’s well-being and best interests first, talking and actively listening to your child to understand his or her feelings and wishes, and keeping your child informed of family changes brought about by separation.
Resources for parents and children
It’s reassuring to know that there is so much help, support and guidance available now, regardless of the stage you and your family may be at, you will find a service or book that will fit your needs.
Barnardos have two excellent booklets that are for free and available on their website – Coping with Separation for Parents, and Coping with Separation for Children.
Parenting When Separated: Helping Your Children Cope & Thrive, by John Sharry
It Happened To Me: Mum and Dad Split Up, by Elizabeth O’ Loughlin
My Family’s Changing, by Pat Thomas
Aoife Lee, Parent Coach for Giraffe Childcare