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When Parents Separate

Posted 30th July 2019

The decision to end a relationship is not one that most couples take lightly.  The decision may or may not be a mutual one.  The changes that happen as a result of the decision to separate will of course have an impact on the couple and others connected to them but the greatest impact may be experienced by any children involved. 

When parents separate it can be hard to know how best to manage things for the children:  when and what should you tell them?  Each parent might have different views about this.  Parents are often caught up in their own emotions about the separation and may understandably struggle to see clearly how their children might be feeling about things, or they might feel overwhelmed by their own feelings and unable to offer much comfort to anyone else. 

Although parents will no longer be a couple, they will always be the parents of their children together and their capacity to think together about the children and how to make things more manageable for them is likely to help children deal with the inevitable changes and losses. It is also important that children get the message that they will continue to be loved by both parents. 

Change inevitably involves uncertainty and uncertainty can make us feel anxious.  What can help children is to know as much as possible about what is going to happen and when.  Make time to sit down with the children and tell them what you have decided and then give them time to take the information in and to ask questions.  They don’t need to know all the details of the reasons for the decision but they do need to know how it will affect their lives, for example where they will be living; when they will see each parent; whether they will be moving to a new school or house.  Take your lead about how much to tell them from them.  Wait to see what questions they ask you and respond honestly and don’t be afraid to let them know that you don’t have an answer to everything.  Try to listen to, take seriously and address their concerns  – which might be very different from yours. 

How children might react and what can help

How children react to news of their parents’ separation will vary hugely, but common responses are shock, denial, confusion, anger and sadness.  It is important that children are allowed to express their feelings and that they are helped to cope with these feelings.  This can be very hard for parents as they might be full of these feelings themselves. Something that children can often feel is that they are in some way to blame for their parents’ separation, either by being too much for them or not enough.  This can lead to them suppressing things in themselves that they feel are the ‘bad things’ that caused the separation.  You may notice that a child stops complaining about things they normally would have moaned about.  Or they might become more attentive, checking that you’re ok, doing things for you that they wouldn’t have before.  They might withdraw, not wanting to share anything with you for fear of being too much.  Reassurance that they are not to blame is important but might not convince them.  They need plenty of opportunity to express themselves and may need help to allow themselves to be angry about what has happened, rather than to blame themselves.  They might hold one parent more responsible for the separation than the other.

Children may be aware that the separation will have significant financial implications for one or both partners.  How parents manage their own worries about things like this will have an impact on how the children manage theirs.  Parents’ disagreements about issues such as finances or access arrangements are best dealt with at an adult level with a professional mediator if necessary.  If children get the message that their parents are able to discuss things together and find compromises in order to resolve their differences, then they will be less likely to worry.  Avoid the temptation to confide in your child about how inconsiderate / unreasonable etc. your partner is being, or to use your child to get emotional support for yourself. 

Children might also worry that a particular parent could be lonely or unhappy when they are away with the other parent.  Try to strike a balance between letting your child know you will be thinking of them while also making it clear you will not be overly upset and you have interests / friends / work or whatever to fill your time with.  Depending on your child’s age and what they can manage, it may be that you can agree on regular telephone calls at agreed times or occasional texts / emails with your child while they are with your ex-partner as a way of staying in touch, so long as this works for both parents.  You might agree with your child to be thinking about them at a particular time.  You might give them something that they can look at or hold and think of you.  They may want to give you something of theirs that represents them and they can then think of you holding it.

Children can feel as if things are out of control when their parents decide to separate (and often unfortunately they are right).  They may fear that if they have lost one parent they could easily lose the other.  This might lead to regression to an earlier stage of development, difficulty separating and an increase in controlling behaviours.  Transitions such as going to school or leaving to see the other parent can become really tricky times as your child might become tearful, clingy and panicky.  It can help to give them some choices about things e.g. would you like to go straight from school to Mum’s or come back here first and then go to hers?  Or it might help to talk through their day and your day so they know what you will be doing when they are not with you. 

Beware of criticising your ex-partner to your child(ren).  Not only is it hurtful to your child but it may backfire on you in the long run.  If you attack something or someone that your child loves, they can experience it as an attack on themselves.  Children often want to be loyal to both their parents and want to protect both from criticism.  Attempts to hurt an ex-partner emotionally are most likely to hurt the child(ren) too.  There can be significant long-term difficulties for children of separated or divorced parents when these parents have an acrimonious relationship.  Avoid asking your child who they would like to live with or how much time they want with each parent; instead come up with a plan together as parents and ask your child how they feel about this plan, so they are not in the position of having to choose between you.  If your child expresses a view about the plan, make sure you listen to it.  It’s very easy as parents to get drawn into what is “fair” between the two parents in terms of contact hours and to lose sight of children’s wants and needs, e.g. not to miss a particular club or party.  The plan needs to be simple so that your child can get to know it and follow it – it’s not going to help your child’s state of mind if the plan is so complex they have no idea from one day to the next where they will be sleeping that night. 

Transitions

From a child’s point of view moving from one house to another and back again can be really hard: do they have their own space in each house?  Is there another partner to get used to?  Step children?  New half siblings?  Different travel arrangements to school?  Focussing only on the positives about e.g. a lovely new house / room / school / sibling etc. can give the impression that you can’t bear to hear your child’s more difficult feelings about things changing.  Allowing expression for the worries, anger and sadness about changes can free up the space for your child to also think about the possibilities that might come with these changes too.  It is helpful to keep things as normal as possible so that your child can feel that there are at least some things that can be relied upon to stay the same.

Children might feel very jealous of a parent’s new partner or child.  Including your child as much as possible with preparations etc. can help, and give them lots of space to talk about any worries or negative feelings that they have, don’t assume they are fine with it just because they haven’t said anything.  You could draw up a pros and cons list of what having the new people in their life might mean – depending on their age, you could encourage them to draw pictures of situations they imagine might occur and explore how they might feel and how they might deal with them.  While you might be preoccupied with the much bigger picture, it’s important to spend time thinking with your child about the detail of how it affects their everyday life and their time with you.

Finally, it could be helpful for parents to seek professional help from a child therapist for themselves and / or their child.  For a child it can provide a space where they can express themselves without worrying about upsetting a family member.  It can help children to process their feelings about the separation and can also be helpful for parents who can reflect (together or separately) on how their child is managing and how they can best help them. The Bridge Foundation can offer this support to families through our fee paying service (see https://www.bridgefoundation.org.uk); other useful links are:

https://www.rcpsych.ac.uk/mental-health/parents-and-young-people/information-for-parents-and-carers/divorce-or-separation-of-parents—the-impact-on-children-and-adolescents-for-parents-and-carers

http://www.understandingchildhood.net/posts/divorce-and-separation-helping-children-and-parents-cope/