There are positive things separating parents can do to minimise the negative impact of marital breakdown on children. Children are vulnerable at this time, but also resilient. Parents may be upset or angry while going through separation, but they are nearly always well-intentioned towards their children too.
The chain of events from parental conflict to separation and divorce can have a devastating impact on children and extended families as well as on the parents themselves. In addition, separation can bring other stressful occurrences, such as house moves, money problems, legal battles and loss of supportive relationships. Children can suffer a range of emotional and social difficulties.
However, a significant number of children cope relatively well and, with the help of their parents, go on to lead happy lives after separation. How children cope largely depends on how their parents manage their split. Here are some suggestions about how to make the process less painful.
1. Take steps to manage your own stress
During the course of a separation it is normal to experience a rollercoaster of emotions from upset and rage to guilt and shame. Many parents understandably become preoccupied with their own concerns before and after a separation.
Your children really need you at this time, but the first step to helping them is to make sure you yourself are coping. Take whatever steps are necessary to get the support you need, be it counselling or a support group or confiding in a close friend.
2. Work constructively on parenting issues
One of the biggest things that damages children in a family is witnessing or suffering the effects of ongoing conflict between their parents. (Some children actually do better after parental separation if the new arrangement leads to less conflict and a more harmonious family environment.)
For this reason, it is crucial that you work hard to develop a constructive relationship with your children’s other parent. This is the single biggest factor that will help your children cope.
The more you can agree living and contact arrangements amicably and focus on your children’s interests, the better it will be for them. A good way to do this is to develop a businesslike relationship with your former spouse; your aim is to move on from past hurts and to work constructively together as co-parents.
3. Help your children cope with divided loyalty
It is very common for children to experience a divided loyalty between their parents. Make sure to give your children a balanced, fair and age-appropriate account of the separation and how it happened, and reassure them that both their parents still love them.
Ideally, this message should be given by both parents, together or separately, and repeated many times.
Speak positively about your ex-partner in front of the children, or, if you feel this is not honest, make it clear that your negative feelings are your own and allow your children to feel differently.
Don’t communicate through your kids or use them as a go-between. If you need to discuss something with their other parent, do so directly.
4. Listen to your children and focus on their needs
Children cope differently with their parents’ separation, depending on their age and personality. Listen carefully to your children individually to understand what support they need. Even children who appear to be coping fine need special understanding.
A good idea is make sure you have one-to-one time with your kids. Periodically raise the topic of the separation and ask them what they think and feel about it, how they are coping. As they get older they will have further questions and thoughts. Work hard at keeping the lines of communication open.
5. Minimise the moves and changes in your child’s life
Sometimes the major losses in children’s lives are not directly due to the separation itself. Often they are related to the other changes the children experience, such as moving house, leaving a school, losing friends because of a move, or not seeing grandparents as often.
While parents often feel they need a fresh start after separation, research seems to suggest that children need the opposite. Try to maintain as many of the good things in your children’s life as you can.
This might mean making a special effort to ensure they keep in contact with grandparents or relatives from the other side of the family, or arranging things so that they can stay in the same school and see the same friends.
Further information is in my ‘Parenting When Separated’ book.
Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, January 2015.
John writes in The Irish Times Health+ every Tuesday.