Q. I have just ordered your book Parenting When Separated as my partner and I have gone our separate ways. I would like to bring our 10-year-old son to talk things out with a counsellor. Is this a service you provide or do you know who does?
A. I would think carefully before taking your child to a counsellor. While some children can benefit from counselling when their parents are separated, for some it can be unhelpful. This is especially the case if they are not ready to talk about their experiences or if they interpret going to counselling as indicating that they are somehow at fault for their parents’ difficulties.
Participating in a group programme, where the focus is on helping children cope, can sometimes be more beneficial for them, and they meet other children from separated families and gain the message that they are not alone.
Some of these are run in schools and community centres such as the Rainbows courses (www.rainbowsireland.com) or other groups are run in therapeutic centres such as the Daughters of Charity Family Resource centres (www.docharity.net). Counselling can often be beneficial to older children and teenagers who make their own decision to attend such as the Teen Between service (www.teenbetween.ie).
However, what really helps children cope with separation is how their parents manage it. There are a lot of very positive things you can do to help your son such as keeping conflict with your partner to a minimum and making a decision to positively co-parent together. In addition, it is important to listen to your son’s individual needs and in the face of the stress of separation make sure to maintain the quality of your parenting.
Less obviously, it can really help to minimise disruptive changes for your child such as moving school, location or losing contact with grandparents or special friends. The more you support your son’s contact with friends, family and leisure pursuits that matter to him, the better.
It is important to remember that coming to terms with your parents’ separation is a long-term process, so it is important to periodically check in with your son to see how he is doing. Make sure to ask him at different times about the changes he has experienced. Be prepared to listen to his feelings and to accept any upset or anger about the separation in a non-defensive way. While at some point counselling might help, being able to communicate with you will help him the most in the long term.
Parents Plus have developed a ‘Parenting When Separated’ course for parents see www.parentsplus.ie for details. There are lots of services for parents in this situation, some of which provide special courses on how to co-parent post separation such as One Family (www.onefamily.ie) or Realtionships Ireland (www.relationshipsireland.com) or family mediation and other support services such as the Family Support Agency (www.fsa.ie). Do seek the support you need.
Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times, July 2010. John writes in The Irish Times Health+ every Tuesday.