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Putting the children first: Managing the impact of parental separation on children

When a couple with children separate, one of their first concerns is usually how it will affect their children - and most children do find the experience of parental separation very distressing.

However, research in the last 20 years shows that it is not parental separation in itself that causes long term emotional distress to children.
Rather it is ongoing conflict between parents, whether they are together or apart, that can be very damaging.

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. However, the parenting relationship does not end and the way this is managed by both parents will significantly affect the way children cope with the divorce. Children can be more resilient than we as adults might expect, and if parents who have separated as a couple can cooperate as parents, children can move on relatively quickly.

Putting the children first means working together as parents regardless of the feelings towards each other. Unless there are issues of violence or abuse, both parents have an ongoing role to play in their children’s lives.

Frequently asked questions about the impact of divorce and separation on children:

How can we minimize the impact of our divorce / separation on the children?

  • Separation in itself does not inevitably cause long-term emotional damage to children. Ongoing conflict between parents does.
  • When parents are able to separate totally the parenting relationship from the couple relationship, children are much more likely to deal with the sense of loss and anxiety that can come from parental break up. If they see their parents moving on they are able to do the same. Unless there is violence or abuse in the relationship, children need both their Mum and Dad.
  • Keeping feelings for an ex partner at bay can be incredibly challenging when communicating about the children. While some couples are able to parent apart relatively easily, others seek the support of a counsellor or seek mediation. (Relate offers this support as will counsellors specialising in relationship/family issues).

What can I/we do to help the children through and after the break up?

Every child is different and every experience of break up is unique. If you have more than one child, it’s likely that they will respond differently and at different times. Nonetheless, there are some general principles that will make a difference to your child.

  • Children, whatever their age, need to hear from both parents that both parents still love them. Even if the children don't seem interested, this message needs to be supported by long - term assurances that this love will continue.
  • A common fear for children of separating parents is that if the adults can stop loving each other, they can stop loving their children. Children need to be reassured that their parents' love for them is different and that the separation is not about them. Sometimes they think they have caused the break up.
  • 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.
  • Whatever your feelings for your ex, he / she is your child’s parent. Don’t criticise him/her in front of your child as if children hear their parents being criticised, they feel they are being criticised.
  • Let your children know its ok to talk about what is going on either with you or with someone they trust – e.g. another family member; a teacher; a counsellor. You may want to know who that person is but you won't expect to know anything they talk about.
  • Children need to know how they will be affected by the separation: 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. These arrangements need to be agreed away from the children. You might take into account your children’s wishes by asking for their views, but don’t put them in the position where they have to choose between you.
  • Children do not need to know the details of why you have split up or of any ongoing issues between you e.g. about money / your views on new partners.
  • Don't use 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.
  • Let the school know what is happening at home.

My child is so angry. What can I/we do?

  • Anger can be very destructive but it can also be a ‘healthy protest’ - a way of saying ‘I’m not happy’.  If children feel that their right to feel angry about the situation will be listened to, they are more likely to express anger safely – i.e without hurting themselves or anyone else.
  • Listening: Children feel they are being listened to when they have undivided attention and are given the time to say what they want to say. The challenge can be that this has to be on the child’s terms – when they want to talk. This could well be at a time when as a parent you have other things to do. The temptation might be to say every thing is fine and there is nothing to worry about rather than hear the child out. Such attempts to reassure are often received as not caring. Sometimes children feel disloyal talking to one or other parent about what’s going on so it can be helpful for them to know you’re happy for them to talk to someone else – family member, friend, someone at school, a counsellor.
  • Drawing or writing about their feelings can sometimes help children manage them.
  • Physical exercise is a good way to release pent up energy. If they want to hit out, a pillow/ punch bag is a safe option.
  • Listening to music can be calming.

My child always plays up when it's time to visit the other parent. Should I stop the visits? 

Under 12s

The short answer is 'No'. Children need both parents but moving between them can be very difficult. It can be a very stark reminder that their parents aren’t together. Their behaviour before and after access visits can be very challenging – even saying they don’t want to go to the other parent. This has the potential to create considerable conflict as the non – resident parent may feel their ex partner is behind this whereas the resident parent feels they have done everything to encourage the child to see the other parent. Putting the child first in this situation is both parents understanding the child's behaviour as something they need to address together. It's not about seeing it as the other parent's fault and blaming them. It can be helpful to acknowledge that this is a difficult time for everyone as the family get used to the new arrangements. Children may not be able to explain fully why they are unhappy but it's important that they know when they are ready to speak their parents will listen calmly. The apparent reluctance to go to the other parent could be for one of many reasons:

  • Worried the parent they’re leaving behind won’t be there when they come back
  • Worried the parent on their own will be angry / lonely / not able to cope / feel abandoned/ feel betrayed
  • Thinking maybe Mum and Dad will get back together if the only way they can see me is together
  • Feeling unwelcome in one of the homes
  • Feeling uncertain about where they are going and for how long
  • Wanting to spend time with friends

Unless you are concerned for your children's safety, reassure them that you want them to have a good time and that you are looking forward to seeing them when they come back. It may be helpful for them to know they can text/ phone the parent they're not with to stay in contact - but they need to know that when they are with one parent, the other one is not on standby to pick them up if they are upset. When children are upset they will often turn to one parent rather than the other when a family is together and the same can be true when parents are apart. If the child cannot be encouraged to talk to the parent they are with, the parent who has heard the upset may need to speak in a non confrontational way to the other parent - away from the child.  

Other ways to minimise the upset at access times can be to consider the following:

  • If children have a regular routine (e.g. every Tuesday, Daddy will do bath and bed; we go to Mum’s every Wednesday and every other weekend; we go to Mum’s for one week, then dad’s the next), they are less likely to be anxious. 
  • It is important that as parents you accept that your ex partner may have different rules in their home: if the children know what they are, they will adapt. 
  • If you are really unhappy about something that is happening in the other parent’s home, address this with your ex-partner away from the children.

Over 12s

Once children become teenagers they may well want to spend less and less time with family and more and more time with their friends. Putting the child first here is both parents recognising this as a very natural developmental stage and both parents being flexible in being ready to change access arrangements. 

Summary

Boundaries are key for all children’s / teen's sense of security and ability to mature – and most children at some point in their childhood/adolescence, regardless of their family dynamic, will resist anything that seems to limit their freedom. It can be very easy as a parent to feel guilty that the breakdown of the couple relationship has led to challenging behaviour and so feel reluctant to address it or overcompensate by never saying ‘No’ to their children.

However, if parents are able to agree on how to respond to specific behaviours and to keep each other informed as to what is happening when the child is with them, they can help the child face and deal with the difficult feelings. Some parents are able to do this face to face; others do this by email / text. Ultimately if children are secure in their parents' love, even if their parents are not living together, they will manage the experience of the separation with less distress. 

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Written by Fay Hanniker BA Hons; MA; MBACP Accred.

Fay Hanniker is a Relate - trained relationship counselling working in private practice in Wokingham and for a national charity in Reading. As an accredited member of BACP (British Association of Counsellors and Psychotherapists) she works with individuals, couple and families to help them make sense of relationship dilemmas and challenges.… Read more

Written by Fay Hanniker BA Hons; MA; MBACP Accred.

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