Parenting Through Family Separation – How can you make separation easier for your child?
Parenting through family separation can be immensely challenging, and painful for both parents, as well as confusing and frightening for your children.
In an ideal world, separation wouldn’t be so frequent, but in just one year 2.5 million families in the UK separated, affecting the worlds of 3.9 million children.
Unfortunately, not all separations or divorces are easy, or amicable – and too often the anger and anguish of the parents becomes part of the story for the child too.
What can go wrong when you are parenting through separation?
It’s important that we recognise that a family separation can, if not handled carefully, be the catalyst for negative incidents, issues and long term problems.
- Child behaviour
- Damage to relationships
- Parental alienation
And many, many more.
Let’s visit these key areas of concern, and look at what we can do to help minimise negative outcomes.
It is important to note that it is not possible to cover very complex issue around family separation in one short article, we will touch on some key factors, but your situation may not be the same as the examples used here. For the purposes of this article, we are assuming that both parents are staying in contact with the child – and, that both are safe to do so.
We also must recognise, that not every family can use all of the advice given here – for some, there is too much anger present. If that is the case, just do the very best you can. Life will, over time, get better.
The break up
When you are parenting through family separation it’s important to try to manage the actual break up together. This sends some clear and positive messages to your child. Messages like:
- We are still parenting together
- Neither one of us ‘the guilty party’
- You don’t have to choose
- You don’t have to be angry with one parent over the other
- You are still our most important factor
If at all possible, sit down together to tell your child you are separating. Let them ask questions, and show them that you are still a united parenting team.
- Give your child reasons for the break up which make one person the guilty party. Your relationships issues are not theirs to have to deal with.
- Try to explain complex ideas to smaller children who can not yet understand these
- Leave one partner to do all the hard bits
- Allow your emotions to overflow
- Keep messages simple
- Answer questions if you can without causing more confusion
- Know it’s ok to say no to answering a question if it is too private, too complex or you don’t know how to
- Let your child know it’s ok to ask as much as they need to
- Tell your child that the love you feel for them is not affected
- Model to your child how to emotionally respond to this news
Smaller children will look to you to see how much they should react, so staying calm and not too overly emotional will help them to understand that this is probably ok.
Child behaviour during and after family separation
Children need some basic structures in place in order to thrive.
The challenge when parenting through family separation, is that many of these change very suddenly, and unsurprisingly, this can cause a child to act out.
Poor behaviour can be a response to the changes and the child lacking that deep stability they have previously felt – or – particularly for older children, there can be some pushing to see if boundaries are more flexible now. We will cover that more in the next section.
Acting out is a child’s way of communicating that they are having some emotional difficulty. The more difficulty they are having, the more detrimental behaviours you are likely to see.
I have worked with children who’s parents were so caught up in their own difficulties (and in some cases, drama) that they couldn’t see how much pain they were causing to their child. The result? The child’s behaviours went off the chart and they spiralled very quickly into difficulties at school, and at home.
Your child needs to trust you to make decisions for them, and if they are observing you making some whoppers yourself, it can become hard for them to feel that you make the right decisions for them.
Boundaries during and after separation
When parents separate, often they don’t realise the impact, and importance, of keeping the boundaries for the child stable.
Common mistakes include:
- Feeling guilty and over treating the child
- Removing boundaries because you didn’t like that the other parent enforced them
- Not disciplining because you don’t see your child as much
- Trying to be the more ‘liked’ parent
Please no – to all of this!
Your job as a parent is to provide stable and consistent parenting guidance which helps your child to form emotional regulation, security, and turn into a half decent adult human being.
The emotional hang ups you are experiencing are not theirs!
If you genuinely want your child to manage your family separation as easily as possible – please please, keep the same boundaries in place.
For example, if your child wasn’t allowed to eat upstairs before – they aren’t now
Or – If staying up past 10.30 was forbidden – it still is
You get the idea!
Keep your routines as close to the original ones as possible too.
Doing these things will preserve some of the familiarity and predictability upon which your child will thrive.
Damaging relationships – How to manage your own triggers when you are parenting through family separation
It is so easy during a difficult breakup to feel that your child’s other parent is not making the right decisions. Whether those are decisions about their life, or the way they parent.
Often in families each parent holds a ‘role’ and together you compliment each other – however when separated the singular role doesn’t look so appealing.
For example, perhaps together one of you was a bit stricter, and the other a bit more fun. Together this team was effective and provided a balanced approach for the child. But after separation, the fun parent appears to be not providing the structure and boundaries, and the stricter parent is suddenly ‘too much’.
Whatever side you land on – you may begin to feel that the other parent is no longer parenting in a way you would like them too.
The hard part – is that you must not share this opinion with your child. And that means being careful about involuntary sighs, tutting and facial expressions – as well as not actually telling your child.
Put simply – your issue about your ex is not your child’s problem.
Telling, or showing your child that you disapprove of the choices your ex is making will not only damage their relationship with them – it will damage the one they have with you as well. Not only this, but studies have shown that a messy break up where children are ‘in the middle’ of conflict, is in terms of emotional damage equal to experiencing a parent death.
You may be extremely hurt, angry and finding life very difficult – but you must put your parent responsibilities before your own emotions. Grieve your relationship in private.
If your break up in not amicable, you will need to set yourself some strict boundaries about how to react to information about the other parent. Including:
- Being mindful of overheard conversations
- Not showing your displeasure at hearing things you may not like
- Being supportive of their plans and activities with your child
You will also need to make sure other friends and family respect your boundaries too.
Why do children start to manipulate their parents?
When a family separates, the boundaries for the child are not always kept as secure as necessary, and, sometimes parents who are feeling guilty relax these boundaries. “Oh I’ll let him stay up late, he’s had a really rough time recently”
This is unwise!
Your child needs to know that even though the dynamics of your family are changing, their position is not – and therefore, nor are their rules.
Without this, the child can see opportunity to ‘get more freedom’, or ‘get away with more’.
This is where cohesive parenting becomes so important – but, it is not always easy to achieve.
In the early stages, where regular discussion may be difficult, it can help to have a set of expectations, or ground rules, which you both agree on in place.
- Agreed time to come in
- Amount of screen time
- When/where homework is done
- Expectations around behaviour
- Diet/Hygiene requirements
This will help you to provide a united front to behaviour issues, even though united is not what you feel!
It is also important to be sharing information about incidents and behaviours, as well as positive events. This will help your child to see you as a joint parenting force, not single parents who can be played off against each other.
When people talk about parental alienation, generally they are talking about parents not having contact with their children through obstructive behaviour by another parent.
This has recently been in the news more, and we hope to see a (UK) change in the law soon to offer better protection against parental alienation.
However – this version of PA is the worst end of the scale. There are many more types of alienation which happen quite commonly in families.
Here are some examples:
- Bad mouthing ex partners in front of children
- Changing contact arrangements without due cause
- Being unsupportive of other parent needs around contact
- Restricting the activities allowed by one parent
- Prioritising other things above contact with another parent
- Making children leave items in a particular house because “well I paid for it”
- Publicly disapproving of life choices made by the other parent
- Purposefully having lighter rules to encourage the child to like you more
- Over treating to encourage a child to like you more
Many parents and children loose contact after separation due to an inability for the parents to work together to reduce conflict. In fact – 13% of children will no longer see one parent after 3 years of separation.
Providing both parents are safe to be around a child – neither have the right to behave in such a manner that the child feels alienated from the other. IT is essential whilst experiencing a family separation that you hold yourself to a high expectation in terms of behaviour. Your actions can, and will, impact on your child’s wellbeing short and long term.
Parenting through family separation – self care
Whilst you are going through this period of life, and creating your new reality, it is important that you take the time to process, and manage your own needs.
Seeing this will help your child understand how to look after themselves when they get older and inevitably, have relationship break-ups.
Self care does not always mean a bubble bath (although I am not knocking the value of a soak) – in this sense, it means:
- Giving yourself time to reflect, observe your emotions and plan your coping strategies
- Investing in support – be it paid, or just a trusted friend
- Setting new goals and dreams
- Reflecting on your solo-identity and creating your new reality the way you want it to be
- Becoming acceptive of challenging emotions, and learning to let them flow through, rather than getting stuck
It is of course also ok to prescribe yourself (in moderation) 1the odd piece of cake, glass of vino, or whatever else helps you feel nourished.
Parenting through family separation – support for children
Sadly when families separate, there is often lots of support for parents.
You have solicitors to manage the legalities of dividing your shared life
You have mediators to help you communicate
You have therapists to help you manage the emotional fallout……
But what about the children?
During break up children can set some really unhealthy goals.
- “I just want mum and dad to get back together”
- “I want it to be like it was before”
Imagine what a child feels when their stable world collapses, and they don’t have guidance to help them understand their feelings, and move towards a positive outcome.
- Accepting the loss of a situation and being prepared to explore a new one.
- Building an image of what the new reality may be like and preparing for change.
- Processing anger and grief and communicating feelings appropriately.
Being able to see the positive possibilities within the difficulty of a new reality.
Often, having someone ‘neutral’ to talk to can support a child to manage their feelings, and cope with separation much better.
Support for children can be found through:
- Family coaches
- School pastoral staff
- Local charities
Remember – it is only a chapter
If you are going through a separation, I hope this article has helped you shape your journey in a positive way.
It can be hard, painful and feel never-ending – but, this is just a chapter in your life. This is not the whole book.
Whether you are heartbroken to be alone, or delighted to be single again – this, like many other life experiences, will be full of highs and lows.
You will learn a lot
You will make mistakes
You will have successes
Be nice to yourself. Be nice to your ex.
Your children will thank you one day.