Breaking up is hard to do - for the whole family
An estimated 150,000 children each year are affected by their parents divorce and an equal number will see their co-habiting parents split up. Divorce (and separation) is becoming more and more common, yet the impact on children is still not fully recognised or addressed.
The impact on children
Perhaps the most important thing to recognise is that relationship breakdowns are a process, not a single one-off event. Children are affected by their parents’ separation for the rest of their lives, not just for the few months while the separation is taking place. From now on, all of family life will always be different.
Research tells us that children are distressed by their parents’ separation and for some, there are long-term consequences. However, that distress can be minimised as we now know that it is not the separation itself that does the damage, but the way in which it is done. The key factors that influence a child’s ability to adjust are the quality of contact with both parents and the level of conflict between them. The bottom line is that co-operative post-separation parenting is essential for children’s well being.
Breaking the news
If at all possible, parents should tell their children together. It may be one of the hardest things you’ve ever done in your life, but the calmer and more optimistic you can be, the better. You and your partner need to sit down and agree what you will say. Children need to know the basic facts, for example, ‘Mummy and Daddy aren’t happy together anymore, so we’ve agreed that we are gong to live apart’. They need to know what practical changes there will be and when, for example, ‘Daddy’s going to move to a house on his own in two weeks time’ and most importantly, they need to know that you both still love them and that they will continue to have a relationship with both of you.
Some children will have a thousand questions they need to ask, while others will be tearful and upset. Some will be angry and demand that you reconsider while some will go quiet while they take in the news. A few will act as if they don’t care. As a parent, you need to be ready to accept and manage the initial response as well as the reactions that will come over the following weeks and months.
How children react
How a child reacts will depend on their age and personality. For all there will be a huge sense of shock, confusion and anxiety. Even if children have been aware that a relationship has been difficult, they can still be extremely shocked to discover it is finally over. They may also be very angry. After all, this is a decision that has been forced on them and there is nothing they can do about it.
There are some additional reactions specific to different age groups:
0-4 yrs – this age group are the most dependent on their parents and consequently fear tends to be their strongest emotion. Babies and small children won’t have the same understanding as a two-year-old but may still pick up on the emotional state of the home. Since this age group may not be able to verbalise their feelings, they may leak out in behaviour. For example, regressing to an earlier developmental stage, bed wetting, wanting a bottle, being clingy and difficult to settle at night.
5-8 yrs – this age group has a better grip on reality than pre-schoolers but they may still be very fearful, particularly about losing the non-resident parent. They’re the age group most likely to struggle with split loyalties as they don’t yet understand the complexities of relationships and split their world simply into goodies and baddies.
9-12 yrs – the tweenagers still tend to think in terms of black and white and consequently they’re most likely to take sides. They may be very angry about the injustice of the situation and look for someone to blame.
Helping Your Children Cope
1. Reassure, reassure, reassure.
Children need to know that the separation is not their fault and that neither of you will stop loving them or leave them. You must actively encourage and support the ongoing relationship with both of you.
2. Manage your own emotions.
In spite of the many difficult emotions that you’re struggling with, your children need to know that the world is still a safe place where their needs will be met. It’s okay to let your child know that it’s a difficult and painful time for you too, but remember that strong emotions are frightening to a child. And NEVER do anything to damage their relationship with their other parent.
3. Maintain routines and boundaries.
Where possible, keep life going the same as it has been. Bedtimes and mealtimes, brushing teeth and going to school. External routines can help to minimise internal turmoil.
4. Get help.
If you’re struggling to separate your parenting responsibilities from your feelings about separation or you’re really not sure how best to help your kids, make an appointment to see a Relate counsellor or get online advice at www.FamilyTherapyOnline.co.uk