The impact of separation/divorce
Separation/divorce is a very difficult life event that if it occurs, impacts all of those involved. Ending a relationship when there are children can bring about a plethora of changes and transitions that both children and adults need to work through. This could mean a change in residence, leaving behind a familiar home, friends, and school. It could involve adjustments to a blending of families and the navigation of new family roles and norms. While the breakdown of their parent’s relationship can be very hard for children, as it is out of their control, it can also be incredibly paining on parents. Separation and divorce involves parents grieving the loss of their relationship and a life they’ve built together in the midst of negotiating parenting plans, financial obligations and new living arrangements. On top of all this, parents are trying their hardest to be a secure base for their children, during a time that feels wobbly at best.
Supporting you in the process
In order to help support your child as best as you can, you must first ensure you are taking care of yourself. There’s a reason why in an emergency aboard an aircraft adults are instructed to secure their own oxygen masks prior to assisting a child. Adults need to be stable before they can assist a child in their stabilization, and adults are the helpers whom children depend upon. At times it can be overwhelming to be your child’s ‘person’ especially when you are undergoing a lot of stress yourself. Therefore, it is very important to surround yourself with a network of supports, your own team of helpers, to help you through those days when the ice feels thin. Your supports may all play different roles; some may offer emotional support to you or your children, whereas others may be able to offer tangible help. In addition to a support network, it is important to engage in self-care. Taking care of yourself and making time for yourself, not only re-charges your battery to give you the energy and balance you need to be available to your child, it also models healthy coping strategies for your child. I know this is easier said than done, but be patient and gentle with yourself, and take baby steps. You don’t want your child worrying about you; it is important that your child knows that you know how to take care of you and that you will take care of them, so that they don’t have to.
How much do I share with my child?
It is important to talk to your child about the separation/divorce in a developmentally appropriate way so they understand what’s going on and have a better idea of the changes to expect in their lives. Children should be spared the details of why your partnership was unsuccessful. Children should be able to focus on being a kid, and not have to hold the weight of adult worries on their shoulders. However, not sharing anything is confusing for a child as they are at the centre of this life altering change. Be honest with your child that there was a falling out of love in your partnership with their other parent, but this does not impact the never ending love that both parents will have and share for their child. Explaining to your child that you and your ex-partner have been having arguments that may have looked like: yelling and crying, and may have made your child feel: scared, worried, and sad, is not a conversation of weakness, comprised of mistakes and things that didn’t work out. This conversation is instead a healthy life lesson, albeit difficult, that not everything works out, that instead of remaining in an unhealthy relationship, parents have chosen that they are healthier apart. Every situation is obviously different, but focusing on modelling healthy relationships for your child can help relieve some of the guilt or shame you may be feeling, as the relationship was not healthy and whole if it did not work out, even if that unhealthy piece was more one-sided.
How to support your child
Children sometimes take the burden of their parent’s relationship struggles upon themselves, believing that if only they had done this or that differently the relationship would not have ended and inevitably holding onto feelings of blame. Children need to be reminded that their parent’s decision to part is in no way their fault. To help your child through this difficult experience, it is important for them to know that they can go to you for support. This may require you to listen to them without judgement; it may mean being with your child in silence, all the while, showing them that you support them in their feelings. While the separation/divorce happened for reasoning that you understand, more often than not, children wish their parents could remain together. Holding this in the forefront of your mind can help you to listen with open ears and an open heart, as your child may need to express feelings about their other caregiver that you do not share. Acknowledging your child’s perspective is important, even if you do not feel the same, as they need the space to love both of their parents equally. Children must never be put in a position to choose or take sides. It is important that children do not overhear negative talk about their other parent, about the choices they make, or the partnerships they chose, as these will add to children’s worries about that parent and themselves.
How to communicate with your ex-partner
Children should be supported in their relationship with their other parent as much as possible. Finding a way to communicate with your ex-partner in a civil manner is necessary, as children cannot be put in the role of messenger. If face-to-face contact is too much, than the distance that phone or email provides may be what’s required. It may be helpful to look at a picture of your child when communicating with your ex, to stay focused on who is important, your shared love for your child, and to hold yourself to higher standards of trying to respect the other person, as if your child was in the room. In addition to respectful communication, showing respect for the other parent’s parenting and rules will help your child to adjust and feel a sense of stability, and will bring you closer to the goal of co-parenting/parallel-parenting.
Ensure that your child still has access to family and friends whom they hold dear. It is important to monitor the messaging provided from those who may be ‘on your side,’ to be clear that there can be no bad-mouthing of the ex-partner. Negative comments can have damaging effects on your child and their relationships. Try your best to take the high road even though it can be difficult, as children will thank you later, maybe not literally, but in their healthy development. Allowing for and supporting your child to have the healthiest relationship possible with your previous partner, will prevent feelings of resentment from forming and will give your child the chance to have another positive adult relationship in their life.
The healing journey is not defined
Lastly, it is important to acknowledge that separation/divorce is not an experience that has an end date. Although there is a time period when the fighting may have begun, or to when an agreement or order was signed, there is no end attached to the complex feelings a child or you may have. There may be chunks of time when you find yourself or your child coping well, and times when the separation/divorce become very real and fresh again. For example, holidays can be difficult as a child who once knew where they would be, together with their family, now has to juggle more than one arrangement, knowing that they cannot possibly be in two places at once. Big feelings around the separation/divorce can also raise its head when children go through different developmental stages. For example, for a younger child, this may look like struggles around not having the other parent to put them to bed or around separation issues, whereas the teenage years may become more negative or act out in aggression.
Feelings your child may experience
Children may cycle through multiple emotions such as anger, sadness, and grief. They may experience feelings of guilt and/or shame. Children may become clingy and have fears of abandonment, and/or they may withdraw and turn inwards. They may go through periods of denial or fantasizing that the separation/divorce never happened or that their parents will get back together. You may notice some regression or the opposite, where a child takes on a parentified role. Feelings may come and go, but if you notice your child struggling, appearing stuck, being controlled by their emotions rather than being in the driver’s seat you may want to consider finding a counsellor to work with your child to express their thoughts and feelings. Working through these feelings in a safe and supportive environment is helpful for anyone, including the child who appears to be adjusting well. It becomes especially important to address these concerns when they become persistent and pervasive so that your child can be supported to have an adjusted, healthy outlook.
To find out more about supporting children during a separation or divorce or to inquire about our services contact Calming Tree Counselling today.
Emily has over 5 years of experience working alongside children, youth, and their families. She provides client-centred counselling to individuals, couples, groups, and families. Emily provides play based counselling with children from any and all ethnicities, family structures, sexual identities, and trauma histories. She works with families who have or are experiencing mental health issues, self-harm and suicidal ideation. Emily supports children with histories of abuse, neglect, domestic violence, foster care, divorce, loss, struggles at school, issues with social skill development and bullying.