Nurturing your children through your separation and divorce is a primary concern for every good parent.
There is a profound sadness for parents in the reality of separation; your child will spend time with their other parent without you, and you will miss out on experiences and memories that would otherwise have been shared.
When a family dismantles, one of the hardest things to accept is that you are going to have your children with you less than you did in the marriage. It can be gut-wrenching, for both parents, but in my experience of dealing with many separating couples, especially for parents who have been the stay at home primary carer.
You may fear losing closeness in the relationship with your child but for some parents, separation is an opportunity to improve their relationship and strengthen the bond between parent and child.
Try these seven steps to minimise the adverse effect of separation and divorce.
1. Tell your children about the impending separation/divorce.
Kids absorb far more of what is going on in our adult relationships than we are aware. Tell them that you are separating and what that will mean for them. If you don't you run the risk of them imagining what might happen to them, which is usually far worse than the reality.
2. Reassure them they are not to blame.
Children will often relate something they did to your separation and think, for example, Mummy and Daddy wouldn't have been fighting if they hadn't drawn on the walls. It is important to let your children of all ages know that the issues are between the two of you adults and that you both love them very much just the way they are.
3. Shield them from conflict
The number one goal you should set yourself as a co-parent
is to shield your children from all forms of conflict!
Protect your child from all conflict from minor bickering to major disagreements between you and your former party as well as any third parties involved. Children subjected to conflict between their parents are most likely to respond to the fears and anxiety by acting out, becoming shy, morose or angry. The impact can last well into adulthood.
4. Find opportunities to speak well of their other parent
Derisive comments about your former partner create anxiety and insecurity in your child; if their other parent has this unsavoury trait, do they also have it? You may no longer love each other, but your child loves both of you. Criticising the other parent makes a child question how much they can trust you and your opinions. At a time when you should be doing all you can to nurture your child's self-esteem and reassure them, do not add to the confusion and unhappiness. Find opportunities to speak well of your ex-partner. In doing so, you will be promoting the self-esteem of your child as well as modelling respect, forgiveness, and rationality in adversity to your child.
5. Don't use your child as a "go-between"
Don't fuel your insecurities by fishing for information about your ex-partner's lifestyle through your children. Communicate directly with the other parent instead of expecting the child to ferry messages between you.
If your child is old enough to have their own mobile phone, then allow the other parent to communicate directly with them ... without asking them personal questions afterwards. Fostering an environment where your child feels they can share what is said by either of you without adverse reaction is so important.
When you have little children, there is no option but to communicate directly but as they grow older, it's easy to slip into "ask your Dad this" or "tell your Mum that". Try not to. The kids feel terrible if the message is poorly received and worse when it's a fairly inane message that causes conflict between the parents if they forget to deliver the message or get it wrong in the relaying. Adult up and communicate directly between the two of you. Even much older children benefit from this.
6. Give your child permission to share freely with you
Don't ask your child to take sides or expect them to love you more than their other parent - regardless of how your relationship ended.
I often have parents telling me that they are honouring their child's wishes in keeping them at home with them because the child says they don't want to go to spend time with the other parent. When they tell me this, I ask them to consider if they would let their child stay at home from school every single day because they said they didn't want to go?
Of course, there will be days, when the child genuinely would be better off staying at home, but that is not often. Sometimes, as a parent, it's uncomfortable, but you have to pull rank and encourage them to maintain the relationship in spending time with the other parent in the best interests of your child.
If you are parenting tweens or teenagers, you'll be well aware that they are forging their own independent ways with their own agendas and it is more difficult to do ... but even more important.
It's valuable to maintain communication with the other parent to set boundaries and be on the same page because this is a very delicate age. Each parent brings different strengths and learnings to their child. You will serve your child so much better if they have the benefit of frequent input from both of you to help steer them through the transition.
Recognise that many children will tell you they had a boring time, or they don't like their other parent's new home or spending time with them because it's dull and they'd rather be doing other things. A big one is to say they don't like their parent's new partner, sometimes they don't or they feel threatened by the attention they feel they are losing out from the loved-up parent but often, it is because they feel they must say so in order to save hurting your feelings. So often, it has more to do with you, than your child, or the new partner.
Your child may worry that you are left lonely or sad or will be angry if they said they loved going to the other house, had a great time and the new partner was great fun. Many children feel as though they would be betraying you and so they say what they think you want to hear.
They probably tell stories to their other parent to feed their ego too!
If you are resentful of their fun stories or are continually fishing for information when they return, pretty soon they will learn to stay quiet.
Try to encourage your child to head off and enjoy the time they spend with their other parent and offer an interested but neutral response when they return with stories of their activities with their other parent. This gives them permission to share the whole of their life with you.
7. Maintain routine and boundaries
Where possible, avoid abruptly upsetting your child's routine by moving house or changing schools. The shock of separation and divorce is great and minimising other changes occurring at the same time can help to lessen the impact. In time, it may be necessary to move house or schools. Once you know what is going to happen, talk to your children about the changes in advance, so they have time to get used to the idea and what it will mean for them before it happens.
In the early stages of separation, some parents use this point of maintaining routines as an excuse not to upset the child from the environment they have always lived in so as to spend time with their other parent at another home. This is absolutely not what is meant. Part of maintaining a routine is to continue a relationship with both parents.
When things are tough emotionally and you're exhausted and barely holding things together yourself, there is a desire to want to protect our children, who are already upset by the changes, from any more hurt. Some parents, alone in the home for the first time in many years, seek to comfort themselves and their children by all sleeping in the same room or bed, or perhaps slackening the reins on discipline, allowing later bedtimes and lax attitudes towards manner, eating habits, chores or attending school and other events. While some of any of these things won't be a problem, if it is ongoing, it can be.
Children are extremely adaptable and studies show that so long as there is consistency in both homes offering a loving environment, with the appropriate adult to child boundaries, children are easily able to cope with a different routine in each home.
If you have a child who doesn't like to budge from their comfort zone and routine in your home, gently coaxing them to do so by spending time in the other parent's home, as well as the benefit of growing the relationship with their other parent, you will do them a favour in terms of building resilience and adaptability.
I should have followed my own advice
I have learned some valuable lessons in the past 10 years from mothers, fathers and professionals who are far wiser than me in parenting matters.
Much of the advice I have offered in these tips above, I didn't follow after I separated.
Ten years on though, I am pleased to report we co-parent far more effectively now as we try to steer university-aged children to adulthood together. I honestly believe if I had followed some of my own current advice 10 years ago, perhaps we would have arrived at this place a lot earlier.
We all, hopefully, live and learn.
I can assure you hand on heart, it was to the detriment of both my children and me that I did not follow all of the points I have listed above.
If you have successfully navigated co-parenting or learnt from your mistakes and have tips that may help other parents, please leave a message in the comments below.
Published by, Christine Weston Founding Director