Helping Children Cope with Separated Parents
Our parenting coach, Lena Engel, advises some practical first steps to help smooth the path to living separately.
Separation and divorce are all too often extreme and painful experiences in the lives of the adults involved, but they can be just as upsetting and earth-shattering for children in the family.
Despite the wide range of circumstances that have driven you to decide to separate, it is important not to forget that the decision was yours - the adults in the relationship. The children cannot be blamed and should not be burdened at second hand by any of your feelings of guilt.
What does this look like in practice?
If parents separate, it may be because the relationship has broken down and there appears no likelihood of being able to work out difficulties.
In most of these cases, there may be court agreements and arrangements put in place so that both parents have access rights to the children and have shared care. In some special cases where there are abusive relationships, one parent may have permanent care but the other parent may have supervised access.
All these different arrangements are likely to cause stress to each of the parents and thereby place additional unseen stress on the children.
- Children can get used to having all sorts of new arrangements in two separate homes, as long as they have their own space and can feel that each parent is offering them equivalent access to the things they need. For instance, they need familiar objects to make them feel at home, as well as access to the support of each parent.
Timescales and arrangements
- Children need to know that the arrangements are purposeful and make them feel valued by each parent. To enable this, it is important to create blocks of regular and predictable time which children can get used to.
- Children can be encouraged with a visual timetable to remember when they will be moving between their parents. This enables them to prepare mentally and physically, taking what they need each time.
- Parents should share the information about the children’s immediate concerns and school information which may affect behaviour, or arrangements with school or friends.
- Beware that commitments in parents’ work and private life needs to be balanced when they have the children to stay. This can pose dilemmas for parents and increased friction for the children.
Expectations for children’s care and behaviour
- Parents need to try to agree that the children will receive similar caring responses in each home otherwise children will find re-adjusting to what is expected of them in each place difficult.
- For instance, it is useful to agree a set of rules that are mirrored in both homes. These could be basic agreements about keeping to specified bedtimes, and daily hygiene routines. Also, these may be about providing healthy home cooked foods and drink.
- It’s helpful for parents to agree that they will support the growing children to become independent in self-care, in areas such as dressing themselves and looking after their belongings, and little by little ensuring that they take part in doing simple chores in the home, such as setting the table and helping prepare food together.
- As the children develop, they need to feel supported in both homes to do homework, and receive the attention they need to solve tricky problems.
Disagreements and emotional development
- There may be many reasons for the relationship between parents to be cold and emotionally upsetting, however the children need to feel loved and cherished despite any issues between adults.
- It requires a great deal of commitment and control for adults who have separated to come to terms with their own emotions, let alone the needs of their children. However, it is essential that the adults remain, as much as possible, in control of their emotions in front of the children and do not badmouth each other, whatever the temptations to do so.
- To children, what really matters is that they feel equally well cared for in both homes and that once a routine has been put in place, it is consistent.
- It is very easy for children to pick up on their parents’ emotional responses, so be aware that children, for no good reason, can blame themselves for their parents’ unhappiness. This can negatively affect their health and well-being.
- Be sensitive to changes in your children’s behaviour and any difficulties they may be having at school as a result of the separation. It is helpful to tell teachers about your (and their) new situation and that you positively seek to minimise their discomfort.
- In this way parents need to open an avenue of communication with the school to make clear the new arrangements for their children, and to identify with the school any additional support that may be needed in certain cases.
Parenting Coach, Lena Engel