Getting divorced or ending a long-term relationship is considered one of life’s biggest stressors. Even when it feels like the right or necessary choice for both partners, most couples who separate struggle with feelings of failure, shame, anger, and/or loss. For parents who separate (for purposes of this blog, I will use the term “separation” in place of “divorce or dissolution of the relationship”), these feelings are often intensified by concern over the impact of the separation on their child(ren).
Separation is usually painful for children; of that there is no doubt. However, how your child experiences the separation and in what ways it impacts him or her over the short, medium, and long terms largely depends on how you, the parents, handle the process.
If the separation process is handled in a way that provides your child with some degree of reassurance, respect (towards the other parent) and routine, your child can thrive regardless of or, in some cases, because of the separation. For some children, having one’s parents separate can actually (believe it or not) be a step towards a healthier, happier life—particularly when there has been a climate of disrespect, tension, and fighting between the parents. In any event, regardless of the circumstances of the separation, it is important to keep in mind as you go through this process that children, for the most part, are very resilient.
The biggest emotional pitfall/danger for a child whose parents are separating is self-blame. Most children, no matter what age or stage of development, will harbor the fear that they are the cause of the break-up, either because they did something wrong, were too difficult to parent, and/or were not lovable enough.breakup and that their love for him/her is for always. The message needs to be: Parents sometimes stop loving each other and/or stop being happy together, but parents never stop loving their children and never stop wanting to be with them.
How you deliver this message obviously varies according to the age of your child. When telling your child about the separation, if at all possible, you should tell your child together. This will make the news less confusing and help your child integrate the information more easily. Here are some examples of the kinds of things you can tell your child:
- “We are separating because of a change in the way we feel about each other (the parents); NOT about how feel about you. We will always love you. That never changes. Partners and marriages break-up sometimes; parents do not break up with their children.”
- “The separation is NOT your fault; it is something that happened between us.” In explaining why you are breaking up, just give the basics (e.g. “We are no longer happy together”); do not include any details of your relationship, especially negative, accusatory ones.
- “We will try to keep your daily life as much the same as possible.” Here you may want to spell out, to the extent to which you know at this stage, what the arrangement is in terms of where your child will sleep, when s/he will see each of you.
Make sure to give your child space to express how they feel and ask questions, at the time you tell them and on an on-going basis.
Respect Your Partner
When couples split, more often than not they are separating because, at least in part, they lack respect for some aspect of their partner’s personality or behavior. If this wasn’t the case before the separation, it often becomes so during.
When you don’t respect your partner, it is really difficult not to convey this to your child, and to some extent that is just inevitable. Nonetheless, to the degree that you can control it, it is really better for your child if you do not speak disrespectfully (with complaints, insults, etc.) to or about your ex in front of your child.
Why? Because although you may not love your ex any more, your child most certainly does, and while you may get to decide that your ex is not part of your family, your child cannot.
When your child hears you speak disrespectfully to or about your ex, s/he may feel disloyal and/or guilty about loving both of you and feel s/he needs to choose, which is a very painful and confusing position to be in. What’s more, your child will probably experience your disrespect as self-criticism (deep down all children identify to some extent with both parents).
For these reasons, it is best to avoid saying anything disparaging about your partner in front of your child. Keep to neutral statements, such as, “Mommy forgot to bring your teddy bear back here with you,” rather than, “Your mother is so careless! How many times do I have to remind her not to forget to bring your stuff?! What is her problem?!” This will go a long way in helping your child feel safe and manage difficult, conflicted feelings.
To say you should not be disrespectful to or about your ex is not to say that if your child is upset about some thing your ex-partner did, you can’t validate your child’s experience, but it meana sticking with your child’s experience, rather than using it as launch pad for your own litany of complaints.
For example, say your child tells you that your ex forgot to pick him up from school. As tempting as it may be to say, “That jerk!! He is so irresponsible!” you are probably helping your child more by saying something like, “That must have been scary for you. What did you do?” That doesn’t mean you don’t feel angry or that you sit back and do nothing about the incident, but it does mean that you keep your focus on your child in that moment and not on your own feelings about your ex.
In incidents like the one above, depending on the age of your child, you many want to help your child figure out how to communicate his feelings to his/her other parent or you might decide to communicate directly with the other parent. In those instances when you need to communicate with your ex directly, it is best to communicate when your child is not present. Otherwise, your child may very well feel torn between the two of you and/or guilty about “causing a problem.”
Keep to a Routine
Let’s face it: separation can be very disruptive for everyone involved, parents and children alike. For children, especially young children, however, the disruption to their routine that separation causes can be particularly stressful.
Kids crave routine. It gives them a sense of predictability and control in a world that is already fairly out of their control and out of their decision-making realm, particularly during big transitions such as a separation. Being able to predict the ins and outs of their daily lives can be very grounding for kids and can greatly reduce their feelings of anxiety and loss.
Although it is unrealistic (and not necessarily ideal) to think that routine and predictability can be achieved at all times, as much as possible you and your ex should try to maintain a basic routine within each of your households and between the two of you. This will mean setting up a weekly schedule for visitation or for shared custody, trying to agree on the big parenting decisions, letting go of the smaller ones, and establishing some new traditions around the holidays and birthdays, to name a few. Some things to keep in mind when setting routine are:
- Try to set up rules that are as consistent as possible between both parents/homes (but don’t sweat the small stuff)
- Set up details of arrangement as much as possible in advance such as the drop off and pick up routine, concerts, holidays, etc.
- During drop-off, pick-up, and other occasions when you may come in contact with your ex, the amount of contact between you two should reflect the nature of your separation (cooperative, acrimonious, etc.). Minimize contact with your ex if the contact is acrimonious.
- If you have a cooperative separation, celebrating holidays, birthdays, concerts, etc. jointly (where both parents are present) can be helpful. Otherwise, try to set up new traditions that become routine.
Children Are Resilient
Having one’s parents separate or divorce can be very painful for children. However, children are resilient. Their capacity to adapt and move on is remarkable. Provided they continue to feel loved by both parents, feel that they don’t have to choose between their parents and have a sense that their new life, although different in many ways, is predictable and safe, children can thrive after a separation.
Of course, if you are worried about how your child is being impacted by the separation, it can be helpful and reassuring to have your child meet with a therapist and/or speak with a professional yourself. Certainly, if you see that your child is suffering in a way that seems to be interfering with his/her functioning (at school, with his/her peers, or at home) it is always a good idea talk to a professional.
Even if you are not worried about your child, you may find it helpful to consult a professional at some point, for your own peace of mind. In any event, you may also find the following resources helpful:
Resources for Parents:
- Raising the Kids You Love with the Ex You Hate, by Edward Farber, PhD. Greenleaf Press, 2013.
- How to Parent with Your Ex: Working Together for Your Child’s Best Interest (for Residential and Non-Residential Parents), by Brette McWhorter Sember. Sphinx Publisher, 2005.
- Mom’s House, Dad’s House: Making Two Homes for Your Child, by Isolina Ricci. Fireside, 1997.
Resources for Children:
- Was it the Chocolate Pudding? by Sandra Levins. Magination Press, 2005. Ages 5-10.
- The Divorce Workbook for Children, by Lisa Scab, LCSW. Instant Help Books, 2008. Ages 9-13.
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