Parenting after Parental Conflict, Separation and Divorce
These notes were written as a result of my work with parents looking for ways to continue being good parents after conflict, sometimes leading to separation. It is a collection of ideas about what I have learned from the professional literature, from my 20 years of clinical practice as a family therapist with children, youth and their parents, and my experiences as a father and grandfather. When attempts at cooperative parenting don’t work, it’s essential to do whatever is possible to lessen the harmful effects of high-conflict parenting and high-stress separations on children. I hope that parents struggling to make sense of parenting after separation and those who support them will find some of the ideas and interventions outlined in these notes helpful. While the information is for parents and those who support them, the aim of these notes is that of contributing to the best possible outcome for children who experience parental conflict.
Every family is unique. There are as many different ways of parenting as there are families, circumstances and social settings in which children grow up. And there are cultural differences in approaches to parenting. Clearly, it is not possible to provide definitive answers for parenting in the face of such diversity. However, families experience similar difficulties and there is some agreement in clinical experience and the professional literature about how to address many of these difficulties.
You may not agree with all that you read. Why should you? But don’t reject new ideas too soon just because they don’t fit your assumptions about parenting. Take what makes sense to you and, if you think it might be helpful, try it as a new approach. If it works, it will be to your, and your children’s advantage. If it does not, then try something different. Continue to do what works, change what doesn’t.
The notes are organized in several sections:
Research Findings: some of the more well-established findings about the effects of conflict, separation and divorce on children and on parenting.
General Principles: a starting point for discussion and the introduction of practical approaches to addressing the difficult transition brought about by parent conflict and separation.
What to Expect: an introduction to some of the more common responses parents might see their children showing after separation.
Interventions: some ideas about practical steps that parents might take to support cooperative parenting and lessen the negative effects of parental conflict and separation.
Questions and Answers: answers to questions that often arise in the course of working with families addressing parental conflict and the transition of separation.
Resources: readily available resources parents might find helpful to consult, including some child/teen-friendly resources.
References: for anyone wishing to explore particular aspects of the field more fully.
Appendices: some ideas from other authors about various aspects of the effects of parent conflict and separation on children and how to address parenting in these circumstances.
2) RESEARCH FINDINGS
As is often the case, the research evidence does not provide any one clear set of findings. However, the following findings/principles are generally well accepted.
The effects of parent conflict, separation and divorce on children
Resilience, rather than risk, is the normative outcome for children of divorce (Kelly, 2000; Amato, 2001; Emery, 1999).
Children of divorce are at higher risk for developing academic, relationship, and substance abuse problems than children who grow up in non-divorced homes (Wallerstein et al 2000).
The psychiatric risk for children to a single stress is typically low but as children are exposed to multiple stressors, “the adverse effects increase multiplicatively” (Hetherington et al., 1989).
Children adjust better to parental separation if they have flexible, frequent and supported time with both parents (Trinder, Beek & Connolly, 2002; Pryor & Rogers, 2001; Arendell, 1996).
The loss of a continuing parent-child relationship is the single most critical variable in the adjustment of a child to their parents’ separation (Stahl, 1984; Wallerstein & Kelly, 1980; Amato, 2001; Keith, 1991; Kelly, 2006).
Children exposed to conflict, both in marriage and after divorce, experience the most significant problems. If parents continue fighting after their divorce, children begin to exhibit more behavioral and emotional problems. (Stahl, 1999; Kelly and Johnston, 2001).
Children exposed to conflict develop loyalty conflicts and become afraid to love both of their parents or to express their love for one parent in front of the other parent. Many of these children become aligned with only one parent, in part to reduce their anxiety and insecurity (Stahl, 1999; Kelly and Johnston, 2001).
Children experiencing intense conflict take sides because they can’t manage the internal tension and anxiety they feel. For these children, there is a risk of serious psychological regression, where they will see one parent as mostly bad and the other parent as mostly good. This psychological “splitting”, as it is called, is damaging to children because it reinforces a style in which they view the world in a “black and white” or an “all or nothing” way rather than accepting a more balanced view of good and bad in most people. (Stahl, 2000).
Behaviorally, children are likely to express their wounds with regression, aggression, withdrawal, or depression. (Stahl, 2000).
Findings about parenting after parent conflict, separation and divorce
While it is not uncommon for parents to blame the other when symptoms erupt, it is common for both parents to play a role in these difficulties. (Stahl, 2000)
Parents’ inability to separate their parental roles from prior conflict in the marriage is often a significant contribution to the conflict after the divorce. This conflict is perhaps the most important variable in determining how children adjust to their parents’ divorce. Parents need to do whatever it takes to reduce their level of conflict (Stahl, 2000).
A prime source of conflict for separated parents is different parenting philosophies and difficulty sharing their child. It is important to accept that there is more than one “right way” to parent. And it is important to learn to be less rigid and more accepting of the other parent. As a parent, do the best job of parenting that you can during the time the child is with you, without criticizing the other parent. Children are capable of being parented in different ways, and many children of divorce adjust quite well to two very different homes (Stahl, 2000).
No single post-divorce arrangement is in the best interests of all children, because of the diversity of families and children’s situations (Lye, 1999; Mason, 2000; Wallerstein & Blakeslee, 2003).
More contact with a less-seen parent is associated with happier children, so joint parenting arrangements are likely to be better for children than sole-parenting arrangements (Oberg, 1985; Kelly, 1988; Bauserman, 2002; Amato & Gilbreth, 1999; Dunn, 2003).
Children in “joint custody” rather than sole-mother custody are more satisfied with their arrangements, and are better adjusted (Kelly, 1988; Bauserman, 2002; Grotzinger J B, 2002).
Quantity of time is relevant insofar as it is necessary to support quality. The nature and quality of parenting is crucial (Funder, 1996; Maccoby, 1990; Wallerstein & Blakeslee, 2003; Pryor & Rogers, 2001).
Children need time to do ordinary things with their less-seen parent, not just fun things (Laumann-Billinhs & Emery, 2000; Burgess & Russell, 2003).
Care needs to be taken in involving children in separation planning (Smart, 2002; Kaltenborn, 2004).
Fathers and mothers have different kinds of input to their children, both necessary (Pruett, 2000).
Some mothers appear to discourage father time (Fabricius & Hall, 2000; Smart & Wade, 2001).
Overnight contact helps build and strengthen parent-child relationships (Pruett et al, 2004; Warshak, 2000).
Even very young children can benefit from overnight stays with their other parent. Kelly & Lamb, 2000; Lamb & Kelly, 2001; Warshak, 2000)
Divorced parenting is better dealt with away from the adversarial system(Zaidel S, 2004; Ricci I, 1997; Luepnitz D A, 1982; Davis G and Wikely N, 2002; Bradshaw J et al, 1999).
Parallel parenting plans can work for children of estranged parents – Warshak estimates more than half of divorced parents sharing custody in the US follow this path. (Warshak, 2004; Ricci,1997; Furstenberg & Cherlin, 1991).
Shared parenting can work well if it’s child-focused, but not if it’s adult-focused (Neale, Flowerdew & Smart, 2003; Irving & Benjamin M; 1989).
Continued inter-parental conflict is associated with the most negative consequences for children (Bauserman, 2002; Lee M-Y, 2002; Pryor J & Daly-Peoples R, 2001; Amato P R & Rezac S J, 1994; Reynolds J (ed), 2001).
Conflict resolution programs have proved successful (Neff R & Cooper K, 2004; McKenzie B & Guberman I, 2000; Bacon B L & McKenzie B, 2004).
Education programs, mediation and counselling have been shown to be useful in assisting separated parents to develop the attitudes and abilities that enable them to become cooperative parents (Kelly, 1988).
3) GENERAL PRINCIPLES
1) Separation is sometimes necessary for the good of the family
When love is lost in a relationship and there is no hope of rekindling it, it is time to consider ending the relationship. Remaining in a dead relationship has an impact on all family members. As long as it is authentic (that is, not staged or manipulative), carefully thought-out, and chosen purposefully, the decision to leave a partner may benefit all family members in the long run. (Caution: If in doubt, don’t).
In time – and for some parents it is a long wait – with careful attention to re-building parent-child relationships, your children will hopefully recognize this. However, it is important that both parents take rebuilding the parent-child relationship seriously. You cannot rely on your relationship with your children as a given, you cannot rely on your previous relationship with them. Parenting, even in the best circumstances, is a work in progress.
2) Parental responsibility remains unchanged
Although a statement of the obvious, the responsibilities as separated parents continue as before. It is surprising and sad to see how many separated parents are unable to find ways to continue their parenting roles in such a way that their children continue to experience loving attention from both their mother and father.
3) Good parenting comes first
Put your role as parents first, and remember the obvious; that whatever you may currently feel for them, your ex-spouse is your child’s other parent, who is equally important in your child’s lives, someone who needs your support as a parent, and whose co-operation you need to secure and nurture, no matter how difficult this might be at first.
4) Incorporate the two essential aspects of parenting into your role of parent
There are two distinct roles that a parent needs to be aware of and able to fulfill: nurturing parent and executive parent. Nurturing in the parenting role is shown through affection, empathy, understanding and caring. One way to think about nurturing is to put yourselves in your children’s shoes and treat them in the loving way you would wish to be treated by a caring, conscientious parent. It is the way you would always wish to be treated whether you are at your best or at your worst. Nurturing is often more associated with mothering than with fathering. However, good parenting occurs when both mother and father are equally involved in the nurturing role.
The executive aspect of parenting is the directive and corrective part of parenting, the limit setting, rulemaking, and guidance about the correct way to behave on different occasions in various contexts. It is important in different ways at all stages of a child’s life. The executive aspect of parenting needs to change over time. For example, as a child enters their teenage years, the directive approach that may have worked when your son/daughter was younger is unlikely to continue to be successful. Teenagers are exploring what it is to be more independent and autonomous (characteristics that are developmental imperatives for them) and will often resent what they regard as an authoritarian intrusion into their lives. Executive parenting is often more associated with fathering than mothering. Once again, good parenting requires both mother and father to be equally involved in the executive role.
It is essential that both parents maintain the role of parent in terms of making decisions about what is and what is not appropriate, whatever is happening in the family. However, this executive side of parenting needs to be more gentle and kept to a minimum at times of crisis. At times of crisis, nurturing becomes primary. Ask for your children’s co-operation and incorporate their ideas and suggestions as often as possible, whatever their age, ensuring that your expectations of their participation are age-appropriate.
5) Co-operative parenting is most effective2
Children have the best chance of adjusting to changes in a family after separation when both parents are able to act cooperatively, for the good of their child. The more friendly the relationship between the parents, the easier the children are able to adjust to separation. Children tend to have difficulty coming to terms with separation when they see their parents being negative, engaging in conflict, and shunning each other.
6) Recognize the continuing importance of the parental unit
If you are to give your children the best chance of working through difficulties with minimal distress, it is necessary to find a way of parenting your children as a parenting unit (rather than as two individual parents distanced by circumstances). In order to do this, you will frequently need to put your individual needs on hold and find ways of standing together with the other parent, even though this may be difficult to do.
7) Outlaw negative talk about the other parent: No “put downs”
Don’t let children hear negative talk (or sense a negative attitude) from one parent about the other parent. Children will eventually adjust to the separation of their parents. However, their adjustment will be compromised if their loyalty to either parent is challenged (For example, as in feeling that they have to take sides on hearing one parent disrespect the other – overtly or by omission). It puts them in a bind they do not need: “I love both my mother and my father;” “If I show I love dad in front of mom, mom will be hurt;” “If I show I love mom in front of dad, dad will be hurt.” “Whatever I do, someone will be hurt.” This sort of bind is crazy-making.
8) Develop the skill of being sensitive about the four identities of separated parents
After separation, there are at least four parent identities within the family context. Both parents need to familiarize themselves with each of these identities, together with their characteristics and the interrelation between them: (a) mother and father as individuals, (b) mother and father as a couple (that becomes historical after separation), (c) mother and father as a parental unit (as distinct from two individual parents doing their best as individual parents, in difficult circumstances), (d) mother and father as separated couple and parents. When all is well with (a) (b) and (c), all is likely to be well with the family. When any one of these identities is in distress, the family is in difficulty. When identity (d) is reached, and before it is worked through, there is crisis in the family. You need to acknowledge and separate the interests of (a) and (c) and gain an understanding about what went wrong with (b) in order to be able to work through to a more agreeable relationship (d).
9) Privilege the role of parenting over parents’ personal needs
You will have your own needs as individuals that you may believe to be more pressing in the circumstances following separation than attending to your children’s needs. Find a way to address your personal needs outside your role as parent. Don’t let your personal needs and difficulties bleed into the relationship with your child. Children don’t need the extra responsibility of being your apologist, consultant, friend or confidant. Find ways to privately address your feelings and concerns (e.g., journaling, meditating), have friends to talk with, meet with a support group, consult with a professional if necessary, and have interests to pursue.
10) Maintain the identity and significance of the “Old Family”
Children of separation need to know that, while reconciliation may not be a possibility, the “Old Family” can be reconstituted for special occasions. Meetings of the “Old Family” will only work if both parents can be civil with each other, be fully present and in a steady, emotional state, so that the focus is 100% on relating in keeping with the child’s best interests. Find ways of signalling to the children that the “Old Family” (the only family the children know and care about at this time) is not dead. You can find ways of keeping it alive through occasional meetings (For example, having a meal together, getting together for birthdays, attending some school and community events together). In short, the message to parents on these occasions is “put on a good face” and “don’t spoil the moment.”
11) Recognize the need to re-establish parent-child relationships
Parent-child relationships usually change after separation. Rather than assuming that you will continue the previous parent-child relationship as before, be prepared to re-establish your relationship with each child individually. And be prepared to re-establish your relationship with each child in relationship with his/her siblings. Children need time, opportunity and the space to be able to work out a new relationship with their parents in the new circumstances. When a child is critical of the absent parent, the parent who is present needs to respond carefully. Other than saying that you don’t like to hear your son/daughter speak negatively about the other parent, attempts to censor his/her comments may get in the way of your child working towards a new understanding with that parent. Acknowledge their expressions (anger, negativity, disrespect) non-judgmentally, and gently remind them to say what they need to say to the other parent. In other words, encourage your child, whenever possible, to talk about the other parent to their face, not behind their back.
12) Children of separation frequently react to their grief with negativity and anger
From the child’s perspective, their anger is justified. Expressing it in various ways (including aggression, withdrawal, regression, negativity, criticism and disrespect) is their way of coping. Children need to be able to express their feelings, even if the manner they choose sometimes seems inappropriate. It is important that their expressions of anger, frustration, and grief are not shut down when parents do not like the way it is being expressed. However, it is also important that parents gradually help their children find a range of ways of expressing their feelings. But this will take time and is more likely to be learned from friendly encouragement than a directive approach. It is more important, at least at first, that children feel comfortable enough to express their feelings authentically, in ways that they choose, rather than expressing themselves politely to please their parents and other adults.
13) Children experience anxiety about their parents’ new relationships
Address your child’s anxieties and reassure them (in action as well as words) that any new relationship in your life will not come between you and them. Your children will want you to show them that they come before someone new in your life (at least, some of the time). Their response to your new relationship may not be rational (For example, “Every time you see him/her it tells me that you don’t want to spend time with me”). It is prudent to accept their feelings, however irrational you may find them, in the way they are stated and not attempt to modify, deny or minimize what they express. It is also important to do whatever you can to address these feelings.
It is wise to allow your children to decide whether, and when, they wish to meet your new boyfriend/girlfriend. If a parent attempts to insist on a meeting, children may go to extreme lengths to let you know their feelings about meeting someone whom they regard as the competition, if not the enemy. If you think about it, the only reason this person might enter into your child’s lives is because he/she and you happen to be friends. There is no reason for children to be particularly interested in their parents’ friends. If you attempt to insist that your children meet this new person in your life, you will probably be met with resistance. This resistance will later get in the way if your friendship grows into a more permanent relationship. After the passage of time (to allow your children to cope with the change in their lives after separation) they may be more open to getting to know someone who may become your new partner.
14) After separation children experience increased lack of control over their lives
Another way of looking at what happens after separation is to recognize that, at some level, when their parents separate, children experience how powerless they are over certain aspects of their lives. Some of your children’s acting-out behaviour may be about them exercising what little power they do have – “No thanks, I don’t have to do what you ask, what you suggest, would like, or what you expect me to do.” Making their own decisions is particularly significant for them at a time when they have arrived at a realization that they do not have any control over one of the most fundamental aspects of their lives. They cannot control whether their mother and father live together. But there are other things within their control. So perhaps you can be patient with their refusals, obstinacy and acts of defiance. It may be no more than their exercising what little control they have over their own lives. And, instead of berating their contrariness, perhaps you can find a way to troubleshoot with them to discover what is bothering them and find out if you can help.
15) Separation is a crisis for all family members, especially the children
When parents separate, all family members, especially the children, experience a crisis. A crisis represents both danger and opportunity. The danger is that this transition in the family will not be negotiated without harming some or all members of the family. The opportunity is to discover a way that everyone in the family will eventually come to terms with the transition and, in the best of circumstances, benefit from the change. As one little boy said happily after his parents had married again, “Now I’ve got four great parents, and eight grandparents.”
16) Connect with your children through the needs they express rather than what you think best
It is not unusual for separated parents to underestimate how important it is to reconnect with their children on their children’s terms rather than on the parents’ terms. The children have had no part in creating the serious disruption to their lives following separation. It makes sense, in terms of fairness and effectiveness, to permit and encourage children to recover from the separation of their parents in ways that they choose. This will help them feel that they have some control over their lives after their realization of just how vulnerable they are to their parent’s decisions.
17) Re-establish relationship through what you do as well as what you say
Though what you say is important (say what you mean and mean what you say) it is as important, if not more important, to follow through with what you say and participate in activities with your children. Consider the relationship you wish to have with your children. What are you doing with your son/daughter to encourage this relationship? Irrespective of what he/she is saying or doing, are you doing all that you can do to nurture the relationship? What else can you do?
18) Acknowledge and act on these frequently overlooked parenting principles
Make your son/daughter a priority
Young people are sensitive to being “fitted in” to their parent’s schedules. Let them know that they are a priority.
Don’t let your busyness interfere with the parent-child relationship Being too busy might be a challenging theme in your life as an adult and parent. But don’t expect your children to understand your busyness. If they want your time and you are always busy, they will correctly see that they are not your priority. If you’re that busy, schedule them as your priority sometimes (as often as you can!).
ard teasing, bugging, jokes at their expense, and sarcasm as funny.
Doing “everything” for them is not enough
Cooking, cleaning and being the chauffeur may not be the way to your children’s hearts. They want a real relationship with you. That means doing thinTake care that your “jokes” are really seen as jokes by your children Humour goes a long way to helping parent-child relationships along. Be aware your children may have a different sense of humour. Young people will not reggs together that you and they enjoy and talking together about what is going on in your life, if they show interest, and in theirs.
Share your feelings, thoughts, ideas, concerns, news; don’t interrogate and lecture You will not be able to develop a close relationship with your son/daughter by interrogating him/her or lecturing him/her about what you believe is important. Instead, this style will encourage them to avoid talking with you. Be prepared to share what is going on in your life, in the news or on TV (something that they might be interested in) as an example of the way you would like them to share with you.
Take what your son/daughter tells you seriously
If your son/daughter tells you something that is really significant for them but may be difficult for you to hear, don’t brush it off. Take some time to respond to them. At the very least, thank them for what they have told you, tell them that you appreciate their being open with you, and tell them you want to consider what they have said carefully and will get back to them. Don’t forget to get back to them!
Parents are responsible for repairing parent-child relationships
Some communications workshops teach that it is up to whoever has a problem with the situation to fix it. While this may be standard procedure in work settings (although even at work it is by no means infallible), it is clearly not appropriate in parent-child relationships. If a young person is complaining about a set of circumstances arising from separation, it is not the minor’s responsibility to fix it. The parent may not be able to change the situation but he or she needs to always take responsibility to repair the parent-child relationship. Of course, the parent cannot do this alone: the young person will need to co-operate. But it is not helpful to expect young people to quickly and easily reconcile themselves to the painful circumstances and inconveniences that have resulted from the parent’s conflict and separation. As one young person put it succinctly, “What about the person that caused the hurt? Don’t they have to work to help repair the relationship?”
19) It takes time to get over separation/divorce. Be patient, give it time.
It will take time and it is likely that you will see and experience swings between acceptance and despair. Everyone has their own way of dealing with and coming to terms with grief and stress. You will have your own way of doing this, which hopefully you know about. However, it would not be unusual, especially as a man, to be pragmatic, resigned and future-oriented at the expense of allowing yourself time to come to terms with the loss you have experienced. There is nothing wrong with being pragmatic, of course. However, if you direct all your energy to the practical aspects of recovery and avoid feelings of loss, these feelings of loss will remain “underground” and will likely return later in a more complex form in times of stress.
20) Practice self-care of the parent
Even though “the children come first,” parents need to take care of their own physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual health to be able to give good care and attention to their children. Don’t sacrifice your own well-being because of the feelings you are attempting to come to terms with after the separation. For the sake of everyone in the “Old Family,” take some time to find out who you are as an individual, who you have become. What brings you joy? What brings you interest, excitement and fulfillment? Nurture yourself as well as your children.
4) WHAT TO EXPECT
Children respond to their parents’ separation in many different ways. In what follows, some of more common responses of children to separation are outlined. One or more of these responses may occur, depending on the nature of the separation, the way that the parents inform their children and keep them informed about what’s happening, the temperament of the children and their parents, the situation the family members find themselves in and many other factors.
It is not unusual for children to be angry with their parents for not sticking together, especially with the one who has left. In fact, it is much healthier for them to express their feelings strongly rather than withdrawing, being silent and risking a depressive reaction. If both parents can put-up with the fall-out, it is important for the children to be able to express their feelings as openly as possible, even though parents may not like what they hear.
Children are likely to be angry with both parents, although they may only express it to one. They only express it to one parent because it is too risky to be angry with the parent with whom they live. In their minds, they’ve lost one parent as a regular presence in their life and it’s better not risk alienating the other.
When one parent has left the family for another partner, children are likely to be especially angry with the parent who has left. As well as this anger, there will be a sense of loss (“abandonment” and “betrayal” are the way some young people experience it). Feelings of loss are difficult to express and frequently show themselves as anger. In order to rebuild the parent-child relationship that will have been compromised when the parent left the family, the parent who has precipitated the separation may need to be prepared to be a lightning rod for the children’s emotions. Clearly, this will not be easy. However, it is something that you can choose to do in the interests of helping your children express their feelings of anger and, in this way, move past their negativity towards the new parent-child relationship.
2) Children taking on blame for separation
While often not stated openly, many children wonder about their own role in their parent’s separation although they are blameless (“Am I so bad that I drove them apart?” “ Did I upset mom that much?” “I didn’t realize that s/he felt so strongly about me not cleaning my room.” “ I could have been more thoughtful” etc.). It is not unusual for children adjusting to their parent’s separation to be upset, angry and negative. And some will blame themselves.
Children need to know that they are not responsible for their parents’ separation. Finding the right time and a sensitive way to tell them is not straightforward. Simple is often best. For example, “Your dad and I have not been getting along and we’ve decided that it’s best for mom and dad not to live together any more. Do you have any questions?” Answer their questions as clearly and succinctly as you can, at the level and in the detail in which they are asked. It’s best if both parents can do this together with the children, at the same time, to avoid different stories confusing the children. When you do this make sure that you have agreed beforehand what you are going to say and to present a united front. Easier said than done! However, it is something that needs to be done for your children.
If your child is a worrier and inclined to be self critical, he/she is more likely to wonder about whether he/she is to blame. If you believe that your son/daughter is blaming him/herself for the separation, it is important to find a way to relieve him/her of this painful and false belief. Taking your cues from him/her and responding directly to his/her comments and questions is best. If a young child expresses something that suggests that they are taking on blame, it makes sense to say something like, “Adults are in charge of what they do. Kids are in charge of being kids. Kids are never in charge of what adults do.” If a child is withdrawn and not speaking about the separation, then you may feel it is necessary to reassure them that what has happened is between the adults and has happened because the adults couldn’t find a way to get along. This may be enough. Be guided by what they say and how they respond to whatever you say.
3) Attempts to save the family
In your child’s eyes, their mother and father belong together. Their mother and father may be the only leaders of the family they have ever known. Consequently, there will be a tendency for your children to refuse to accept the separation of their parents. Many children will attempt to save their parent’s relationship by whatever means, including attempts to sabotage any new relationship either parent may be developing. It is wise to regard any such attempt as an act of loyalty to the “Old Family” rather than an act of malevolence towards the parent in the new relationship. In this way, children may be seen as “Guardians of the Old Family.”
4) Child’s feelings of sadness and abandonment
When a parent leaves home, no matter what the circumstances, the children are likely to feel sad and deeply unsettled. Often, they will feel abandoned by the parent who has left and angry with the remaining parent for their role in the other’s leaving. This apparent abandonment will be heightened if the absent parent has left the family for another partner. After the initial shock, anger is a frequent secondary response.
5) Child’s loss of trust
Sometimes after a separation, children may lose trust in one of the parents, especially the one who they believe has “caused” the separation. Restoring trust is a long process. Start by accepting the degree of trust the children have. If the parent can accept whatever trust there is and take small steps to encourage increasing trust, the parent-child relationship is likely to become closer and more trusting. Time, gentle persistence and patience are key.
6) Apparent disinterest
Some children, especially older teens, may behave as if nothing has happened, or as though what has happened doesn’t matter to them. There are many possible reasons for such a response. However, it is more important to attend to your relationship with them than look for explanations. It is wise to accept that, no matter how unaffected they may appear to be, separation is a significant time in their lives. Not talking about what has happened and going about their lives as if nothing has happened does not mean that they don’t care. It may simply be their way of coping. Make sure that you have one-on-one, parent-child time with them so that, if they wish, they have the opportunity to talk with you about the changes in the family. But don’t pump them for answers and information if you want to encourage conversation. It is often helpful to avoid “friendly chats” and, instead, participate in activities that you both enjoy and let conversation arise incidentally.
7) Psychosomatic illness
Some children react physically to the separation of their parents. For example, a child who struggles with a chronic disease like asthma may experience worsening symptoms. This is likely to be a typical stress reaction and, as the situation stabilizes, the symptoms will probably lessen. If you believe that your child is having a psychosomatic response to the changes in the family, it is important that you do not increase his/her stress by worrying that the separation has caused the response and by transmitting this worry to him/her. Do whatever needs to be done to control your child’s symptoms. And then address your worries privately (e.g., journaling) or with friends, a support group or professional so that they are not transmitted to your child. On the other hand, if the spousal relationship before separation was particularly volatile and the symptoms were triggered by characteristic fights, the symptoms may diminish because the fights have stopped.
8) Children taking sides with one parent
Sometimes children take sides with one parent after separation. Unfortunately, not all parents discourage this happening, especially when the relationship and separation has been particularly conflicted. Children will be harmed if they are co-opted by a misguided parent prepared to attempt to use their child as an ally against the other parent.
It is important that both parents encourage their children to continue to relate with the other parent, no matter how much they disapprove of what the other parent has done, with some exceptions (e.g., child abuse when the child continues to be at risk). Children have a need and a responsibility, as soon as they are old enough to recognize it, to rebuild and maintain their relationship with each parent in the new circumstances. They need to know and feel that this is something that both their parents, feel strongly about, support totally and are committed to. Unless you are quite clear about this, your children’s reconnection with the other parent will be hampered because you will not be able to hide non-verbal communication about your feelings about what has happened (the separation and all that has gone with it).
In these circumstances, concerns about parent alienation arise. Unfortunately and tragically, sometimes one parent alienates the child from the other parent (i.e. over time, one parent influences the child against the other parent so that he/she does not want to have contact with the other parent). Equally true, parents can alienate themselves from their children (i.e., children reach a point when they no longer tolerate the way they are treated by that parent and wish to have nothing to do with them). Those who accuse their ex of alienating their child from them come from both camps.
In any situation of stress you may find that your child begins to act in a way that is more reminiscent of an earlier age. One way of understanding what is happening is to accept that the child is returning to a developmental stage when they felt more secure. Another way to see it is as a cry for help. Whatever the explanation, the best response is to spend time with the child comforting them and supporting them in whatever way is appropriate for him/her. If the behaviour persists, you may wish to respond to the age the child is acting. This is fine as long as you let them know that you are going along with their present feelings rather than accepting their regression as the new reality (e.g., “It sounds like you are feeling like you were when you were younger.” “OK we can pretend you are younger. Would you like a cuddle?”) Or you might offer to do something with them that you used to do when they were younger (e.g., “Would you like me to read you a story?” “Do you want me to tuck you into bed?” “Do you want to play snakes and ladders?”) A caution: It is important to accept their regression as a temporary response and not attempt to ridicule them out of it (e.g., “You’re behaving like a four-year-old. Act your age!”)
10) Watch out for the appearance of the child-parent
The “parentified child” is an expression that refers to a child who, in the absence of one or both parents, has taken on the role of “parent” with his/her siblings. In a single-parent home, where a mother is the remaining parent, it is often the eldest boy that takes on the role of the absent father. In a single parent-family where the father is the remaining parent, it is often the eldest daughter that takes on the role of the absent mother. At one level, and as long as the child does not become too strongly identified with the parent role, this taking on extra responsibility can be to the advantage of a family in which there is only one parent. On another level, and especially when the child becomes overly identified with the parent role, the child’s attempt to take on some of the responsibilities of a parent can be harmful.
Attempting to take on the role of parent can be harmful both to siblings and to the child who is attempting to adopt the parent role. It may be harmful to the siblings because the child attempting to take on the role of parent does not have the emotional maturity to be a care-giver for his/her siblings. Even if the child has taken an approved babysitting program, this is still the case: taking care of siblings is quite different from the babysitting role. Many problems can arise in this situation. For example, for siblings, the common complaint is that their brother/sister is mean, too bossy, unreasonable, too strict, throws their weight around, and generally goes overboard on the authority side of parenting. For children providing the care, they are becoming involved in caring for others when they need to be taken care of themselves, especially after a separation. They are spending time looking after their siblings when in developmental terms they need to be looking out for themselves.
For children who clearly want to take on extra responsibility around the home and with their siblings it is important to make it clear to them that you welcome their help in taking on extra responsibilities. However, make it clear to them that you want them to do this is the capacity of a helpful older brother/sister and not as a second parent. “That’s my job,” you might say.
If you think one looks helpful, use an intervention as you might use a recipe in a cookbook. I’ll try a recipe and if I like it, I’ll use it again and again. If the result is not to my liking, I don’t need to use it again. See what works. Repeat what works; change what doesn’t.
1) Involve children in decision-making whenever appropriate
You may find it helpful to have regular meetings of the “Old Family” and involve the children by asking for their suggestions about what you can do together as a family. It is probably important to remind them, from time to time, that getting together is not an attempt at reconciliation (i.e., of the couple) but rather for the purpose of being together with them and honouring the “Old Family”. You can also use family meetings as a chance to address and, hopefully, resolve problems the children are experiencing. Give them a democratic voice: allow them to have their say about what is happening and consider their suggestions seriously and carefully, using them whenever possible.
2) Listen, empathize
When children complain about the separation and related matters, empathize with them without offering any suggestions (unless you have reason to believe an offer of help will be accepted): “Yes, it’s tough to get used to. I get upset sometimes, too.” This may provide an opening for discussion if you are prepared to talk about how you feel. (N.B., In which case, you would be talking about your feelings in a limited and controlled way to encourage your child to share theirs. You are not expecting them to be your confidant). Take your cue from what they say. Use their words (or equivalent expressions) unless it offends you to do so or sounds artificial. Remember, if they complain about the other parent, remind them to let the other parent know of their concerns (N.B. Don’t become the messenger! Don’t join in with their complaints about the other parent!)
3) Attend, listen carefully, repeat and attend to expressions of dissatisfaction
Sometimes, when children express dissatisfaction with the way things are, it is enough to just repeat back, more or less, what they have said to you so long as you do it with purposeful attention (active listening + paraphrasing). They will soon let you know if they expect more. You can easily check if they want more: “Is there something I can do to help?”
4) Acknowledge feelings non-judgmentally
Acknowledge your children’s feelings non-judgmentally. Separate your response to their expression of emotion (e.g., anger) from any teaching you may wish to offer on how you would like them to conduct themselves. If you want to teach “appropriate behaviour”, do it later, when they and you are more settled. In the end, of course, it is the children who must find their own way through the difficulties and their painful feelings. However, if you are not already talking in the following way, here are some phrases that might help. Be prepared to repeat different versions of the following over and over and over again:
“I know it’s difficult. Is there something I can do to help?”
“What would you like to do about it? Can I do something to help?”
“It sounds like you’re upset. Do you want to talk?”
“I would like you to talk to your mother/father about that” (Regarding complaints about the other parent)
N.B. “I would like … ” is a very useful qualifier – it helps avoid having to deal with contrary or defiant attitudes. More specifically, if you make a direct request and they ignore you, you may find that you wish to exert parental authority because you believe that it is wrong for children to ignore their parents’ instructions. However, when you say, “I would like” you are expressing a preference rather than an instruction and need take no immediate action if it is ignored. Of course, you may at some time in the future, when the dust has settled, let your son/daughter know that you do not appreciate him/her ignoring your preferences/wishes. There may even be consequences when he/she would like you to do something for him/her (not in the sense of “pay-back time” but as an object lesson about reciprocity).
5) Be prepared to address difficulties in parent-child relationships
Sometimes after parents have separated, it’s difficult for one parent to maintain a close parent-child relationship. Children may behave disrespectfully after separation. The parent who is experiencing the difficulty must work through the difficulty with the children. Edicts from one parent about how to treat the other will not help but, rather, hinder because it weakens the other parent’s autonomy: it implies that the parent experiencing difficulties is unable to deal with their difficulties independently. If you feel compelled to comment in support of the other parent, you might say something like, “I would like you to remember that our separation does not change the fact that your mother/father always deserves your consideration.”
One-on-one parent-child relationships are always easier than relating to all the children together. Whenever you feel that you are having difficulty in relating to one child, make certain that you make a special effort to have one-on-one time (“special time”) with that child, following their lead in how they would like to spend that time with you. And don’t forget to have one-on-one time with the other children as well or you may be having difficulties with them next.
It is sometimes helpful for a parent to be prepared to take a one-down stance (but avoid apologies or attempted justifications). Saying something like, “I know that you feel I have disappointed you/ upset you/ let you down (whatever sounds right to you) and I can’t change that. What I can do is to do my best to find out what you think will help us to get along again. Will you help me do this?” (Make sure that you are prepared to follow through with actions because children quickly pick up on empty promises.) Once again, avoid just apologizing. What has happened cannot be changed. Apologies in themselves cannot create change. Instead, explore what can be different to make things right. What can change is how you and your children relate now and in the future. Don’t let their occasional (or even frequent) angry words put you off working at rebuilding the relationship again and again.
If you feel the need to take a tougher stance occasionally (don’t overdo it!), you might try something like: “Whatever has happened doesn’t change the fact that I am your mother/father. I would like you to … (request).” If you are met with resistance or defiance, keep your peace, accept the rebuke (treat it as your penance – i.e., an act of devotion), be prepared to go on asking your son/daughter to cooperate, as if you expected them to do so, and continue to work towards regaining their loyalty. Be patient, be vigilant for small changes, and never give up.
6) Addressing children’s reluctance to visit the other parent
It is helpful to have regular, scheduled times that your children, together or separately, can depend on as a time to visit the other parent. You can encourage visits most effectively by dealing with it in a matter-of-fact way (e.g., “Thursday evening is the time you visit your father/mother. He/she looks forward to seeing you. And I would like you to go and see him/her”). If they refuse, it is usually not helpful to insist. You might say something like, “It is your choice. However, I would like you to visit with your father/mother.” If a child misses a visit, it is important for the “stood-up” parent to let whoever does not show at a scheduled time that you were disappointed that you and they didn’t get together. Remember to add that you are looking forward to the next time. Don’t give them a hard time for not coming – don’t nag. Just let them know that you enjoy seeing them and are looking forward to their next visit. Alternatively, arrange to meet them at a different setting. Ask when and where they would like to meet. And get the cooperation of the other parent to make sure that the meeting happens.
7) Maintain children’s interests and routine
After any disruption in a person’s life, speed of recovery is directly related to how closely and how quickly the person can return to their regular interests and routine. This is especially true for young people, whose lives are changing so quickly. Parents need to give special attention to how they will arrange their lives so that their children’s interests and routine are not interrupted by separation. In other words, a separation and the living arrangements will be carefully planned if you put your children’s interests first.
Interests outside the family are especially significant in times of family conflict. Maintaining social relations, interests and routines such as keeping the same friendship group, continuing to play with the same soccer team, and attending the same school are particularly important. The child’s family life has been dramatically changed so it is especially important to keep their social life outside the family as unaltered as possible. Clearly some interests and routines will be interrupted. The goal is to keep change to a minimum.
8) Parents need to take the lead
Sometimes separation causes fragmentation of the parent-child relationship and parents lose connection with their children. Some parents take the attitude that they are willing to make themselves available and then leave it up to the children to connect with them. Parents need to do all they can to reconnect with their children when separation has interfered with the parent-child relationship. They need to set the example, again and again if necessary, so that a secure parent-child relationship can been re-established. Don’t leave something as important as your relationship with your child in the hands of a child.
Parents need to take on the roles of leader, problem solver, peacemaker, exemplar and social convener for family occasions. It is important to keep on arranging family meetings (with the whole and parts of the family) and attending them, even if there are absentees, to demonstrate the importance of the family and the importance you place on meeting.
I want to emphasize the importance of meetings of the “Old Family”: many parents give up on this too easily. I appreciate that such meetings may be uncomfortable, unsettling and awkward. With commitment to the process, the discomfort will pass. While acknowledging the significance of a parent’s discomfort in a family meeting with the ex, it needs to be put in perspective with the level of discomfort children must face coping with separation and divorce. Both the parents’ and the children’s discomfort need to be acknowledged. Both children and adults need to have trusted people (e.g., relatives, close friends, support groups, professionals) to turn to address their discomfort.
9) When you answer questions keep your personal concerns and opinions to a minimum
Parent-child relations are often severely strained during parental separation. It is important to be particularly mindful about how you talk to your children in times of crisis. The topics you talk about need to be one-hundred-percent relevant to their concerns. If you have concerns you need to address, find an adult to talk to. Avoid talking down to young people, especially teens, about separation issues that you may believe are important for them to know. If they have concerns they are prepared to share, they will ask. On the other hand, attempting to evade their legitimate questions, because you feel awkward answering them, is a recipe for worsening parent-child relations. Respond directly and without evasion in keeping with the complexity of the question to anything that directly affects your children. In other words, make sure that the detail of your answer is no greater than the detail of their question. If you feel unable to answer in the moment, tell them that you are not able to answer their question right away and need time to think about it. If you do postpone your answer, make sure you remember to answer as soon as possible. You will, of course, wish to keep some details of the adult relationship private, unless it has a direct impact on the child.
Some things to avoid: Avoid being defensive; Avoid using their questions as an opportunity to explain or justify your point of view; and avoid seizing an opportunity you see in one of their questions to “lecture them” on something that you think they need to know because it is important to you. If they want your opinion on some aspect of their life, they will ask you. Use all opportunities for communication (face-to-face, letter, email, cards, notes etc.) as an opportunity to do all you can to nurture the parent-child relationship. Being friendly, helpful, understanding, patient, and attentive to their point of view is the focus you need during a crisis: getting your child to treat your authority as a parent seriously is not the priority at such times. If there are important issues to discuss, for which you feel you must use your authority as a parent, mark these off from normal parent-child interactions (e.g., “There is something important I need to talk with you about. When would be a good time?” Then get a firm commitment in terms of a specific time to talk).
10) Use Time-Out when you are feeling emotionally overwhelmed
Time-Out is a strategy you can use with any family member when you feel that what is happening with you or what is going on between you is getting out of hand. Note well that “Time-out” is a way to prevent escalation of difficulties. It is not intended as a way to
resolve difficulties. Time-out is a way to prevent heated discussion and disagreement becoming angry argument that may result in one or both of you feeling uneasy and intimidated. It is a way to encourage you both to calm-down and wise-up. It is important for all family members, especially your ex, to know and be prepared to follow the Time-Out procedure when it is requested.
a) Calling time-out
Either of you can call a “time-out” or say, “I need to take a break” if you feel that you are becoming emotionally overwhelmed or if you feel that the other is becoming emotionally charged and you are concerned about continuing. Little good arises from two emotionally triggered people talking aggressively and/or defensively. Whatever you decide to say (or sign) to announce a time-out, make sure to use exactly the same signal each time so that there is no room for misunderstanding.
The one who called the time-out must take responsibility for returning and letting the other know the reason for calling the time-out and, hopefully, be prepared to explore the issue a little further, as long as you are sufficiently in control to be able to balance your thoughts and feelings. If you are still overwhelmed by emotions, the discussion is likely to lead to further misunderstanding. If so, one of you needs to call another “time-out.” It would be best for the follow-up to happen the same day, before you sleep.
6) QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
1) How long will it take for things to get back to “normal’?
Some separated parents are concerned about their children’s “lack of progress” in coming to terms with the changes in the family: they are frustrated by how long it is taking them to get back to normal. From the children’s perspective, there is no progress and no normalizing to be had from their parent’s separation. Their parents have separated. Something has happened in their lives that they did not wish to happen and had little or no warning about. All that is possible is that your children are able to come to terms with their shock, loss and the changed circumstances. I don’t think it is helpful to think of progress or normalization in matters of grief. All that is possible is coming to terms with the new circumstances. If you think of someone coming to terms with the death of a loved one, there is no norm for how long the transition takes. While children are not dealing with death when they face the separation of their parents, they are dealing with loss; grief is the appropriate response. Grief shows itself in many different ways, including frustration, irrationality and anger.
2) How do I answer my child’s questions about their father/mother (especially at times when my child is angry with him/her?
Carefully! Succinctly! Clearly! It is important that you do not piggyback on your child’s anger. The best way to parent after separation is cooperatively, supporting each other through parent-child difficulties and other concerns. However, it is also important not to minimize your child’s complaints, criticisms and disappointments. The challenge is to acknowledge your child’s concerns without colluding with any negativity towards the other parent.
There is a story told about pediatrician and psychiatrist D.W, Winnicott, when he was working with a boy whose father did not treat him very well. When the boy asked Winnicott, “Why is my daddy like that?” he answered, “That’s the way your father is.” Keeping answers to these sort of questions short and simple, and not being drawn into discussion is a good example to follow.
Some examples of succinct answers:
“Why doesn’t dad make more of an effort to see me?” “I don’t really know. Do you have any ideas?”
“Why does mom never take what I ask seriously?” “That’s the way she is at the moment.”
“Why did dad leave?” “You’ll have to ask him.”
“Why doesn’t mom phone?” “I don’ t know. Perhaps you can phone her to say hello and find out?”
“Why is dad so mad all the time?” “That’s one of the ways he is at the moment?”
“Has mom got a new man in her life?” “That’s a question you need to ask your mom.”
“Dad was really mean to me today.” “Do you want to talk about it?”
(If you listen, it is important to really listen and tune into your child’s feelings, limiting your comments to acknowledging what you hear. It is essential that you do not collude and join in with any of your child’s criticisms.) Remember that the tone of your voice communicates as much as the words themselves: be real, be gentle, be clear and be succinct. It is as much the how as the what.
3) When my child is having difficulties with his father/mother, how can I avoid being in the middle of their argument?”
Be straightforward: “I don’t want to get stuck in the middle of your differences with your dad/mom
Support your child without taking his/her side against the other parent
Encourage your child to talk to the other parent about what’s happening
As a general rule, resist intervening
If you feel the situation is sufficiently serious that you must intervene and your child has given you permission to do so, do it in a general way (e.g. when talking with the other parent, suggest that it is important that he/she has a heart-to-heart with his son/daughter).
Remain neutral. One way to remain neutral is to encourage your child to get both points of view clear: e.g., “Let’s look at it from your perspective. And now lets look at it from dad’s/mom’s perspective.”
If you really want to get involved without getting stuck in the middle, you might try role play: e.g., “Suppose I take your dad’s/mom’s point of view and you try talking it through with me.” (N.B. It is important for you to be straight in the role-play and not disrespect the other parent or caricature them.) The goal is to provide your child with an opportunity to rehearse something that they might later say to the other parent.
If your child is reluctant to approach the other parent directly, you might suggest that your son/daughter write a letter to the other parent expressing their frustration, a letter that he/she may never share with the other parent. This may help your child come to terms with his/her concerns and encourage a more direct approach in the future.
4) Other than being critical and negative about what has happened since their dad and I separated, my kids have really shut down. What can I do to get them talking again?
Complaints and criticisms are appropriate for your children in coping with what they are having to get used to. It is a way for them to come to terms with what is happening and to let you know how upset they are about this change in their lives. Hopefully it is a stage that they will pass through sooner rather than later. However, it is not something you can move along by telling them to come to terms with what has happened. They have to feel their way through the changes. So the best approach is watchful waiting, always being ready to respond to any of the hopeful signs and doing your best not to react to the negative talk and behaviour.
5) I’ve done everything I can to help the children adjust to the new circumstances since the separation. What more can I possibly do?
There is a story about a sage answering a poor man about what he can do now that his wife is expecting yet another child, who will severely challenge their meager resources. The sage’s response: “Haven’t you done enough already?” What this parent is asking illustrates a similar concern. The parent has perhaps already done too much. The father/mother has done everything he/she can do to get the children to change without realizing that it is he/she that must make changes in order to help the children find enough trust to begin to adjust to the changed circumstances.
A parent cannot hope to rebuild his/her relationship with his children after divorce if he/she is intent on shaping the children around his/her priorities. To do this is to risk losing your children’s affection because it seems that you do not regard them as a priority. Instead, the parent needs to shape his or her own life interests as much as possible (e.g., work, relationships, leisure activities) around the children’s lives. The children need to feel they are their parents’ priority if the re-connection after separation is going to take place.
6) Now we are separated, what’s the point of rehashing difficulties in our relationship? How will it help our parenting?
Parenting and some of the difficulties parents have struggled with before separation are intertwined. A couple who separate “well,” work hard at a good post-separation relationship, and are serious about effective co-operative parenting will provide the best opportunity for their children to adjust to this significant transition with the least amount of trauma and interruption in their lives.
It makes sense for both parents to come to terms with outstanding issues from their relationship for the good of the children, for their own well-being, and for the good of new relationships. Unresolved issues from old relationships with significant others (extended family, romantic and spousal relationships) frequently get played out in present and future relationships.
It is not necessary to solve all the problems or resolve all the issues. However, it is important to come to a point of understanding so that old thorny issues no longer spark reactivity. If this is sometimes not possible, you can agree to disagree and be straight with each other. For example, it might be helpful to be able to say something like, “We’ve talked about this before, we have different opinions about it and we’ll just have to agree to differ.” It will then be your ongoing work to find a way to (really) respect the other’s difference of opinion and discipline yourself to find ways of not letting the issue rumble around in your thoughts and feelings afterwards. There will sometimes be issues over which no how much you work at it, you still disagree and have to reach some sort of agreement (e.g., with respect to parenting the children). For these occasions it is essential you have a strategy about how such issues will be decided worked out before you are faced with a real disagreement (e.g., It might be as simple as sleep on it and, if we still can’t agree, toss a coin).
7) It’s been several weeks since we separated and I haven’t noticed much change in the way that the kids are handling it. They are still negative, they continue to complain constantly and they find fault with me all the time. How long is going to take?
It will take considerably longer than a few weeks. So it is important that you develop the patience needed for your children to begin to come to terms with the separation. Children (and adults for that matter) like to know that they are being taken seriously. Usually, in difficult transitional circumstances, when children recognize that they are being taken seriously, that they can have their say, can subject parents to testing behaviour and not be rejected, and can get their reasonable questions answered reasonably, they will come around.
8) “I don’t like the way that the children are relating, or rather not relating, with their father: they seem to have switched him off.” What can I do to encourage my children to accept what has happened and get them to resume their relationship with their father?
It may be more accurate to think of the children re-establishing rather than resuming their relationship with their father. The parent-child relationship will never be as it was: too much has changed. Try the following thought experiment. Say nothing changes and it looks like what is presently happening is going to go on happening. Is there really anything you or anyone else can do to change the way the children are choosing to relate to their father? You can persuade, cajole, bargain and more. But even if such efforts did change the way the children related to their father, would their behaviour be genuine? Would it help establish the sort of relationship that you would hope the children would have with their father?
Usually, the reality is not quite so pessimistic. Given plenty of opportunity, knowing that their mother wants them to visit their father and have a good relationship with him, and feeling that he really wants to be with them as a priority, it is likely that the parent-child relationship will begin to re-establish itself, albeit in a changed form.
9) I agree that it is important that parents continue to meet after separation to discuss parenting and child related issues. However, whenever I even think about a meeting with my ex, I feel anxiety bordering on panic. Is it necessary to meet face-to-face.
The anxiety and fear are likely to diminish over time if you make a decision that you are not going to let them run your life. One way to help lessen the anxiety is to carefully plan any meetings with your ex. Before you meet, prepare yourself emotionally. Ensure that the context for the meeting is a secure one for you: a public place is often easier than a private setting. When you feel anxiety, your emotional self has overwhelmed your rational self. Work at striking a balance between your feelings and your conscious decisions in predictably difficult situations. Only engage in interaction while the rational self that you present to your ex is in charge (even though your feelings may be very much in evidence to you personally). If it seems that your feelings will overwhelm your rational self, call a time-out3 to allow yourself a time of calming. Plan meetings to last the length of time that you believe you can maintain a balance between your rational and emotional self. The sooner you find a way of feeling more at ease with your ex the sooner you will to be able to honour “the Old Family” and spend time together without undue discomfort for any member of the family. The sooner your children see that their parents are able to treat each other in a friendly manner, the happier they will be. And if “friendly” is too much of a stretch to begin with, at least make sure that your interactions are civil, at least as civil as you would be with an acquaintance.
10) When will the children be ready to meet my boyfriend/girlfriend?
It is important to let your child’s readiness guide you in this matter. Children’s developmental needs must be attended to first. Adults have more life experience to deal with problems, frustration and difficulties and must be prepared to put their children’s needs first.
If adaptation and accommodation to one transition (the separation) has not taken place, it is unlikely that a second transition will be dealt with well. It is more likely that another transition will accentuate stress.
It is usually best to be up-front, transparent, and straightforward with your children. However, making a decision that it is time for your son/daughter to meet the new boyfriend/girlfriend and taking action, believing that this will encourage your children to get used to it, is by no means guaranteed to work. Sometimes young people, like adults, stubbornly refuse to “get use to it.”
Parents have a right to take care of their own well-being. They also have a responsibility not to impose their adult friends on their children. There is no guarantee that the steps parents may take to secure their own well-being will win the approval of their children. There is no guarantee that your children will approve of your boyfriend/girlfriend, however much this person means to you. Act accordingly.
11) My son/daughter refuses to have anything to do with my boyfriend/girlfriend. How can I encourage him/her so that he/she gets the idea that I want him/her to meet the man/woman who is my new partner?
Don’t force the issue. Listen carefully to your child’s wishes. Remember that your boyfriend/girlfriend, from your child’s point of view, is threatening to take the place of one of his/her parents. The only reason that your child is being put in a position of meeting this person is because he/she is your friend. There is little reason for your child to take a liking to them, especially in the early stages of your relationship. Take heed of a story. One mother was so intent on encouraging her daughter to get to know her new boyfriend that one evening the boyfriend was left to “baby-sit” the daughter. When the girl reported that the mother’s boyfriend had touched her inappropriately, the police apprehended the boyfriend and put him in lock-up over night, until the daughter admitted that she lied because, “That was the only way I could get anyone to take what I was saying seriously.”
12) A friend of mine who has gone through a separation and divorce told me how important family therapy was in helping all family members in her family come to terms with the changes that happened in the lead-up to the separation, and after separation and divorce. Is it always important to get involved in counselling?
If you are comfortable with the way that the transition after separation/divorce is going for both you and your children, then it may not be necessary to engage professional help. However, even if you believe all is going well, it might still be helpful for the “Old Family” to have a consultation with a family therapist. Make sure that the therapist you choose has experience in working with separated and divorced families. Children are sometimes more reluctant to tell parents about their concerns than a professional, whom they associate with “talking about problems.”
Some young people show little interest in seeing a therapist – probably a healthy suspicion – but some genuinely find it helpful to talk about what they are experiencing and maybe discover a different way of looking at it. If your children express an interest, either individually or with one or more of their siblings, meeting with a therapist might be helpful. While children will frequently not volunteer to attend individually, they will often agree to go with parents (when they realize that they are not being singled out for “treatment” because something is wrong with them). If your children turn down the opportunity to talk with a therapist and you believe it is important for them, you might say something like, “Well, I would like to go to get another point of view about what is happening in the family now we have gone through all these changes. And I would like you to come with me.”
13) Since the separation I feel I’ve been on a roller-coaster ride with my emotions. I don’t know how to be with their father when we meet to discuss schooling and schedules for the children. How usual is this? What is normal?
Both you and your ex are experiencing grief. Everyone is different in the way that they respond to difficult times in their lives. And the way that you both experience grief will be different. For example, it is likely to be different according to the circumstances of the separation, according to who left who, and according to who is with the children, to mention the more obvious. There is no “normal.” What you can expect is that over time you will gradually come to terms with the circumstances of your new life, although getting to this will probably not be smooth: you can expects ups and downs along the way.
Hopefully, as well as adjusting to separation, there will come a time when you can both acknowledge and celebrate the good times that you have experienced together. With patience and a determination to do the best for the children, you will be able to recognize the family you have been together (the “Old Family”) and continue to be, albeit in a different configuration. And you can accept that you have done your best to provide the parenting necessary to give your children a good start to in the world. Find ways to honour the “Old Family” and keep its memory alive for the sake the children. The closer you can come to accepting each other, free of tensions of the past, as good friends who have shared much of their lives together, the easier it will be for all of you, especially the children, to get on with your lives. I am not suggesting that reaching this state is easy. It takes determination, patience, good will, forgiveness, understanding, and persistence, among other qualities, that are not easy to come by
14) Although I really believe that we both have the best intentions when we talk about something to do with the children or something else we have to settle, we never seem to be able to talk without angry arguments about who’s right. How can we stop the unproductive arguments?
You will both have your own “truths” about the way that things were and the way things are now. And you will sometimes not agree on what is right for the children. It may be easier to think of “the way I see things” and “the way that you see things” rather than labeling the other’s point of view as “misguided” or just plain “wrong.” What is most important is: (a) that you are aware of each other’s point of view, (b) that you accept that you do not agree about everything, and (c) that you find ways of working with the different points of view. Sometimes, when you have to agree on a decision, it would help to have a protocol for resolving a dispute (e.g., (i) sleep on it and then if we can’t agree, toss a coin, (ii) turn taking, or (iii) odd and even days). It doesn’t matter what the dispute-resolving protocol is so long as you both agree to do it and it gets you past the impasse.
15) My teenage son has become a stranger to me since I moved out. On the few occasions when we do get together, he is rude, argumentative and confrontational. Sometimes I just feel like leaving him to it until he comes to his senses. How long do I have to put up with this sort of acting-out behaviour from my son?
Grief shows itself in many ways. I think it’s important not to confuse the unusual and sometimes angry behaviour young people show after their parents separate with the acting-out associated with delinquent behaviour. Your son may be taking on the role of the mouthpiece for the “Old Family,” the person in the family who will voice all the difficult emotions (i.e., all those things that his siblings and perhaps even his parents are unable to express directly). As painful as his outspokenness may be for you, it is important for him to express what he is feeling. If you are able to weather the storms and able to listen to his complaints, commentaries, sermons, emotions and more without defensiveness, and without being distracted by your own needs when he is in full swing (e.g., to get away from the barrage of words), there will hopefully come a time when he chooses to relate more patiently (in a way you would choose). That he is showing you his “true emotions” is hopeful. He might have chosen to have nothing to do with you, which happens in some separated families.
If you feel that he has exceeded the extra space you have given him to express himself, of course, it is important for you to remind him of your expectations. But don’t do it through confrontation or through blaming him for his outspokenness. Rather, excuse yourself in terms of your not wanting to hear any more of what is upsetting to you rather than attempting to limit what he has a right to say. Be gentle. Figure out what you need to do and say to help him feel acknowledged and understand that you care about how he is feeling. You will have your own concerns that you need to be able to talk over. Your son does not need to hear your concerns in this situation. Find a trusted friend, family member, support group or professional you can share your concerns with.
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Separated parents’ agreement in the best interests of the child4
1. We will treat each other with respect at all times
2. We will not use condescending or derogatory terms in exchanges with each other
3. We agree to make our children’s needs more important than our own territorial needs or needs for independence
4. We agree to respect the other parent’s time with our children and not interfere with the scheduled agreement
5. We agree to respect the other parent’s parenting style and discuss any concerns at agreed-upon communication times
6. Any disagreements or areas of potential conflict will only be discussed at designated times and not in front of or in earshot of the children
7. We agree to follow the parenting schedule by always being on time for the children
8. Any changes to the schedule must be discussed with the other parent first, prior to informing the children
9. We agree never to say negative things about the other parent to or in front of the children
10. Our child/children will not be placed in any loyalty conflicts and will not be encouraged overtly or subtly to take one parent’s side against the other.
When parents separate and no longer live in the same house it can be difficult to work out how you will continue to parent together when you live separately. In situations where it’s possible, the ideal scenario is for your children to be able to maintain regular, ongoing, meaningful relationships with both parents. Co-parenting arrangements aim to provide your children with two parents who love and care for them on a regular basis.
Co-parenting refers to two parents continuing to function as a parental unit after a divorce. Instead of going their separate ways and never speaking or co-operating, co-parents continue to see themselves as a team who must work together and rely on each other to raise their children. It’s the best thing possible for your children, who need to know that they still have two parents who care enough about them to work together.
What Is Co-parenting?
Co-parenting is a commitment between separated parents that each parent will have a full and active role in their children’s upbringing and development. It involves children spending substantial time, including weekends and weekdays, with both parents in their respective homes.
For your children it means:
Sleeping, eating, working, playing in both parents homes
Mum and dad continue to make decisions together about their lives
Both parents are involved in school, sports, music etc
Both parents care for, support and guide them
Being part of two extended families
As parents it means:
Setting up two homes for your children
Both taking an active role in decisions regarding the children’s wellbeing and lives
Keeping communication channels open and amicable to ensure consistency and stability for the children moving between homes
Redefining your roles and expectations. You may no longer be husband or wife but you are still mum and dad
Both parents have the opportunity to build and maintain meaningful relationships with their children
Why Is Co-Parenting Becoming More Popular?
At present, co-parenting arrangements are being encouraged by government agencies and family experts. They’re also becoming increasingly common amongst separated families, as it is believed that it’s in the best interest of the child to maintain meaningful relationships with both parents. Co-parenting is not recommended in situations where the safety of the child is in question.
Experts report that co-parenting can have the following benefits:
Children are able to maintain meaningful relationships with both parents
It can reduce the feelings of abandonment felt by children when one parent leaves the family home
It enables parents to share the responsibility of discipline and decision making
Both parents are able to play active roles in all aspects of their child’s life
It confirms that both parents love their child and as a parent will continue to love, care and provide for them.
My Ex And I Continually Fight, Wouldn’t It Be Better For Our Child If I Parent By Myself?
When conflict and emotions are still running high between separated couples it may feel like it would be a lot easier and even better for the children, to parent your children on your own. Nevertheless, if your children’s safety and well-being is not at risk by maintaining a relationship with the other parent then you don’t really have the right to make this choice.
Although your relationship with your ex has ended, your relationship as parents has not. In situations where there’s a lot of conflict it can help to establish some basic guidelines that can help you to develop a good parenting relationship. Experts often recommend that you think of the other parent as a parenting business partner – you may not like them but in order to do your job well you need to find a way to work together.
What Is A Parenting Plan?
A parenting plan can be a formal or informal agreement between parents that covers how the needs of your children are going to be taken care of. It will include as much or as little detail as is necessary to make it work.
Typically parenting plans cover areas such as:
Where the children will live
Time spent with each parent and the wider family
Children’s medical needs or concerns
Discipline and household rules
Holidays and special events
How conflict will be resolved
A good co-parenting plan will allow for flexibility as the needs and circumstances of all involved change.
Do I Need A Parenting Plan?
A parenting plan of some shape or form is required. Many separated parents find it useful to develop a parenting plan as it sets out how things are going to work and what each parent’s rights and responsibilities are. A good parenting plan can act as a solid foundation for a successful co-parenting arrangement.
My Former Partner Was Abusive Should I Still Try To Create A Co-Parenting Situation?
The safety of you and your children is always paramount. If abuse of any kind occurred the recommendations for co-parenting are significantly different. When abuse has occurred limited contact between children and parents may be in the best interest of the children. If you are in an abusive situation please get advice and assistance from a professional.
Working Out A Parenting Plan That We Both Agree To
Working out a parenting plan that suits both parents and is in the best interests of your child can be challenging. You’re not alone, in fact statistics indicate that approximately:
50% of divorced or separated couples sort out parenting arrangements amicably
20% (of the total) have problems but eventually manage to work through the issues
15% have problems that take a long time to settle and
15% end up in court.
It’s important to keep trying and reach an arrangement that meets everyone’s needs. Many people find it helpful to use a third party such as a mediator to develop their parenting plans.
Is Co-Parenting Appropriate For All Separated And Divorced Families?
Co-parenting relies on a high level of communication and co-operation. This can be extremely difficult when there is a lot of conflict and anger, but with hard work and perseverance it is possible. However, there are situations where co-parenting is not the best option. These include families with a history of:
Violence and abuse
Mental health issues
Co-parenting is also not possible if a parent simply refuses to be involved in their children’s lives or moves away.
When Should We Start A Co-Parenting Arrangement?
Once you have decided to separate, arrangements for your children should be addressed as soon as possible. Establishing a co-parenting situation immediately after separation can have the benefit of illustrating to your children that both parents will remain in their lives and that as parents you’re able to work together for their best interests.
How Do We Go About Setting Up A Positive Co-Parenting Relationship?
When beginning to discuss the details and practicalities of your parenting arrangements many parents find it helpful to come to a common understanding and set some basic rules.
Consider the following suggestions:
Make it clear that you value your child’s time with you and with the other parent. Respect each other as parents. You may have a lot of bad feelings towards your former partner, but you need to separate your parenting from those feelings. Your goal is to create a good life for your children, and you can best do that by parenting together in a respectful, cooperative manner.
Work out a fair and practical time-sharing schedule as soon as possible.
Make a serious effort to live up to the terms of the time-sharing agreement.
Tell the other parent in advance (giving as much notice as possible) about necessary changes in plans.
Prepare your child in a positive way for each upcoming stay with the other parent.
Don’t discuss important issues concerning the children at transfer times. (Children easily become frustrated and distressed about adult indecision/changes of routine/parental disagreement about child’s schooling, activities and friendships.)
Listen to your child’s concerns about, and problems with, the other parent. However, encourage your child to work out any problems with the other parent directly. (Don’t play the messenger and don’t get in the way of your child’s relationship with the other parent.)
Work on your problems with the other parent in private. (Children of separation have enough to contend with. They do not need the additional stress of arguing, post-separation parents.)
Be flexible with each other. Understand that there will be times when you will both need to “trade?” days to fit in with each other’s activities.
Do not use your child as a confidant, messenger, money collector or spy.
Six psychological tasks children go through during a divorce (Wallerstein, 1984)
1) Acknowledging the reality of the marital rupture
2) Disengaging from parental conflict and distress and resuming customary pursuits
3) Resolution of loss
4) Resolving anger and self-blame
5) Accepting the permanence of the divorce
6) Achieving realistic hope regarding relationships
Developmental Considerations (O’Rourke and Worzbyt, 1996)
3 to 5 years old children
Poor understanding of the family situation
Feelings: frightened, insecure
May have nightmares, whining, crying, clinging behavior
Changes in eating and sleeping
Regression to more infant like behavior
6 to 8 year old children
Trouble separating their own needs from those of their parents
Feel sad, loss, frightened, uncertain
Disorganized and unsettled
School work problems
Feelings of abandonment by and miss parent they don’t see much
Anger at perceived rejection
Lashing out at custodial parent, teachers, other children
Denial, self-blame, feel alienated
May attach themselves to other adults for security
9 to 12 year old children
Sense of loss
Feel rejected, helpless, lonely, ashamed, embarrassed
Powerless to control parental behavior
Anger, withdrawn, overactive
Blame one parent for the divorce, direct anger
School work problems
Struggling with feelings of mixed loyalties, loneliness, depression
Power struggle with authority
May seek support from other adults outside of the home
Also see Baris & Garrity (1988), Johnston & Roseby (1997), and Wallerstein & Blakeslee (2003) for good reviews of developmental guidelines
Treatment Implications (Lazarus 2003)
Steven Lazarus suggests the following implications for optimum treatment:
Systems approach: Involve parents, teachers, children
Case management, supportive services
Importance of non adversarial divorce
Collaboration between attorneys, mediators, special advocates, and therapists
Continuing education about new research and laws
Parent education and support through groups and individual therapy
Child support through groups and individual therapy
Checklist of protective and risk factors for children of divorce (Hetherington and Kelly, 2002; Kelly, 2001, Whiteside and Becker, 2000)
Checklist of protective factors
Competent and involved custodial parents
Individual child characteristics such as intelligence, ability to self-regulate, independence, high self-esteem
Strong internal resources in parents
Positive achievements in academics, sports, and positive peer relations
A close sustained relationship with a competent adult such as a teacher, other family member, therapist, friend’s parent, etc.
Having an easy temperament
Positive sibling support
The active and continued involvement of both parents
Positive parent-child relationships
Interventions that enabled parents to settle disputes: divorce ed programs and mediation
A positive father-child relationship
Mothers having a high degree of warmth toward their children
One parent having a positive relationship with their child
Low level of parental hostility
Checklist of risk factors
Custodial parent exhibiting less effective parenting
Diminished involvement from the non-custodial parent
Continued parental hostility with each other after the divorce
The diminishment of economic resources
Low maternal warmth
Mothers with a high level of depressive symptoms
Continued and repeated life changes including changes in residence and schools
Subsequent parental relationships, marriages, and divorces
A divorce process that is acrimonious
2 See Appendix 2 for details of Co-parenting.
3 See note on Time-out in “Interventions.”
4 Family law web guide, Ten golden parent agreement rules