What kids ask themselves when their mums and dads split up

parents separate

by Krisztina Glausius and Leezah Hertzmann,  an extract from When Parents Separate: Getting it Right for the Children
A Guide for Parents, Tavistock Relationships

Some people believe that it is almost impossible to help parents in conflict develop a way of collaborative parenting together. This is not our experience. We find that most parents feel that despite the anger, loss and hurt that can follow the breakdown of their relationship, they still want to do their best for their children. This blog acts not so much a ‘How to’ guide, but more a ’What to avoid and why’, we explore what is important for children involved.

Children really do want to keep their parents happy and often show or speak more about those feelings that their parents are happier to hear. If they know that mum is likely to feel wretched about dad’s new computer, it is unlikely that they feel free to talk about how cool they believe the new gadget is. What kid wants to feel responsible for more tears?

Many of the difficulties may have already been felt by parents and children alike when the family still lived together and it can feel very disappointing to notice that divorce and separation not only failed to help with these feelings, but, in some cases, could have made it even harder for the children.

In general, the more bitter and long-running the conflict between you and your ex-partner, the more difficult it is for the children to draw on their natural strengths to find healthy ways to cope. However, a lot can be done to help when parents make sure to look at what’s happening from the children’s point of view. But what do children worry about most in these situations?

We know that children are preoccupied by some questions when their parents are at war. In this blog we cover some key questions children ask them:

• What is true and what is not?
• What is safe and what is not?
• Who is to blame for all this conflict?
• Am I like the ’good parent’ or the ’bad parent’?

What is true and what is not?

Although often this is not something parents are aware of, children of all ages spend a lot of their time and mental energy trying to figure out their parents’ conflicting claims. Some of the possibilities, from the child’s point of view, are quite alarming. Children also tend to use their parents as a ‘guide to life’ and general reference point when growing up. But it is very difficult to figure out who is safe or who to trust, and what to think when parents are locked into cold war, a standoff or full conflict. This state of affairs can make children end up vigilant and mistrustful of others, finding it hard to generally trust the safety of relationships even with their friends. 

If their parents find it difficult to co-operate, children might grow up expecting the world to be an uncooperative place.

They might even stop turning to adults for support and guidance, trying instead to puzzle out things for themselves. Unfortunately this can be an extremely difficult thing for children to do to, particularly, as we have described above, if they have already learnt to mistrust their own thoughts and views on reality.

What is safe and what is not?

Children instinctively tune in to their parents’ emotional state and understand when their parents are upset, hurt, angry or are finding it difficult to cope. They try to do something about this in their own limited way, wondering, for example: ‘Will mummy be lonely and cry if I spend time with daddy and leave her on her own whilst I go and enjoy myself?’ or ‘If dad is so cross with mum, will he be angry with me, too, when I come back from spending the weekend with my mum and her new partner?’.

We adults naturally know that the answer to these questions more often than not is ‘No’, but this does not keep children from worrying, particularly if their parents’ behaviour contradicts their words of reassurance. When children are worried and cautious, this makes it harder for them to lose themselves in play or have care-free fun; it also makes it harder for them to grow into trusting, happy adults.

Who is to blame for all this conflict?

Parents often fight bitterly with each other and, after separation, the topics of their fights or disagreements are frequently about the children or arrangements around them, such as contact, access or sharing holidays. It is no surprise that children, since their parents fight so much about them, can end up feeling responsible for these fights and the resulting upset. This, of course, is not true but it can give children a disproportionate and premature sense of responsibility, one that they are not ready for. They sometimes believe it is all their fault. They might even think it is down to them to make things right. No wonder they sometimes end up feeling a confusing mixture of importance and helplessness.

Am I like the ‘good parent’ or the ‘bad parent’?

Children can have an idea that they resemble one or both of their parents. If their parents continuously blame or undermine the other parent or indicate, openly or subtly, that the other parent is ‘bad’ (mean, hysterical, jealous, unloving, aggressive, controlling... the list is endless), children find themselves in a real muddle.

‘Who is the good and who is the bad parent? When I misbehave or get something wrong or mess up, is it because I am like the ‘bad parent’? Is there a good and a bad part inside

me, too? Is part of me unacceptable or wrong?’ Sometimes children respond to this dilemma by trying to be impossibly good, not allowing themselves the smallest mistake and striving to maintain impossibly high standards. They might end up believing that the world is fundamentally split between good and bad people. This is a far cry from the healthy developmental process of coming to terms with, and getting to know, the world around us in all its complexity.

How we work with divorce and separation and families

Our work at Tavistock Relationships with parents in conflict is always done from a child-centred perspective, helping parents to understand how children might be feeling, how they might experience particular situations, particularly ongoing conflict. A large part of the work is about helping parents make parenting decisions collaboratively, or jointly, in the best interest of their children. But the work here is not just about the children’s feelings.

We also know that it helps if each parent begins to learn about their former partner’s separate experience, their current perspective and feelings, as this greater understanding can result in increased empathyand a greater ability to co-operate over parenting together after separation. We know it is not easy. We understand that after the break-up of a relationship feelings often run high and any collaborative or joint work with your ex-partner can seem impossible. However, it is our experience that these painful feelings lessen in time and the effort required is a worthwhile investment in your children’s future happiness.

Our Divorce and separation service can help, find out about our offer here.