How can I help my children after divorce or separation?
by Krisztina Glausius and Leezah Hertzmann, an extract from When Parents Separate: Getting it Right for the Children
A Guide for Parents, Tavistock Relationships
How to spot incomplete separation or unresolved loss
If you find that you are still hugely upset by every little thing that your coparent does or doesn’t do, there is a good chance that you have not completely grieved for the lost relationship and continue to remain emotionally connected. This makes it a lot more difficult to separate the children’s relationship
to their other parent from your relationship to him or her, and a lot harder to see the difference between how the kids feel about mum or dad and how you feel about your former partner. If you are a parent caught up in such a painful, high conflict situation, you probably recognise some of the above description. But there is a good chance that you find your own role in maintaining this situation harder to notice. We often find that in such situations both parents are adamant that the other partner is the problem and things could improve hugely if only their co-parent would stop being so
But it might be helpful to remember that children need all their parents’ love and energy and it is painful for them if so much of their parents’ attention is taken up with fighting each other.
Be prepared to parent differently
Although ending an unhappy relationship can come as a bit of a relief, it is often not recognised that parenting alone is different and often even harder than parenting with a partner. Your idea of yourself as a parent might need to adjust to the new realities of coparenting after separation. You might
have to learn new skills: learning to take charge of discipline or learning to be playful with your children; learning to let go of your children for large chunks of time or learning to entertain them on your own. The way you parent is only one of the long series of changes resulting from
family break-up. They are too numerous to list here and are unique to every family. Some of the changes are practical. Finances are likely to become more stretched, living arrangements most likely need to be altered.
One of the biggest changes will come around celebrating your children’s special days, birthdays, religious holidays and other festive events. All these occasions now require a lot of careful planning and inevitably carry an element of loss.
Many separated parents notice that handover times can be particularly difficult for their children – or rather, that children might become particularly challenging when they are transferred from one parent’s care into the other's. Children often play up when they are picked up or dropped off by one or the other of their parents. Some parents are tempted to interpret this as a sign that their son or daughter would prefer not to see the other parent. This is rarely the case.
It is often the hardest task of working towards collaborative parenting to recognize how they are each contributing to the problem and to take responsibility for trying to do things differently.
Parents often believe that they are, in fact, fighting their ex because it is in the children’s best interest. But this can be far from the case – children are growing up fast and the ongoing hostility between parents erodes their rapidly disappearing childhood. When parents can think about what their ex-partner might be feeling, we find that communication about the children and around parenting becomes much easier or, at the very least, possible.
Child experts sometimes call this ’transitional anxiety’ and it can cover a whole range of challenging behaviours. Children might become quiet, withdrawn, aggressive, tearful or overexcited in anticipation of seeing the other parent. Or they may behave in other difficult ways when they return home from time spent with their nonresidential parent.
Practical and psychological separation brings about changes in how you see yourself as a parent.
As well as security and structure, children also need flexibility. Flexibility to respond not only to the children’s changing needs as they grow and mature, but also to various life events, large and small alike.
Co-parents need to find a way to provide a structure that accommodates their children’s changing needs. What might have worked well for a preschool child will be unsuitable to teenagers eager to go out and explore the world. As children grow, so must the co-parenting arrangements grow and adapt with them. In this respect, parenting apart is not all that different from any form of parenting.
Our Divorce and Separation service can help.