Separating is a journey not an event and each parent will start their journey at a different time, travel a slightly different route in an emotionally different way. Along the route you will face a rollercoaster of emotion; shock/denial/anger/bargaining/deep sadness/acceptance but not necessarily always in that order. These emotions represent a well-known emotional recovery journey (The Grief Loss Cycle). During a family separation every parent and every child will experience these emotions in their own way and in their own time.
Family separation leads to a great deal of domestic, parental, social and financial reorganisation. You will need to have many conversations with your co-parent and with your children as life is reorganised. Sometimes it can feel overwhelmingly challenging to have these conversations, particularly early on in your separation journey. Every separation situation is different. The most likely factors that will influence your separation journey will be your relationship dynamic with your former partner and the way that your separation happens.
Talking with your co-parent
The way your separation occurs might influence how easy or difficult it feels to communicate. Consider getting some early help and support you so that you can establish a way to communicate.
Explore using a mediator, a counsellor, a coach or even a family friend whom you both respect and who feels able to help you neutrally.
Whatever your situation there will be things to plan and agree in the short term about your living arrangements and/or your children.
As you navigate your way through separation it can be really helpful to try to imagine yourself wearing two different hats; your personal hat and your parental hat.
These represent two parallel journeys,
- your personal separation journey and
- your new co-parenting journey.
Try to make a conscious effort to put on your parenting hat when you are having conversations with your co-parent about the arrangements for your children.
Think about making a simple parental communication plan to keep you steady in the early weeks and months whatever your separation situation:
What do you need/not need to communicate about as parents/what is the important information to share/ rules might you want to agree in the short and medium term;
How will you share important information (text/email/telephone/face to face/online communication tool)/how will you deal with emergencies/how will you make a plan for the coming days, weeks, months/how will you behave towards each other in front of your children;
When and where will you talk about your children and agree your parenting plan. Try to keep your conversations private from your children;
Talking with your children about how things will change
Understandably, many parents put off having this conversation with their children. It can feel overwhelming and sometimes parents choose to delay talking to their children as they feel that they do not yet have all of the answers.
Top tips for your conversation with your children
- If your situation allows, you should try to have a joint conversation when all of your children are present. Please keep this age appropriate.
- Keep your initial conversation short – there will be a limit to what your children can take in
- Plan on a series of conversations including different follow-up conversations if your children are different ages/stages
- Repeat your messages of reassurance often in the weeks and months that follow
- Be mindful that your children’s reactions will depend upon their age, developmental stage and their individual personality
- Plan carefully with your co-parent what you will say, when you will deliver your message and what you will do straight afterwards
- Be mindful of your body language
- Reassure your children that it is okay to feel sad or scared and showing emotion is good. They can always talk to either of you and ask questions
- Remember that you are a role model and your children are watching how you manage this situation. If they see that you are still their parents, making decisions together about them, then they will cope better.
- Get help from a mediator/parenting coach/therapist, if it feels difficult to make a plan together;
Some suggestions of things that you could say to your children
Our feelings for each other have changed but we will never stop loving you.
We seem to have a problem that we just cannot work out.
We know this will be hard for you, and we are sorry.
We have made our decision and we will not change our minds
You are allowed to love both of us.
It is okay to feel sad about this.
What has happened is not your fault – you did not cause this.
Our family will look different but we will still be a family.
We will both continue to be a big part of your life.
We will try not to ask you to take sides.
We loved you when you were born and we love you now. Nothing can change that.
You will find this painful and difficult now but you will feel better again
We have not yet sorted out all of the details of how our family life is going to look, but when we know we promise that we will share this with you.
Listening to your child
Separation and divorce is a traumatic time for you and your children.
Sometimes the behaviour displayed by your children may mirror your own.
Your children may seem upset, angry or quieter than usual, or they might just need you to do some serious listening so you can understand just what’s going on in their head.
So why should you really listen to your children?
- Because it’s the one thing they tell professionals that their parents don’t do very well.
- We can be clear what is going on, rather than guessing.
- It tells children that as parents, you are emotionally available for them.
- Children feel like they “matter”, when you listen to them.
- They are trying to adjust to a new situation, and might just need you to listen to them whilst they figure it out.
Skills for good listening
- Try to be calm
- Pick a time when you can listen fully. If you are busy, explain to your child that you want to listen and suggest a good time. Don’t forget to prioritise this, make it happen.
- Try not to interrupt, if more than one person is speaking it is harder to listen fully.
- Be curious rather than knowing by asking open questions, What? where? why? how? who?
- Allow emotions to happen, don’t try to fix it or make things better.
- Listen, check for meaning, validate, empathise, reply.
e.g. “So what I heard you say was………….., is that right?”
“I can see you are upset/angry/frustrated by that”
“I am sorry you are upset etc, thank you for telling me”
“is there anything I can do to help?”
- If things get heated, take a time out.
e.g. “I’m feeling upset/angry right now. I would like to have time out so I can calm down. I will need 10 minutes (or however long you think you need). I will be back in 10 minutes to try again.
- Listen carefully, clarify what words mean by asking questions. We all interpret words differently.
- Try not to guess what the conversation is about or how it will end. Try to be curious rather than knowing.
- Try not to worry about giving an answer immediately. If you don’t know or need time to think then say so. It’s ok to say
“I don’t know at the moment; I will try to find out and let you know when I do”.
- Listening to your children doesn’t mean you are going to agree or do what they ask you. It does however let them know that you have heard them and their view is important.
It is important to remember that every child is unique.
Children react differently according to their age, gender, character and how they are being parented pre, during and after separation.
This can be affected by;
How the separation happened. Was it sudden or did it happen over time?
How much conflict they witness or are caught up in.
Whether they can maintain a relationship with both parents and their siblings, when it is safe to do so.
Whether their parents make time to listen to their children and allow time for the adjustment to; change in household, finances and routine.
Some handouts on age related behaviour with tips to help you support your child follow.
How Children React to Separation and How to Help Them
I Don’t Want To Go!
For many children, at some point, there may come a, “I don’t want to go” or “it’s boring at mum/dads” situation.
The response often given to children regardless of age is “you don’t have to go if you don’t want to” and often parents will say to professionals, “I’m not forcing them to go”
If you find yourself in this scenario then it is important to think about the following.
- Your children are trying to work their way through an unknown situation.
- They may be struggling to come to terms with a new home, routine, and fraught parents.
- They may be fearful about the future.
- However, ‘mature/grown up” your children seem to be, they cannot possibly understand the dynamics of your adult relationship breakdown. Giving them the details will upset them.
- Ultimately, children are ‘parent pleasers’ and if they feel that you are angry/upset with their other parent they might change their behaviour and what they say, in order to make everything ok.
- Children are brilliant at reading their parent’s body language but may misunderstand what that means for them. E.g. you might be angry/upset with your former partner, your children may read that as, “if daddy doesn’t like mummy then maybe if I go to see mummy, daddy won’t like me”
- The behaviour children often display, particularly ‘distressed’ behaviour is often for the benefit of the parent they are leaving. Quite often, once with the other parent and out of your view, a child will be calm, happy and delighted to be with that parent.
When it is safe to do so, a relationship with both parents is hugely beneficial. Children cope with differing parenting styles and different rules in each of their homes, they become settled in new routines as long as.
- Both parents make it ‘o.k’ for children to spend as much time as they can with their parents. That means putting aside your adult relationship breakdown emotions for the long-term, emotional benefit of your children.
- Try to make the decision to spend time with their other parent, ‘non-negotiable’. As parents, sometimes our children have to do things they don’t want to, or ask for things they cannot have. They will react less if an assertive, happy, time to go home to their other parent is
- Be confident that whatever behaviour you see in the short-term will be gone once they are out of view. Children can go from laughter to tears and back again in a very short time.
- Start as you mean to go on. Just because your adult relationship has ended, your children’s relationship with their parents endures. Be the best parent you can be.
- If you appear sure, confident and assertive then your children will ‘read’ this in your body language and so will feel sure, confident, and able to leave you to have time in their other home with their other parent.
- Remember that your children will need patience, reassurance and time to adjust to this new way of being co-parented. Try to stay calm and positive during this time.
Handover often referred to as “contact handover” can be one of the most important events that takes place post separation. It is one of the occasions where you, your ex-partner and the children all come together.
When communication during handover is mis-handled, this can cause harm to separated parents, extended family and children.
When you have just come out of a relationship, for the sake of your children, it is important to try and have child focussed communication, especially at handover.
What to try and not to try when it comes to communication at handover
|Try to be polite, courteous and respectful to your ex-partner. This will help create a positive atmosphere.||Try not to be critical about the other parent directly to them, in front of the children and/or within earshot.|
|Try to smile and be relaxed at handover. Your body language and expressions will be picked up by your ex-partner and the children.||Try not to initiate a conversation with your children about their time with the other parent. Allow the children to take the lead on this when they feel comfortable.|
|When your children want to tell you about all the positive things they did with their other parent try to take an interest but not interrogate.||Try not to raise a topic with your ex-partner that you know will lead to a disagreement or conflict.|
|Try and remain calm if the other parent makes a comment that upsets you. Don’t react. Address this separately with your ex-partner when the children are not present||Try not to lose sight that handover should always be child focused.|
Your children are watching and learning from you so be mindful of that. What we are teaching our children is how we behave towards other people.