Keeping kids out of the crossfire in a relationship breakdown
In amongst all of the news items relating to COVID, one of the items that caught my eye was an article discussing the rapid increase in divorce applications worldwide during and following lockdown. Many countries have actually stopped processing the paperwork as they can’t cope with the demand.
Even before COVID, rarely was there a day where the media doesn’t report on a ‘celebrity’ relationship breakdown. Closer to home, many of us have been touched by stories and experiences of those we know and some of us have lived through this personally. What is often not reported however is the enormous emotional toll this takes on everyone involved. Adults going through a separation have never planned for this and are therefore likely to be feeling a shift within their own identity and sense of self. When children are involved, studies talk about possible impacts well into adulthood even in the most amicable and civil of breakups. How then can we do what is right for them at the same time as prioritising the needs of the parents who haven’t come to this decision lightly?
A child’s experience of their parent’s separation, even as early as infancy, can feel catastrophic, ripping their sense of safety, security and ‘home’ from beneath them. In addition, children are often left with feelings of uncertainty of who they are and what is the new normal. This is not only distressing for them but also for parents who are continuing to do their best to put their children’s needs first.
Very often, during this period, the trickiest thing to manage is the uncertainty and the unknowns. For children, who are not the decision makers in this process, this is very much the case. What you don’t tell your child, they will try to figure out, possibly causing them even more worry than is necessary as they imagine an even worse case than the reality. It is very important to be honest with children. This needs to be done with sensitivity and in an age appropriate manner and should focus on what will affect the child’s life. This means explaining what the separation means in practical terms. You need to be clear about what will change for them and also be clear about what will remain the same. This could mean that they will now be living across 2 different homes or that Daddy will be fetching them every Tuesday from school instead of Grandma. Social stories are a fantastic way to present this information to children in a way that gives them a chance to visualise and process their new reality. This conversation, whilst vitally important, should be done only when you are able to present a definite picture of some of the changes. Before decisions are made about who is living where in the short term and what concrete changes will affect your children, it is better to say nothing as this can cause enormous confusion for many kids.
Wherever possible, it will always be beneficial to your child if this conversation can be had together with your ex and the child, before these major changes occur. This way your child sees a united front and understands that you will be continuing to work together when it comes to their wellbeing. These honest conversations give you the opportunity to work through the new dynamic with your child, with the key message always remaining the same: that Mummy and Daddy both still love you and always will be your Mummy and Daddy.
For many couples in the process of separation, presenting a united front in this way can be very challenging and once the separation is finalised, there are inevitably feelings of resentment and acrimony even in the most civil of cases. However, it is important wherever possible to plan together with your ex, how you will manage communication between the 2 of you as once you have children, you will be in each other’s lives forever (in the vast majority of circumstances). This is something that can be worked out with therapists and even lawyers if needed but the aim is to stop your child/ren from becoming the middle man and feeling that they have to take sides.
This is also true of how you speak about your ex-partner in front of your children. As with most situations, children will take their cues of what to think and feel from what they see and hear! A negative remark about their other parent (which you thought your child didn’t hear) may be all it takes to damage their relationship with their other parent. It takes great self-control to watch what you say around your children but this is critical particularly following a separation, when children will often be hyper alert, listening in to conversations they would usually ignore, in an attempt to find answers or a better understanding of the turbulence in their lives.
Whilst it is easy to simply tell your children what will stay the same, it is important for them to also see and feel it in reality. One way to do this is by keeping the routine at home consistent. A visual schedule on the wall, showing clearly which days the child will be with Mum and which days with Dad, can be very helpful in easing anxiety of the unknown. These should be in similar formats in both homes and discipline should be something that both parents are aware of so that one can’t be manipulated against the other. Likewise, if both parents would normally attend certain events for their child before the separation, this ritual should remain the same after separation. Eg: If its not Dad’s rostered day to have the children, but it’s your child’s school concert or some other important day for them, let Dad come along. You don’t need to sit together or even talk to him, but for your child to see both their parents at a milestone event, is healing and reassuring for them.
The key to the mental health and well being of any child is knowing that their cherished parents are ok. Going through the breakdown of such a central relationship that you thought would last forever is widely acknowledged to be one of the most stressful experiences in a person’s life. There is so much to manage and navigate including emotions, finances, kids, living arrangements, legal processes and sometimes ongoing conflict, that often self-care is the last thing we tend to. Taking the time to recognise that you deserve and need this self-care will help you to navigate better outcomes all round. Don’t think twice about taking time out for a walk, a meditation, saying yes to babysitting help, leaning on your networks for support and seeking professional or psychological guidance and help. Taking this time for yourself to recharge your batteries should in turn help to facilitate your ability to be more emotionally available and present for your children whom you are trying so hard to protect.
This protection includes remaining conscious of your actions and reactions in front of the children in order to shield them from the conflict and to help them navigate their new normal. The hope is that this will allow them to have minimal psychological damage or feelings of displacement and pain. When parents, despite their differences, can put their role as ‘co-parents’ before ‘feuding ex-partners’, the outcomes for the children of the relationship can be a positive one, as children learn resilience and tolerance as they grow and thrive in two separate, happy homes.