One of the greatest joys of my job are the different types of families I get to meet and work closely with. I work with many types of households; single parent households; step parents, foster carers and many other varieties.
The most challenging part can sometimes be working with parents who are recently separated and helping them to navigate the minefield that co-parenting can become. In every case, parents have their child’s best interests at heart but it is difficult to leave emotions to one side, even if everyone knows that this is the right thing to do! How can parents get to such a point of collaboration with someone that they no longer love or in many cases, seriously dislike?
The dynamic of having parents living separately is on the rise around the world with statistics telling us that 1 in 3 marriages in Australia will end in divorce and that in America half of all children under 18 will witness the ending of a parent’s relationship.
The problem with these statistics is that an important part of these adult’s relationships will never end as they will continue to co – parent for life. This reality may strike terror into the hearts of many hoping to never have to deal with their ex again and so this blog hopes to offer some supportive and practical ways to navigate this new dynamic.
No one embarks on a serious relationship expecting that things will end between themselves and their partner. This means that immediately following a separation, everyone in the family unit is feeling raw and scared. This includes the parents, the grandparents and of course all the children no matter how old they are. This can be compounded by a myriad of other intense feelings, similar to those of grief, as each person in the family unit faces a new reality very different to what they had planned or expected. Strong feelings which may include anger, resentment, fear or grief will often result in behaviour changes. These changes may come across differently depending on the personalities involved and apply to parents as well as children. Some may be shorter tempered, impatient and snappy whilst others may be quieter, more withdrawn or more clingy. Parenting through these behaviour changes is an enormous challenge and needs to be handled carefully. Extra sensitivity and patience needs to be shown towards all the kids in the picture as they navigate a whole new world that they may be feeling has been thrust upon them without their consent!
Without giving a free pass for bad behaviour, allowing slightly more leeway than normal may be helpful. This isn’t always so easy when as the parent, your patience is at its lowest point! There is nothing wrong with relying on your support networks so that you can make time for self-care while you get through this difficult period of time. Children may be better off having an afternoon with their grandparent, spending the weekend at a friend’s house or attending an additional day of child care, while you take the time to re-centre and look after yourself.
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. This could mean that they will now be living across 2 different homes or daddy will be fetching them every Tuesday from school instead of Grandma. 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. If this conversation can be had together with your ex and the child, your child sees a united front and understands that you will be continuing to work together when it comes to their wellbeing. 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.
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.
By doing your best to avoid speaking badly about your partner in front of your child, you will be doing your children an enormous good. The acrimony of your feelings are too big for them to manage and they will be confused by feeling their loyalties are divided. Another confusing situation for children is when they are used as a middle man in relaying messages to their other parent. Your ex will always be your child’s parent, and this relationship needs to be preserved as best it can be for the sake of your child’s wellbeing. In addition to not speaking badly, try not to use your childs’ right to access their other parent as a reward. Similarly, denying access to the other parent is not a suitable punishment for even the most heinous disobedience.
In the end, wherever possible, your children want and need to see a united front and that some things haven’t changed! 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.
When parents decide to separate, the entire family are thrown into a period of turbulence. How long the effects of this last on your child, can depend on how you support them together with your ex partner in navigating the “new normal”. Once your children are calm and settled, your household will follow and you too can move on with your life.
I'm busy working on my blog posts. Watch this space!