by Melisse Ogilvie, Social Worker
The family can create the ideal environment for children to develop socially and emotionally, but there are circumstances within the family that often disrupts this “ideal” place.
A divorce or a breakup is one such instance. When two adults terminate a relationship, there are associated emotions with this new status. Those adults who are parents have the difficult task of managing their own emotions and everything associated with a divorce or separation.
Sometimes, parents are so preoccupied managing their own emotions that they forget the other party in the relationship, the children. We often do not discuss parental separation and its impact on a child’s emotional and behavioural outcomes.
This impact will vary depending on the cause of the separation, for example, how the parents separated, the age of the child, how much they understand, and the support they get from parents, family and friends following the separation.
We expect that children will experience separation differently, but we must be aware of the potential detriment to their emotional wellbeing. For some children, it might feel as if their worlds have been turned upside down and this unhappiness may translate to them having low-self- esteem, behavioural problems at home or school, bedwetting and a sense of loss (grief). If not managed and addressed appropriately, the effects can be long-lasting.
Some of the other signs to look for in your child are:
- Increased clinginess or being fearful about being left alone. If one parent can go, perhaps the other will do the same.
- A display of anger towards one or both parents.
- Expressed feelings of worry about having caused the parental separation, or even feelings of guilt.
- Feelings of rejection by the other parent, or insecurity demonstrated through withdrawal behaviour or regression.
- Feeling torn between parents.
Regardless of the circumstances, parents must always decide to consider the emotional needs of their children in spite of how they feel of the other parent. Your child will need to know that they still have 2 parents who love them, and who will continue to care for them. In considering them, you should also protect them from adult worries and responsibilities. Additionally, make it clear that the responsibility for what is happening is the parents’ not the child’s.
Although, you may be experiencing deep hurt, for your child’s sake, resist the urge to:
- Ask your child to take sides.
- Use your child “as a weapon” to get back at your ex, such as willfully denying visitation. Unless the other parent poses a significant risk to the child, such as there being a history of violence or sexual abuse towards the child.
- Criticise or speak ill of your ex-partner in your child’s presence.
- Expect your child to take on the role of your ex-partner.
Some other steps parents can take to minimise the impact on their child are:
- Being open and willing to talk. Your child not only needs to know what is going on but needs to feel that it’s ok to ask questions.
- Spending time with your child.
- Showing up when you’ve made arrangements with them.
- Show that you are interested in your child’s views, but make it clear that parents are responsible for the decisions.
- Maintaining the usual activities and routines. This will help your child feel that, despite the difficulties, loved ones still care about them and that life can be reasonably normal.
The introduction of a new partner may also pose some problems for your child. Parents should consider when and how this is done. The presence of this new partner could cause feelings of neglect and abandonment in your children.
Your child will be looking to you to navigate this difficult period. Therefore, I encourage you to be consistent, be nurturing and be supportive.
You and your child can get through this; one positive decision at a time.