Children in separation and divorce
When parents separate it is terribly important, and often very difficult, for them to remember that although they are no longer going to be a couple they will continue to be parents.
Children usually want their parents to stay together – they will be unhappy about the separation. Children should be able to love both parents without feeling guilty or disloyal. They won’t want to feel that one of their parents is a bad person. More and more research is available on how children feel during a separation and how they turn out afterwards. It seems that children are often so frightened to rock the boat any more, and so anxious not to hurt their parents, that they hide their own feelings. In most cases, the parents are quite unaware of how badly the children feel. A separation will usually sadden children but it need not cause serious lasting damage. The damage is usually caused by the adults fighting, especially where that conflict has the children as a focus, which often happens after separation.
Although the separation itself is likely to upset the children, it is up to both parents to protect the children from the fallout. As mentioned, if either parent fails to do this, it is likely to lead to damage. It is particularly difficult if you didn’t want to separate in the first place.
You have to think about the long term, and hold on to the fact that your own relationship with the children later on is likely to be much better if you keep them out of the adult problems. The children are also likely to turn out happier and better adjusted. So will you probably!
Children are usually much more aware of what is going on than you would realise. Uncertainty about the future can make them feel worse than the truth. They will want to know where they are going to live and go to school and when they will be with the other parent. It is usually best to spare them the gory details of the reason for the separation. The main message for children from both parents should be that sometimes parents do separate, that it is sad when they do, but they continue being parents and loving their children and that the separation is not the children’s fault.
If you were the one who left the family home, it is quite likely that the children will feel hurt about that themselves. This is particularly true if you have a new partner, especially if that partner has children. Don’t assume that just because the children seem happy when they are with you, they are not upset. They might confide such feelings to the other parent.
Try to work with rather than against the other parent over this. Don’t assume the children are being coached or indoctrinated. Similarly, don’t reach for the telephone to protest if you are the main carer and the children return after contact upset and full of complaints.
Children, like adults, take time to adjust after a separation. They have to work through various stages. This will show up in different ways, depending on their ages, from bed wetting to tantrums to lack of concentration. The signs often peak after contact but it is better that there should be visible signs of adjustment than silent suffering! Make sure they realise that the separation isn’t their fault.
Both parents: beware of misreading your children’s messages. A child will often say to each parent separately that they want to be with that parent. Both parents may interpret this as meaning: “I want you to fight for me”, and rush off into a bitter battle in Court. Usually the child usually means “I love you both. I don’t want to chose, I just want you to stop fighting”, and practical arrangements can generally be made which allow both parents to be truly involved in their children’s lives.