It is all too easy to become self-involved and entirely consumed by the breakdown of a relationship. Separating from spouses or partners turns most people’s worlds upside down. Uncertainty and insecurity reigns. The grief that comes with a relationship breakdown is often suppressed and buried beneath a survival instinct to get through the day.
Where there are children involved, how you conduct your separation will determine the extent of its effect on your children. As much as it is hard to stomach certain liberal-chic Americanisms such as “conscious uncoupling”, maybe this is something parents should strive for when separating.
A separation is about the breakdown the relationship and not the breakdown of the partnership as parents. During my time in family law, I have seen some excellent real life examples of separating parties’ putting their children first and some excellent skills employed which have enabled them to do so.
Here’s what I’ve learned:
- Communication is key: A child kept in the dark regarding the two most important people in their life will be an anxious and stressed child. Their imagination will run wild and what they imagine may be happening may often be far worse than reality. It is your duty as a parent to anticipate questions, address them and talk to your child about the big picture stuff - i.e. living arrangements, schooling, staying close/moving away from friends. These are the worrying things that will affect their everyday life.
- Don’t sweat the small stuff: Try not to concern your child(ren) with the minutiae of the separation, this will only serve to drive a wedge between the child and whichever party perceived as the “wrong-doer”. Any blame or resentment you may harbor should be left at the door. Children will be dealing with their own emotions on hearing the news so don’t bring your own emotional baggage to the table. Children are like sponges and are likely to soak it all up; a heavy load for any child to bear.
- Do present a united front: You may not feel very united with your former partner but for the sake of the children do remember you are still a family unit. You may live in different accommodation and even have new partners but you, your former spouse and your children are all inextricably and unequivocally bound together for life. There is a bond which you all share which should be remain indestructible and, if possible, untouched by the separation, by new partners, by anything else.
- Do promote your partner in the eyes of your child: You may not feel elated at the prospect of seeing, speaking about or sharing things with a former partner, however your actions going forward must be child-focussed. If a judge sitting in a Family Court, far removed from the domestic situation, never having met the child considers his or her welfare of paramount importance, then why can’t you? It is never in a child’s best interests to have parents constantly fighting with one another and unable to resolve a conflict. An agreement reached between parents either privately or through mediation is always going to feel much better than an arbitrary decision imposed by a judge.
- Mutual respect: Your child should be aware of the importance of the absent parent and the respect that you have for that person as his/her father/mother. This may require some compartmentalization of, on the one hand, your views of that person as a former partner and, on the other, your views of that person as a parent, but it will be worth it. Try to continue to do activities together so that your child knows that the family unit is secure. All too often you see children silently dreading their parent’s separate arrival at parents’ evening, graduation and, even into adulthood, at their wedding day, praying that they will behave themselves and present a united front.
- Take time for you: Being child-focussed doesn’t mean ignoring yourself. Being the bigger person to achieve stability for your child during a separation can be extremely hard work and emotionally exhausting. Dont forget you also need to deal with the breakdown of your relationship. This could be with close friends, family or through a counsellor. Counselling no longer bears the same stigma it used to and many people find it a useful way to discuss their problems and understand the way they feel.
- Your child’s support network: This can include grandparents, extended family members, family friends and even teachers at school. The latter can be enormously helpful in getting children through their parents’ separation. It is worth informing all those who are part of your child’s life of what is going on at home to enable them to act accordingly and provide additional support.
- Nobody’s perfect: Just as there is no such thing as a perfect relationship, there is no such thing as a perfect separation. Your children will recognise and be thankful in years to come that you are doing your best during a difficult time and that is all anyone can ask.