The worst-case scenario in a family separation is when your child struggles to cope with it. Everything else, however hard, is manageable. But seeing our kids suffer is simply heartbreaking.
So, what can we do to guide, comfort and support our little ones through these testing times, while we grapple with our guilt at having caused them this pain?
In this article, we offer tried and tested suggestions to help you help your children navigate the murky waters of a family separation.
OUR CHILD ISN’T COPING WITH OUR SEPARATION
GIVE THEM TIME
It is hard to grasp the enormity of a family breakup for your child, which is a change from everything they have previously known to be normal.
Allow them the time and space they need to go through different stages of emotions. This might include confusion, anger, grief, acceptance, and a myriad of other feelings in between.
It can be tempting to distract children from their emotions because, as mothers, it is so hard to see them suffer. We might try to get them to move on quickly because it seems less painful for them to dwell on such a negative situation.
Giving your child the grace of time to understand and overcome their parent’s separation will assist their mental health further down the line when they try to make sense of feelings that were not acknowledged when they should have been. It also provides you with an opportunity to gauge their mood and help with their healing.
SHOW THEM THE GOOD IN DIVORCE (THERE IS SOME, WE PROMISE)
You will have separated for a reason, probably several very good reasons.
If your child is struggling with their parent’s break-up, it might help to talk through those reasons with them.
NOTE: Keep the conversation age-appropriate and don’t put down the other parent. Some examples include:
“Daddy and I no longer make one another happy, and we will be happier if we live in separate homes, this will be better for you too.”
“You will have noticed how much Dad and I were arguing and how horrible it was. Well, by living separately, those arguments will stop and that will be better for everyone.”
As well as focusing on the actual splitting of the family, it helps to point out other good things that will come about as part of the separation. This could include having two bedrooms, two sets of toys or any other changes that will be advantageous to your little one.
There are some positive impacts of divorce on children, honing in on them will help both you and your child.
Further resources: Books to help you help your kids through separation.
STAY AGE APPROPRIATE WHEN TALKING ABOUT SEPARATION
We all know that we must talk to our children in an age-appropriate manner. However, when helping your child cope with your separation, you may have to adapt the conversation accordingly as they grow.
For example, if your child was very young when you separated, you will have explained what was happening in a way that was suitable for them at the time. Then, a year later, you may have to explain it again with a little more detail, alongside answering some slightly more complex questions.
Outside influences will embolden children to want to know more about why their parents separated. This includes seeing how their friends’ families live, playground conversations, and the celebration of Mother’s and Father’s Day as a child of divorce.
Always be open to having an age-appropriate conversation with your child, even if it is a conversation you have had many times before. They may need to hear it again but a little differently so they can grasp it better and move forward with the security of understanding everything they feel they need to know.
HOW DO I HELP MY CHILD DEAL WITH SEPARATION?
KEEP THINGS NORMAL (WHERE YOU CAN)
Everything is changing for your child, this change is out of their control and can be super scary.
Separation is all about making changes that will ultimately be for the better. Yet, amongst these changes, nothing is as comforting as the unchanging.
You might be able to stagger changes to minimise the impact of them. For example, if you are moving home and school, location allowing, you could do one first and the next a few months later.
If big changes are on the cards for every area of your lives, then focus on finding familiarity in the smaller things. Stick to established home routines and activities such as favourite foods and familiar bedtime routines. Also, surrounding them with friends and family who are a constant in their world will give them a sense of calm in what might feel like stormy seas.
Further reading: Why routines help us and our children thrive.
DON’T PANIC AND KNOW IT WILL BE OK
If your child isn’t coping with your separation, it is understandably stressful. However, our children feed off our emotions and mirror how we react to situations and circumstances that befall us. As a result, if they sense your distress, they will feel that something is intrinsically wrong.
Raising Children says:
“Children raised by single parents can be just as happy and mentally healthy as children living with two biological parents. Whether a child has one parent or more, children do well when they have parenting that’s nurturing, warm, sensitive, responsive and flexible.”
Keep these positive thoughts at the forefront of your mind as you guide your children through this difficult time. Stay consistent with your care for them. And know that they have as much chance as any child of having a happy childhood that they will remember for all the right reasons.