The period following a formal separation involves many life changes and decisions – and all of them have an impact on younger and older children. It is essential for the child’s security that a basis of trust and honesty is built-up between the parents. Even if said trust is difficult and dishonesty has played a role in the separation, it is vitally important that this happens. The reality is that the parents might have decided at one stage of their relationship that it was stable enough for a child to enter it. Despite the fact that the separation could have been a bitter one and is heading for divorce, everything should be done to ensure the child is protected as much as possible.
This is very often not the case, especially if one parent is reeling from the circumstances of the separation and finding life tough afterwards. When infidelity, dishonesty and betrayal have been part of the story, it can be very difficult to put the feelings associated with these things aside for the child but it must be done. Children of any age will find the changes they need to cope with during separation challenging. Let’s look at some of the things they might have to deal with:
I suddenly live in two places… Children of any age do not like to have their security threatened. Their security comes from a sense of predictability and a stable family environment. Children’s sense of security is often built around the familiarity of where they live, eat, sleep and keep their possessions. This sense of “home” takes time to rebuild when they begin moving between residences.
When children begin the process of travelling between two homes, they experience feelings of loss, confusion, anxiety and insecurity as they adjust to the reality of being with one parent at a time. As a coping mechanism for trying to handle these emotions, they may over-react and become very difficult to handle for a few hours or even days. One parent may blame the other for this behavior, assuming that the other parent is not disciplining the child, or is even encouraging the child to behave badly. But it is important not to jump to conclusions – a child’s behavior may be nothing more than a reaction to his or her own feelings of grief and loss.
When children move between homes, they are constantly reminded that the family is no longer together. Children may also experience separation anxiety from one or both parents, or they may worry about the well-being of the parent they are leaving behind. In addition to all that, children have to deal with some unwelcome changes in their schedule and environment.
My parent has a new partner: In some families, a new adult relationship may have started before the separation, or may begin in the early stages of separation. In others, a new person may not enter the picture for months or even years. Often, this is the most challenging time for the one or both of the parents. Often new partners are kept hidden from the other parent and the discovery of the new relationship and the bitterness that goes with it can spill over into a child’s life. The old adage that honesty is always the best policy is extremely valid in this case. Especially if a relationship has started soon after separation or even before, any non-disclosure can affect the basis needed to co-parent. It may be hard for one parent to hear and may take some time to deal with feelings of jealousy, abandonment and anger but the alternative is even worse. It is also very tempting in the early stages of a new relationship where adrenalin is flowing to rush the new partner into the child or children’s lives.
This should always be done with extreme caution and after an extended period when the new relationship is on a secure footing. Doing this too early could mean that the child could potentially be introduced to a number of new partners, causing confusion and insecurity. If the marriage ends after one parent leaves the relationship for another partner, children may feel particularly betrayed and angry. Children in these families will need plenty of opportunities to express their confusion and feelings, a difficult task for a parent who may be experiencing similar emotions.
Moving on as a parent after separation: the time immediately after separation is a difficult and challenging time for both parents. People cope in different ways and all of these methods will have an effect on the child or children. Some rush quickly into new, sometimes unrealistic relationships to deal with the sudden change in their life. Others hang onto bitterness and anger while others attempt to change their lives too quickly. We are all human and sometimes while making emotional decisions, we make mistakes. However, if there is no chance of reconciliation, all focus should be placed on the child or children’s physical and emotional health, while taking care of one’s own.
Here are a few tips to help that process:
Create your own memories with your child. Be active, show him or her new things, new places, new experiences. Be an active part of your child’s life. Get involved in things that are important to them, like school and leisure activities. If you do not, someone else will.
Never use your child against your ex in any way, make threats about visitation and play games around pick-ups and handovers. This will be felt clearly by the child.
Reassure your child or children when they need it, create a positive atmosphere around you and your life. Never criticise your ex, their new partner or their family around the child.
Plan visits carefully. It does not always need to be the case that children are given treats and trips. Sometimes alone time with parents is enough.
Never promise what you cannot deliver. Children need honesty and consistency during what can be the most challenging time of their life.