Separation and Young Children

As exhausted and ecstatic new parents look into the eyes of their newborn for the first time, they are often overcome with the sense that things are destined, and that their new family will stay inseparably together forever.

But once the hair-pulling excitement surrounding the birth has waned, new parents often find themselves grasping for the threads that gave their adult relationship meaning. The sexiness and fun that drew you together can easily get lost among the midnight feeds, laundry and misdirected chunder. And although most new parents will make it work, a significant number will decide to separate while their kids are still young.

In my work as a Family Dispute Resolution Practitioner (Mediator), I regularly help new parents navigate the unique challenges that come with separation and young children. Raising kids is hard enough when you’re together, but when you separate, a whole host of new challenges arise.

Here are a couple of key points and tips to ensure that your little ones grow up to be all they can be, even if Mum and Dad don’t sit around the same campfire anymore.

The most important thing you can do for your children after separation is to stop fighting. There is an increasing body of research to suggest that children are actually very good at navigating their parents’ separation. However, there is also a growing body of research to suggest that children who experience ongoing conflict after separation are at a particular risk of ongoing emotional harm, things like depression, anxiety and early engagement in destructive self-soothing strategies like drug and alcohol abuse.

Remember, kids usually feel much more powerful than they really are and, particularly primary-school-aged children, have a tendency to feel that it’s somehow their job to ‘fix’ whatever is wrong with their parents’ relationship. This means that when the next tsunami of anger and stress arrives at a family barbecue or Christmas Day, they blame themselves. I regularly hear parents say that they tell their kids that the ongoing conflict isn’t the child’s fault. But, unfortunately, little-brain logic is powerful. It goes something like this:

  1. Mum’s angry and Dad’s crying again
  2. The only reason they get like this is because they have to see and speak to each other
  3. The only reason they have to see and speak to each other is to arrange things for me
  4. There wouldn’t be any conflict if I didn’t exist
  5. It’s my fault everyone’s upset

And no matter how often you tell a child that it’s not their fault, this simple logical process will prevail. The only way to stop a child blaming themselves in some way is to stop the conflict.

Use email, or phone calls away from the kids to resolve these things that come up, but don’t do it when the kids are around.

It’s also important after separation to ensure that young kids feel connected to both parents even when one parent isn’t around. Can you remember how long the car trip to grandma and grandpa’s was? An hour? Are you crazy?! That’s forever! Young children can conceptualise ‘today’, maybe ‘tomorrow’ and if you’re really lucky, ‘the day after tomorrow’, but everything after that is an eternity. If a child is going to build a meaningful bond with a parent, they need to be interacting with, and preferably spending time with that parent every few days. And frequency of contact is more important than duration. So, it’s better for a young child to spend an hour or two with a parent every couple of days, than it is to spend a whole weekend every second week. At that age, you have to relearn who a person is if you haven’t seen them for a couple of weeks.

Even if they can’t talk, phone calls can work with very young kids. A photo beside the phone and the sound of Mummy or Daddy’s voice is a powerful reminder. Even if they are too young to meaningfully interact, the sound of your voice builds the connection. Skype and Facetime are fantastic when face-to-face contact isn’t practical.

Ultimately, your goal as separated parents should be to create a sense of ‘home’ that is spread over two ‘houses’ (or studio apartments, or caravans, or granny flats). Remember, yours is the only family your child has ever known, so don’t get too hung up on the way other people do it. If you can have a low-conflict, loving and child-focussed family coming in and out of the same house, living in apartments on different sides of the city, or different ends of the farm – do it. There will certainly be frustrations, shoes that aren’t returned, people arriving late or text messages that are sent after one too many Sav Blancs. But your child doesn’t care about any of that. They just want to love you both equally, and to not feel stupid for doing it. If my dad’s a lazy, lying tax cheat, then I must be a fool for loving him so much. And if my Mum’s an irrational control freak, then I must be…

Ultimately, kids are resilient. They will manage without their shoes or a diet that isn’t perfect. But being a kid is hard enough, and there’s only so much emotional petrol in each child’s tank each day. After you separate, make sure that your kids are burning their emotional fuel doing things that kids should do – learning, making friends, having fun, becoming independent – rather than worrying when the next emotional tsunami is going to wash everything away.

Being a good parent after separation isn’t about being right or everything going perfectly. It’s about managing conflict so kids can feel connected to both parents while they grow into the confident and independent young people we all want them to be.

Jack Ellis is a writer and Family Mediator. His new novel, The Best Feeling of All, will be published by Arcadia in March 2014.

Avatar of Jack Ellis

Jack Ellis is a writer and Family Mediator based in Sydney. He has written extensively for major magazines such as Women’s Health, as well as for news and commentary websites such as the ABC’s The Drum and Crikey. His debut novel, The Best Feeling of All, will be published by Arcadia in March 2014.

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