Managing the separation of a family
Making the decision to separate is not easy and it can take couples many years to reach that point. Splitting up a family is tough and when young children are involved it can be traumatic at times, especially if the separation is not amicable. Nowadays parental separation handled well is not seen as a major hurdle for children
To help you with the journey your family is on and to minimise the impact it has on children I’ve put together my 6.5 Tips for Supporting Children Through Divorce and Separation, with an additional 3 for parents of children with special needs or disability.
1 – Make it clear
If you’ve made a decision, stick with it, give your children clarity about your decision. Don’t let them think “will they or won’t they get back together” as all this does is make a child insecure or anxious. As much as is practical, make the decisions about arrangements prior to telling your children, that way you are telling them facts. If you need some advice about how to tell your child, then see my 7 Steps to Managing the Conversation About Divorce and Separation.
2 – Unconditional love
As parents you give your children unconditional love. This will need to be amplified whilst they adjust to the new structure of their family. There are lots of things you will need to focus on in sorting out your new lives as parents, however make sure your child knows that your love is a stability throughout the changes. Both take time to do activities your child loves doing to make sure you’re engaging them at their level.
3 – Routine
Work out a routine with your ex, hard as it may be, it is important for children and teenagers to have structure and routine in their lives. As humans we use routine and structure on a daily basis to help us feel secure (think about where you sit in the lounge and how different it feels when you sit elsewhere). Have a routine, display it as a timetable if you need to, but make sure you have one, your child knows it and that you stick to it.
4 – Security
The biggest thing with separation and divorce is that it makes us question our own identify and sense of self. This applies just as much for children. Whilst you are trying to establish who you are as a single person or in a new relationship, your child will be wondering about their own identity. Left unaddressed this can be the part of parental separation that leads to longer term issues and effects. So ensure in everything you do that you radiate security (even if you don’t feel it), you’re child needs to know that their life is just as important to you as it was before you separated. For example if you took your child to a particular club or sport and they saw that as special time with you, then try to keep being the parent that takes them to it.
5 – Do things together
I appreciate it’s not necessarily what you want to do, but spending time with your ex and your child will actually help your child to understand they are part of a larger family, not a smaller family. Plan a day out or an activity together so that you can show (even if it is only for the benefit of your child) how you are both there for your child as parents.
6 – Look after you and your support network
Your ex will have been an important part of your support network for some time. Even when you were not getting on, subconsciously you knew that you could ask them about certain things, talk to them or rely on them to do different things. A key part of finding your new single life is to replace that support. We all need some time after a relationship to re-establish our own sense of identity and work out our new pattern of daily life, this needs to include turning to people outside of your immediate family unit for the support that you had previously expected from within your house. This may be a new skill for you, but it is an important step, humans are communicative animals and much of our problem solving comes through interactions with others.
6.5 – Expect the behaviour
Whilst your child gets used to the new ways of life, expect to see some undesirable or negative behaviour from them. Maybe they will become more physical or rough in their play, possibly they will be more short-tempered or snap at you. This is part of your child coping with the change process. If this continues for more than 2-3 months then you want to consider seeking support.
Children with additional or special needs and divorce
Use a social story (either a bought book about divorce) or even better make one up about your family’s two homes. Take pictures of their two homes and their bedrooms for example. Make the new regime a concrete system for them to understand and they have a book to teach them the rules of the new system (for example this is my daddy’s house, I live there on Fridays and Saturdays). As you and your ex move on, then you can add new pages to explain new relationships or other life events.
Work it out, have a timetable showing when your child will be with you and when they will be with their ex. Make sure you have an Oops card/picture to stick over something on the timetable. Introduce it to your child as a way of showing when something has changed that we didn’t plan for. That way if something goes wrong or you need to change plans, you can get your child to put the Oops picture up to show that something has had to change.
Looking after special things
Known as transitional objects in psychology, this involves giving a child (and sometimes I’ve done this with adults too) something of yours to look after whilst they are away from you. For the best impact it needs to be something that guarantees you will return to the child, so something that is special to you. For other children I’ve managed this through the use of smell, by having a parent sleep with a particular toy or comforter of a child, so that they can hold it and it will smell of that parent.
If you need advice or support with managing divorce for children
If you are going through or intend to go through separation and want some support whilst you readjust your family’s lives, then you might like to consider one of my coaching programmes.