January is a time of year when many people who have realised that their relationship is over, start the process of leaving their partner. They might have been thinking of divorcing for a while, but they wait until after Christmas so that their family can enjoy the holidays.
Sometimes the strains of the festive season are the final straw that prompts someone to take action. Many people worry about the stress and trauma that separation may have, particularly on their children. So how can parents make splitting up better for the kids?
Research has found that one of the main issues for children is frequent, unresolved and enduring conflict (Reynolds et al, 2014). In most cases, children do best if they have a safe, nurturing relationship with both their parents (Newis, 2011). It is less about how much time they spend with each parent and the living arrangements, and more about the relationship between the child and their parents, or the relationship between ex-partners as co-parents (Kelly, 2012).
There are some clear messages, based on research findings, about what children need from their parents to give them the best chance in the future. These are summarised in the What Most Children Say booklet (www.kentfms.co.uk) and highlighted below in italics:
‘Try not to argue in front of us but tell us what is happening, and why, although we don’t want to hear any personal details, or be involved in whose fault you think it was.’
Most children want to be included in discussions if possible, in an age appropriate way, and to know the plans so that they aren’t worrying unnecessarily.
‘Keep talking together about things that affect us. In particular we don’t like it, or you, if you criticise each other. It makes us feel bad and affects us at school and other places too.’
Children do better if their parents can work together or they know that they are managing the situation safely. They can feel that a part of them is being criticised if their parent is being criticised.
‘We are mostly sad or angry that you can’t live together anymore. But we can cope and get on with our lives, so long as you do too. If you don’t, we can’t.’
It is really important to give children permission to be sad or angry, to express their strong emotions, without being concerned about how this will affect others. They can learn acceptable ways of expressing anger, which is an essential skill for life.
‘We need to be close to both of you. This means we like doing ordinary, everyday things with both of you – eating, playing, going to bed and getting up, going to school, watching TV…’
Children benefit from being able to enjoy routine activities. It isn’t always possible for children to be in the same physical space as their parent, but it might be possible to connect by video call and messaging.
‘We know we can’t make the decisions but we want to have a say in where we live and when we will see each of you.’
Most children want to be listened to about what they are thinking and feeling, but it is important that they don’t feel responsible for the decisions or for choosing between parents.
‘Remember, we have our own lives and friends to see, so please allow us to ask for a change sometimes.’
Post-separation arrangements for children can sometimes be too rigid. Their needs and commitments change as they get older and some flexibility is helpful.
‘We need to be able to relax in our own homes, have space and just be ourselves.’
Sometimes kids just want to be in, to chill or to see their friends. What’s best for kids isn’t always what parents would choose, whether living together or apart.
‘We don’t mind if our parents do things differently. We can cope with different rules in different places.’
Most children are able to manage differences between households, but too much change can be difficult for some children. It can be helpful if parents can agree what needs to be the same in both homes and what can be different.
‘We just like being kids. We love you both, but do not want to be like a grown-up friend to confide in.’
There are better and worse ways of splitting up. If parents can focus on what their children need from them they are more likely to be able to move forward positively.
Sometimes people need support to find a way through the myriad of difficult decisions that have to be made. Relationships Scotland provides a range of services to support people at this time.
This includes Parenting Apart information sessions, which are an opportunity to find out more about how to help children, manage conflict and improve communication. These sessions are currently free and open to parents to attend separately from their child’s other parent.
The Family Mediation service provides a space for separating or separated parents to discuss and plan future arrangements for their children with a third person, the mediator, there to help them to have a productive conversation.
For those who are still together, or separated, counselling is an opportunity to develop strategies for better relationships going forward.
Rosanne Cubitt, head of practice for mediation and Parenting Apart, Relationships Scotland.