25th March, 2024

How can I help my child after separation?

There are two big fears that almost every separated parent has. One is about financial security, but that’s a topic for another day. The other is:

Will my kids be OK?

There is a lot you can do to make sure the answer to that is ‘yes’. Separation is a big transition, so there will be challenges for your children. But challenges don’t necessarily hurt us – in fact, if managed well, they help us build strength and resilience.

In my nearly 25 years working in family law I’ve had many conversations with child experts about the behaviours of parents which help and hinder children’s pathway through family separation. From these conversations I have gleaned 4 key goals, which, if pursued by parents, will create a great foundation for their children’s post-separation lives.

As you read about these goals keep in mind that:

  • Pursuing these goals will help your children, even if only one of their parents is on board. By all means share this post with your co-parent. But then let them decide what to do with it, and get on with pursuing these goals yourself.
  • The reality is that we’re all imperfect humans and you will fail in implementing these goals sometimes. That’s OK. The important thing is to keep trying.

Let them keep being a kid

Often in a separation children get adult worries placed on their shoulders. They hear conversations about financial disputes. They see their parents disagreeing about decisions about their lives. They are asked to be a messenger between their parents or to keep secrets. They become the confidant for an unhappy parent.

When these things happen, they lose the vital belief that their parents have got things under control. They take on responsibility for keeping the ship sailing and it distracts them from the important work of childhood. They have less of their brain available to learn. They have less capacity to build strong friendships and learn how to relate well to other people. They have less energy for engaging in play, sport, music and other extra-curricular activities.

As you work your way through the separation, and in the years that you are co-parenting in the future, keep asking yourself “How can I manage this situation so that my child can focus on being a kid?”

Give them permission to keep loving the other parent

This one sounds obvious, but it can be trickier than you think.

Chances are that you have a bunch of negative feelings about your children’s other parent right now. The most basic step in achieving this goal is to not dump this stuff at your children’s door. Avoid bitching about the other parent to them, or within their hearing. And intervene to redirect the conversation if a friend or family member starts up a critical conversation around them.

But you want to go a step further than the basics and actually give them permission. You can do this directly. Have a conversation with them. Let them know that although things are tricky between you and their Mum/Dad, you know how much they love their Mum/Dad and that you’re pleased about that.

And then give them permission indirectly. Respond positively when they talk about their other parent. Tell them that you hope they have a lovely time when they go to spend time with their other parent. If it is not too triggering for you, let them have photos of their other parent in your home.

And if you have one of those golden moments when the hurt of separation recedes and you remember something positive about their other parent, share it with them. Let them see the genuine heartfelt admiration you have for that person who they love so much.

Create spaces where they can talk (if they want to)

You probably know already, from your own experience, that the feelings that come with separation are a roller-coaster ride. Some days you’re angry, some days you’re sad, some days you’re relieved.

Your kids are riding a roller coaster too, but not the same one as you. Which means that on any given day their feelings about the separation might be very different from yours. You can help them a lot by making it OK for them to show you whatever they are feeling. If and when they share with you, try to put your own stuff aside for a minute so that you can really listen to them.

It may be that your children won’t want to share this stuff with you. It might be they’re not the ‘share my feelings with my parents’ kind of kid to begin with. Or it might be that they want to talk to someone who isn’t a part of the separation. If there are good listener friends (or extended family members) who your children connect well with make a special effort to have these people in your children’s lives right now. Let their teachers or child-care workers know that you have separated so that there is not as much explaining to do for your child if they decide to open up to a carer in that space.

And if it looks like these informal supports aren’t a good match, or aren’t enough, there are lots of options for professional support for kids whose parents are separating. This link is a great starting point : https://www.familyrelationships.gov.au/parenting/services-children

Make sure you have support

Goals 1 to 3 have some big asks of you as a parent. Helping your kids through the separation is going to require you to put your own feelings aside, a lot. And that’s not easy to do if you’re trying to hold it together all by yourself.

Sometimes friends and family can provide you with the support you need, but they need to be good listeners, who know how to provide support without inflaming conflict. A lot of people seek professional support during a separation from counsellors, psychologists and divorce coaches.

Ultimately it’s like the oxygen mask on the aeroplane – you can only give your children the support they need if you’ve got enough air to breathe yourself.

If you’d like help making decisions about your children’s post-separation lives reach out to Liz Keogh at Keogh Mediation