Upon separation or divorce, both parents need to be a vital part of their children's lives. A child is entitled to ongoing care and attention from both parents. You must show your children that there are two parents who love them -- even though those parents cannot live together.
During the separation process, everyone involved feels many different emotions. The way parents feel about themselves can affect how their children feel about themselves. The way you cope with your separation will largely decide how your children cope with it.
How might my children react to the separation or divorce?
All children will react in some way to this major change in their lives and their feelings are often similar to your own. The following are common reactions that children may experience:
- Relief that a bad situation is finally over and that the house is peaceful again.
- Sadness and grief, which can be expressed in many ways such as depression and tears, sleeplessness, loss of appetite, defiance or other behaviour. Remember, a child's difficult behaviour may not be an attempt to anger or provoke you.
- Anger at one parent for leaving, at one for driving the other away and at both for separating.
- Feeling rejected, let down and unloved. Children often feel that one parent is leaving them instead of realizing that their parent is only leaving the other parent. Children may think they are not lovable and that all people close to them will reject them.
- Fear that the other parent will leave too.
- Guilt over the belief that they somehow caused their parents to separate.
A child can express feelings in many ways other than words, such as:
- a return to bed wetting, thumb sucking or babbling for infants or toddlers;
- disobedience, attention-seeking and a refusal to be left alone; or
- expressions of anger by adolescents toward one or both parents for the loss of direction and security and for the pain they have caused.
How can I help my child deal with these feelings and reactions?
It is important to remember that difficult or unusual behaviour may be temporary. It may be the only way for children to express themselves. They need to know they are not losing either parent or other important people in their lives, such as grandparents, aunts, uncles or cousins.
Points for parents to keep in mind:
- children can recover fairly quickly from a separation if it is properly handled;
- a safe, peaceful single-parent home is less harmful than a disruptive home with two troubled parents;
- growing up is always a struggle and some of the child's behaviour may not be related to the separation or divorce;
- no matter what, children will be saddened by the separation and must be allowed to grieve; and
- when parents stay consistent throughout the process, children adjust more quickly.
How should I tell my children about the separation? How can I help them handle it?
It is best if parents together can talk to all the children at once about the separation. It is important you are honest with the children. Communication is crucial at this time.
When you tell your children about the separation or divorce, you should discuss:
- the fact that you and your spouse have decided not to live together anymore because you are unhappy together;
- where the children will live and how much contact they will have with the other parent; and
- how their lives will change and how they will not.
Points to keep in mind:
- Be certain about your plans to separate before you announce them to the children.
- Don't burden them with details they can't understand or handle emotionally.
- Encourage the children to ask questions and talk about their feelings.
- Make it clear to them that your care and love will not stop.
- Assure and reassure the children that they are in no way to blame for the separation.
- Try not to blame one parent. This can cause the children pain and can make them choose sides.
- Carrying anger and bitterness toward your former spouse can harm the children more than the separation or divorce itself.
Remember, if you and your spouse can live more happily separately, your children are more likely to be happy. It is very important to remember that while you may not like your partner as a spouse, your children may be very happy with that person as a parent.
- Try to co-operate as parents. Don't make children weapons in marital disputes.
- Be as consistent as possible. Keep the routine the same in both homes regarding bedtimes, meals, visits with friends or relatives and discipline. This reassures children they are being well cared for. Children need consistency and stability.
No matter how you try to help, children may respond with tears, silence or denial. You may have to repeat yourself at different times and in different ways to help your children understand. Children may not ask questions but that doesn't mean they aren't worrying about what is happening.
What feelings can I expect to experience?
You need to recognize and deal with your own feelings. Your children depend on you and you must care for yourself before you can properly care for them. Separation and divorce are emotional processes requiring many changes in a person's life. Most people experience emotions as they adjust. Feelings of anger, shame, depression and revenge are common. However, different ways of coping are natural, too.
- Some people suffer most of the pain before the actual separation. Others suffer most of the pain afterwards.
- The time for adjustment varies according to personal circumstances, length of the relationship and support available.
- Although progress may be made, temporary setbacks are normal.
- Some people may feel more fulfilled after the separation. Others continue to feel the loss but learn to find satisfaction in other parts of their lives.
- The family has to reorganize and restructure itself. Everyone must relate to each other in new ways.
- Read about the issues that concern you. Try to attend educational meetings and support groups. Discuss your feelings with a pastor or counsellor.
Stages of emotional adjustment to separation or divorce
Generally, there are three stages of emotional adjustment in separation and divorce: shock, healing and taking a new direction.
In this stage you may feel numbness, severe pain, happiness, confusion or all of these together.
You may experience:
- disbelief or denial that this is happening;
- feelings of rejection, shame and failure;
- doubts that you can make it alone;
- restlessness and a need to be around people -- or a need to avoid people;
- a need to constantly analyse what might have gone wrong;
- concern over the children's pain, but feel helpless to resolve it;
- confusion and fear of the future;
- worry over what others might think;
- anger at your spouse, yourself and the circumstances; and
- guilt for putting your children in this position.
During this stage you must take care of your physical and emotional needs. Talk to a friend or relative. You and your children should feel free to grieve. Put decisions that have to be made in order of importance.
- Things are settling down and there is a return to some routine.
- New or previously unused skills are being learned or used.
- You are ready to make decisions about your children, finances, career and living arrangements.
- You think about your relationship other than the marital relationship.
- Your children's needs are easier to deal with and your relationship with them is changing.
- Your own identity is becoming clearer.
It is common at this stage, even with your growing satisfaction, to feel uncertain and uncomfortable as things change around you.
- Do not make uninformed decisions.
- Avoid rushing into another exclusive relationship.
- Join support or discussion groups and reach out to new people.
- Take time for yourself.
- Focus on the positive.
- Open up communication with your children. They will have to go through many changes in their lives so do not rely on them for comfort and support.
Now that changes are being made you may start to feel more sure of yourself and of being on your own.
- You concentrate more on yourself and do not depend on others as much.
- You have good relationships with others.
- Your past relationship causes you less concern and you feel you have learned from it.
- You have less ill-will toward your ex-spouse.
- You co-operate in parenting with the other parent and your extended family, with your children's best interests in mind.
- You are more confident and self-sufficient.
The odd "down" period may lie ahead. Remember, it is natural for this process to take months or even years following separation or divorce.
What should be considered regarding custody and access?
A child's parents are usually best able to decide who a child should live with and what contact there should be with each parent.
- It is in the child's best interest that both parents be involved in his or her life. Both parents should take part in important matters like discipline, activities, school, health, and dealing with joy and grief.
- The federal government's Child Support Guidelines, in effect since May 1, 1997, apply to any relationship ending in separation or divorce that involve a child or children.
- It is best if parents can agree on custody of and access to their children.
- The best custody choice for infants may be the parent with the most time and contact with the child.
- With school-age children, spending every weekend with the non-custodial parent is not advisable. Each parent should be able to enjoy leisure time with the children.
- Teenagers should be allowed some choice and flexibility regarding custody and access.
- Try to keep a routine in the visits. Make them as frequent and natural as possible.
- Never use the children's visits to check up on the other parent. This makes the visit uncomfortable for the child. Children may believe if they do something to please one parent, they will be rejected by the other. They may feel they have already lost one parent and fear losing the other.
- Do not argue over visits. This can cause the children to feel guilt or be used by them to play one parent against the other.
- If one parent remarries or enters into a new relationship, the children will adjust more easily if the other parent accepts it.
- Parents should always show respect for one another in front of their children.
Should we seek counselling?
Asking for help is not a sign of weakness. It is a sign of strength and courage. People who seek help are better able to solve their problems. Counsellors provide guidance and direction to help you find solutions.
Advice from friends and relatives may not always be good advice. These people are not professionals and have usually already sided with one of the parents. Professional counsellors can give you a better understanding of what is happening to you and your children and reassure you that your reactions and feelings are normal. With this knowledge, you can better deal with your concerns, issues and problems.
Family Justice Services may be able to refer you to individual, couple and family counselling. Workers there can also refer you to education seminars, Dispute Resolution Office and other services to meet your children's needs. Call the toll-free number 1-877-964-5501 or 1-888-218-2822.