Parental Separation - What Can Be Done for the Children?

Split couple

There is no doubt that marriage breakdown is increasing steadily in Ireland.  In the IONA Institute study carried out in 2006, looking at the patterns of marriage breakdown and single parent families from 1986 to 2006.  The statistics showed that:

  • More that 200,000 adults had a broken marriage in 2006   
  • The number of marital breakdowns had increased by 20% since 1986   
  • There was an 80% increase in lone parent families since 1986   
  • 25% of children were reared in non-marital families in 2006

Based on the census carried out in Ireland in 2011, the number of divorced couples is increasing at a staggering rate.  I am sure that this is of no surprise to any of us but it is important to recognise that more and more children are living in homes that do not include both parents living together as a married couple.  This can often help both the parents and the children to realise that they are not alone or the ‘outcasts’ of society – it is just a fact of modern life and many families are in the same situation.

In response to our increasing marriage breakdown, the legal system has introduced family law changes to help couples to formalise their separation or divorce.  Support groups for separated and single parents a widely available.  There has also been an increase in Family Mediation services, where couples can attend and discuss their future apart supported by professional mediators who will help them to reach agreement on key issues (see for more information on mediation).  There are also many counsellors and other support services available to adults.

Sad boy parents arguing

But what about children when their parent’s separate?  There is no doubt that parental separation has a profound affect on children but who supports them?  There are a limited number of excellent services available such as TeenBetween and Rainbows but is it enough? In a study carried out in Trinity College in 2002, 60 children between the age of 8 and 17 who’s parents had separated in the previous 5 years, where interviewed about  how they felt and what the key issues were during and since their parent’s separation.  In terms of the feelings that children experienced, the highest feeling was that of sadness followed closely by worry about their parents, worry about the future, anger, surprise, guilt and many more emotions.  Very often all of the focus is placed on helping the parents through the separation by relatives and friends and the trauma being experienced by the children is not recognised and supported sufficiently.

As parents, we are the primary source of support for our children and we must acknowledge and support them throughout the separation and into the future.  While the parent’s marriage or relationship has ended, the parenting relationship will continue long into the future and so carefully managing our parent/child relationship is vital.  Your relationship as parents is trans-generational – there will be significant birthdays, graduations, weddings, grandchildren and so on into the future and it is better if parents can find a way to respect each other and allow the children to feel supported in their love for each parent.

Every step of the separation process needs to be carefully handled from how and when the children should be told, creating an effective and supportive parenting plan, respecting and encouraging them to love the other parent, respecting the other parents role and listening carefully to your child  so that you can understand and support them.

When telling children about the separation, it is important that you reassure them that it is not their fault and that while you as parents are separating from each other, you will always be their Mum/Dad and always love them.  They need to understand that they cannot fix the situation.  They should be encouraged to ask questions and as parents, you should make sure that you are available as much as possible, so that they can ask questions and talk about their feelings and concerns.

Pulling child apart

It is also important that you have answers to their questions about where they will live, when they will see each parent, who will take them to activities (e.g. if Mum or Dad usually brought them to a sporting activity, will that continue?).  It is essential when setting out the plan to try to keep change to a minimum for your child – the less change they have to cope with, the better.  One of the most common feelings a child experiences at this time (based on the Trinity study) is worry about their parents and their own future.  On that basis, try to reassure them about where each parent will live, how they can contact the non-resident parent when they want to, how and when they will get to spend time with each of you.  Children also often worry about finances so if you can, reassure them that you have worked all of details about money issues and they are not to worry.

Separation and the future living and access arrangements are a lot of facts for a child to digest so do reassure them that they can ask questions at any time.  If the child is young, it may be useful to help them to draw a chart with the times that they will spend with each parent.  For an older child, it may be as simple as filling out a calendar or helping them to put the arrangements into their phone diary.  Teenagers may use their school journal, iPhone or another method to lay out their arrangements but remember, for teenagers, they should be allowed to work the schedule out with you both and a lot of flexibility has to be allowed.

The role of the extended family cannot be emphasised enough!  Just because their parents are separating, this should not mean that the child will not get to see their grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins etc., as much as they used to.  Try to get the extended family involved in keeping in contact with the child and seeing them regularly.  If there is animosity in that the extended family do not want contact with your ‘ex’, then make sure that you ensure that you arrange for the child to see their extended family as often as they used to.  Be firm with your extended family about not criticising the other parent in front of the child or asking lots of questions about the other parent to find out ‘what they are up to’.  This could make the child feel very uncomfortable and take the pleasure out the visits.

It is also vitally important that you recognise and support your child’s right to love both parents.  Remember, this child belongs to both of you and is entitled to feel comfortable loving each of you.  If your parents had (or did) separated or divorced how would you feel if you heard one of them criticise the other parent?  Whether you agreed with the criticism or not, chances are that you would feel a bit guilty about listening to the criticism in the first place.  For that reason, don’t put your child in the same situation.  No matter how difficult it may be, you must each respect each other in front of your child. Be aware of how you speak to each other, what you say, your tone and also your body language – it is no use saying ‘oh your Dad was so nice to do that’ if you are turning your eyes up to heaven at the same time!  I recognise that this can be a bitter pill to swallow and very difficult if you are feeling emotional, angry, hurt etc but you must try do it for the sake of your child.

Pulling kid apart

Try to reassure your child as much as possible.  The future is not dark!  Be optimistic and upbeat as much as possible and talk to your child about other children living in the same situation.  There are many useful books and other material to help with this so do some research.  Also, brush up on your parenting skills!  You will need to feel confident as a parent and also know how to build a strong connection with your child to help you to support them.

What if the other parent won’t cooperate or follow the principles outlined in this article?  There is really nothing you can do in that situation but remember, you can still follow these tips.  By respecting the other parent and not criticising him/her, your child has a ‘safe place’ to go to if they need to talk about how they feel.  It is ideal if both of you commit to supporting in child in these ways but even if one of you can do this, it will be of invaluable support to your child.

On a final note, realise that you are not Superman or Superwoman.  You cannot keep everything exactly as it used to be as you don’t have two people to run the house anymore.  So don’t be hard on yourself, if the grass is getting long or the house isn’t spick and span, then get some help or simply don’t worry about it.  Make sure that you get support for yourself by minding your health and getting time out with friends to talk through your feelings or simply relax and enjoy yourself.  You may feel like you shouldn’t ask for help but think about it – if your friend or relative was going through the same situation, would you prefer them to ask you for help?  Chances are you would be happy to help them so it is highly likely that they are happy to help you!

Martina Newe is a Director of Help Me To Parent who run many parenting support courses including a one day workshop for parents entitled  “Parenting After Separation or Divorce”. See for details and booking facilities. 

She is qualified Parents Plus Programme FacilitatorParenting Coach and also an Accredited Family Mediator  and a Certified Member of The Mediators Institute of Ireland see for details.