A divorce or separation is hard enough but as any parent knows, when kids are involved the needs and feelings of the two broken-hearted grown-ups come second to those of the broken-hearted kids. And they will be broken hearted.
That doesn’t mean a separation shouldn’t happen. When a relationship has run its course, chances are the kids will feel the tension or perhaps the fading of one or both of you – and that’s not good for anyone. Perhaps the decision is out of your hands, but as hard as it is to hold on through the wreckage, you will get through and come out the other side. That’s a given.
Chances are if there’s trouble and you’re the one reading this, you’re not the one who needs to be. Keep reading though. At the very least tweak what you can, take comfort that you’re on the right track and send the link in the direction it needs to sail with a non-told-you-so-message, ‘… Because the kids deserve two brilliant parents’ (or something like that.)
Here’s what you can do to make a difference:
Minimise what you give them to cope with.
Kids are resilient. Just like grown-ups. But in the same way a break-up can bring those resilient grown-ups to their knees, it can do the same to those resilient children. Resilient doesn’t mean bullet-proof. Separations are awful for everyone – resilience doesn’t change that. Kids will be confused, scared, angry and broken-hearted. How long they stay that way depends entirely on how the two grown-ups deal with it. Kids will cope with the day to day changes. Any emotional wreckage they’re drawn into will fall them.
Don’t lean on them for support.
Kids need to know you’re the lamplight, the ladder and the leaning post for them and that you’re stable – even if you aren’t, which for periods you won’t be. You’re human and you’re real and it’s perfectly okay and completely normal for you to cry, complain and fall part – so go for it – just do it to anyone but them. Be their support and their comfort. Be the one they can cry to, complain to and fall apart in front of but don’t ask them to be that for you. This idea is beautifully articulated in a theory welded together by Susan Silk. It’s a brilliant theory – applies to everything – and if you’re interested you can read about it here.
If you’ve met someone else you want to be with, leave your relationship first.
It happens and it’s not for anyone else to judge who you fall in love with and the timing of that. What you will be judged on is the way you treat the person you’re with on the way out. Be respectful and leave the old relationship before starting a new one. This is important. You’ll be co-parents forever and you’ll want him or her on side as much as possible. You want to minimise the conflict for the sake of the children. Nothing will fire conflict more than starting a relationship while you’re still in one, or while the other person you’re still with has every reason to believe in and expect your loyalty. Respect your ex on the way out. It’s important for all of you.
Love your kids more than you want to hate your partner.
This. Is. Critical. Say what you want about your partner but never ever say it in front of the kids. Similarly, don’t play games by getting at your partner by withholding the kids. You will pay the price. There’s an abundance of research showing the devastating effects on children when one parent undermines the bond between the child and the other parent. The research also clearly shows how parents who denigrate the other or act to undermine the relationship between the child and the other parent have less close relationships with their children than parents who don’t do this. Imagine what it would be like for you if somebody said things to you about your kids. Then imagine how you would feel if you weren’t able to tell them to stop. Get it?
Denigration by one parent of another parent is associated with less close parent-child relationships, especially with the parent who is doing the trash talking.
Whatever you say or do to their other parent, you may as well be doing to your kids. They’ll feel it just as surely as if you were. You probably would have fought with warrior daring once to protect your now-ex from slap talk. Your kids will feel the same. You can find another partner. They only have one mum and one dad. Don’t take that person away. Undermine their relationship and you will pay a hefty price. Fullstop.
If you’re the parent who is struggling to hold things together in the face of a trash-talking, interfering ex, hold steady.
Kids don’t stay kids forever and they will – without a doubt – see the truth one day. I know it doesn’t feel like it when you’re going through it but the parent who continues to love their children enough to respect their relationship with the other parent will come out closer to their children than the other parent. Not that it’s a competition, but it is a fact.
‘But what about me?’
When their world is turned upside down they’ll need a ton of reassurance that they’ll be okay. Explain how things will work. Have this worked out as soon as you can to give them the stability they need. Let them know where they’ll be living, who they’ll be living with and what the separation means for their relationship with the other parent.
Be patient with your ex if they’re struggling to be without you.
It’s perfectly understandable, and perfectly likely that in a separation at least one person will at some point, feel on the brink. Remember that your children are directly impacted by the well being of your ex-partner. If your ex-partner is struggling, be empathic and compassionate. That doesn’t mean you have to be the target of nonsense behaviour. You don’t. But if you were the one who left, remember the person who is driving you crazy with their lack of reasonable behavior is devastated to have lost you. Be patient until they find their way out of it.
Divorce or separation is NOT failure.
People come into our lives to teach us or to learn from us. That doesn’t mean the learnings take a lifetime to unfold. If at some point, the growing stopped being together and started being apart, that does not mean your relationship wasn’t beautiful, important or exactly where you needed to be when you were in it. What it means is that it has given you all it needed to. Don’t stay for longer than you have to just because once upon a time, a long time ago, you said you would. If you’re the one holding on, let go – you deserve more than to be with someone who wants to be somewhere else.
There’s no reason kids won’t come through the other side of a separation safely and soundly, but this depends on how their parents deal with the fallout. Claiming that it all hinges on this one thing is not overplaying it by any means. The children will adjust eventually, provided the adults don’t draw them into a dirty heaving mess.
In the stormy sea of a separation, the only way through is straight through the middle. Nothing will make it easy or leave you keen to repeat the experience, but there are things that will make navigating through the rough waters easier.
Stabilising the ground while you’re falling on your knees towards it is a heroic effort. But that’s what parents are aren’t they. Heroes.
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