Ron Thow gives advice on how to make parental separation work long-term for the children.
There is an incredibly important but obvious difference to reIationship breakups with childless couples. Like it or not you will have a link between you for the rest of your lives. Some people find this adjustment very hard to make, especially when the separation has been bitter or emotionally demanding.
Possibly the most important principle was one that a lawyer recently shared with me. He felt that there was too much emphasis on parents’ rights. Parents, he stated, had responsibilities — children had rights.
He made a lot of sense I thought.
Much of the core of Family Court disputes lies in parents settling scores between themselves, real or imagined. I would personally vouch for that.
Some of the most stressful situations I see at the Trust offices are those where one or both parents simply don’t want to find a workable situation.
Those who do consider the children’s needs as a priority to their own tend to find it easier to make compromises and find workable solutions With that in mind ,here are some practical suggestions for dealing with shared parenting/two household situations.
Children have rights; parents have responsibilities.
Letting both you and your ex’s parenting decisions be guided by this principle can keep you both on course to finding a working shared parenting arrangement.
Take a long-term view toward your child’s adjustment and your own.
A child in an emotionally supportive and loving environment is amazingly adaptable to new situations. Research suggests that it takes most children about a year to adjust to their new life.
Parents, however, often need more time than that before they feel more secure with their own new lives. Remember that your schedule is likely to be different to your child’s.
Make sure both parents stay involved in the child’s life.
Children may interpret lack of involvement as rejection. Often they think the parent who is not involved in their life loves them less.
Staying involved means more than just a visit every other weekend but also an involvement and interest in the child’s schoolwork, doctor appointments, outside activities, etc.
Do not feel overly guilty about the separation.
There is still a tendency for couples to ‘stay together for the children’ but research indicates that children tend to do better in a single-parent home or shared care arrangement which provide plenty of emotional warmth, caring and support than they do in a two-parent home characterised by a lot of conflict or emotional coldness.
So it may not be a good idea to stay together just for the sake of the children. Additionally, feeling guilty isn’t a productive mental state. If there are real sources of your guilt, try to resolve them.
Your children may also be feeling guilty – they can often blame themselves for the separation.
Make sure you communicate the reality of the situation with them (in an age- appropriate way, of course).
Don’t encourage unrealistic expectations for reconciliation.
Nearly all children hope or imagine that their parents will reunite and they will all live happily together again you may also have some feelings on this subject and feel that reconciliation is a possibility.
But to have this hope raised and then shattered may harm the child emotionally, so don’t lead your child to believe that getting back together with the other parent is an option, if you do not know if that is likely to happen.
Keep routines consistent as much as possible.
Since your child is already undergoing a major change in his/her family unit because of the separation, it is best to limit the number of additional changes in a child’s life.
Try to keep children in the same school and doing the same activities with the same friends.
This is especially important with access visits and time with the other parent – try to develop a workable schedule as early as possible and make changes only when you need to.
Do not abandon all attempts to impose limits on your child.
Many parents, especially those with limited contact, feel guilty about the effect of their separation on their children.
Sometimes they seek to ‘make it up’ to their children by treating them or missing out the unpleasant aspects of patenting like imposing rules and expectations.
But by setting consistent limits parents actually help ease a child’s adjustment to the separation. Normally when children live with two parents they are used to having rules and boundaries, so it is important for this to continue.
Keeping the same structure in place after a separation will tend to result in children feeling more secure and less like they are losing the world they understood.
Do not engage in one-upmanship with the other parent.
Following on from the previous point, guilt can often result in some parents trying to ‘make up’ for the separation by buying their child everything.
In some situations these gifts are designed to show up the other parent, consciously or unconsciously .This is also a potential issue when one household is significantly better off financially than the other. Children tend to learn very quickly how to play the game and play one parent against the other.
The long-term outcomes of this sort of situation can be very negative, so it is definitely a situation to avoid or to nip in the bud.
What your child really needs is attention, love and consistency, not the hottest toy of the season.
Some parents mistakenly believe that if the other parent is not current with Child Support payments, he/she should not be allowed to see the child but that is not fair.
Whatever the issues between you and your ex, real or imagined, you have responsibilities to your child to support the parenting relationship even when that can be very frustrating.
No-one is asking you to be a saint and forgive very real transgressions from your ex; just deal with those issues separately from the relationships that you both have with your child.
Studies show that parents who are denied access to their children are less likely to fully pay Child Support on time than parents who remain involved in their kids’ lives.
Parents need to put their child’s best interests first and not involve the child in disputes between the adults.
Ease the transition from one home to the other
No matter how much you and your ex try to keep your parenting styles consistent there will be differences and that is not a bad thing.
In order to ease the transition for the child at either the beginning or the end of a vsitation period, many parents will try to prepare the child for the transition an hour to an hour and a half before leaving one parent to go to the other.
Additionally, parents with limited contact should keep some of the child’s favourite books, toys and family photos around to help the child feel more comfortable.
A ‘settling-in’ period is often a very practical way to allow your child to transition. Even an hour or so of quiet time, TV, sport or reading can reduce the natural stress that can occur in the handover period.
If you and your ex have difficulty with the transition, try to find a workable compromise – consider using natural breaks in the day such as kindy, school or sports club visits, where on of you drops the child off and the other picks them up.
Do not repeatedly miss scheduled visits
If you have organised visits or supervised access then it is important that you don’t cancel unless it is unavoidable. These visits are important for children emotionally and developmentally.
If a parent repeatedly does not show up as planned it may make the child feel that he/she is not important.
These experiences can have negative outcomes in your child’s own relationships later in life and often it is also more difficult for you and your child to have a relationship if you repeatedly fail to keep promises.
This means that if you have to travel or have a busy work schedule you need to make achievable and realistic visiting times and supplement them with frequent phone calls, instant messenging or other forms of communication.
Protect your child’s childhood
A common and unfortunate mistake some parents make is to let their children hear too much. Bad-mouthing of the other parent to a child or sharing adult issues such as dating will often backfire and could prove to be devastating to your child.
Your child doesn’t need to hear what a ratbag your ex is, even if it is true. Your child simply doesn’t look at your ex in the same way that you do.
Do not introduce a new partner too quickly
In all probability a new relationship is not your first priority following a breakup. Sooner or later, however, the situation is likely to occur unless you are contemplating a life of monastic celebacy.
Typically children need even more quality time with their parents when new partners come onto the scene and setting aside some special one-on-one time without your new belle can make acceptance much easier.
Just as importantly, don’t let your thoughts of your ex and their new partner threaten you either.
It is unlikely that they are planning to cut you out of the parenting business, whatever fears you may have.
It can be tough if you don’t like the new partner but the best protection for all is to have established a good shared parenting relationship with your ex.
Don’t confuse your issues, real or imagined, with those of your child.
If you have valid concerns then you need to address them but otherwise you may need to take a big breath and bite your tongue from time to time.