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Children And Separation

By Stuart Birks

This advice sheet is used by Relationship Services for separating parents.

So you’ve separated. It is not an easy time for anyone. From your perspective, you know that things weren’t right, at least one of you decided it was over, and it’s time to start looking at options for the future.

This isn’t an end to your relationship with each other, though, especially if there are children involved. More realistically, you are redefining the relationship.

Your children will not see the separation in the same way as you. As adults, you have memories of the time before you got together, you recall your childhoods, your parents’ relationships, perhaps previous relationships you have been in.

What you do in the first few months and years after separation, with all their confusion, can have a big influence on the future. However short the time appears to you, it can seem like a very long time for a child.

How can you both do your best for your children? You could consider all or some of the following:

1. Can you give your children stability? In the confusion of a separation, children often look for reassurance that some things are not changing.

One aspect of this is “emotional stability”, knowing that you are both still there for them as parents, even if you are not living together. Are both of you acting in a way that tells them they haven’t lost one of you?

2. You are both parents to your children. Whatever your feelings about your ex-partner, your responsibilities as parents are not extinguished by the separation.

Your children’s needs don’t suddenly change. Ask yourselves if you are separating only from each other, or from your children also. You are ex-partners, but you are also parents. Can you continue to function and relate as parents, keeping the ex-partner stuff in a separate box?

3. The children’s families include not only you, their parents, but also their grandparents, aunts, uncles and others. They are all important. They add to the children’s sense of identity, and they can give support. Often when children lose contact with a parent, they end up with little or no contact with that parent’s family.

4. What you do now can affect the future. It is easy to harm the relationship between a child and a parent simply by not maintaining regular, close contact. With enough disruption, a relationship can even collapse, with the child not wanting to see the parent.

Once the damage is done, it can be very hard to repair. If this happens, it will be at a cost to all of you. How will you cope with family gatherings such as weddings and funerals, or other important events? Would half the children’s family not be invited? How will you explain this?

What about support for the children when they have families of their own? Will their children have relationships with all their grandparents (that includes you and your ex-partner)?

5. There is a lot of both of you in your children. They might take after you in looks, mannerisms, attitudes, and many other things. They can’t help that, and they might not want to. That puts a burden on each of you, though.

Whenever you express anger and dissatisfaction with your ex-partner, your children may well see it as criticism of them. Consider what your parents’ approval and support means to you. It can be very painful if you don’t get it. Your feelings about your children are just as important to them.

Your children need approval and support from you and from your ex-partner. Do you give them these? Do you allow your children to get them from your ex-partner, their other parent? They can find it hard if you run down your ex-partner, so you may have to work to avoid doing this.

6. These days we hear more about “parental responsibility” and “authoritative parenting”. Is it enough for a child and parent to have “access”? Some parents find the term demeaning. They want to be parents, and yet all they are allowed is a short time to play with their children.

It may not be enough for children either. Perhaps they need a parent who continues to be a real parent. Do you both work towards this? Are you both involved enough in the children’s lives to have that connection? Will you both know their activities, interests, teachers and friends? Will you discuss parenting issues? Will you support each other’s parenting decisions?

7. Children’s needs change as they grow. There are advantages from having two parents, even down to the time each has for the children and that two people can be in two places at the same time.

Children need other things also. As they grow, their interests change and grow. If you are both in close contact with your children, they can learn from both of you, and from other members of your families. They will have more people around to turn to. Even parenting itself changes as children grow.

Teenagers and pre-schoolers require very different things from their parents. As parents, you have a special relationship with your children, and both of you will need regular contact with the children to keep up with these changes.

8. Your children now have two homes. We hear a lot about “sole parent families”. When you both continue as active parents, the term does not fit.

It ignores one of the parents. When you both want your children to have two parents, you are not seeing yourselves in that way. Why not think of your children as “two home children”?

9. A word of caution. At present the Family Court, child support and benefit structures work on the sole-parent model. Views are changing, but it takes time for policy to reflect this.

As someone at the Office of the Commissioner for Children said, professionals might intervene in a family for a short time, but the parents are there forever. It is better for you and your children if you can resolve these matters in your own way.

If you both wish to do the best for your children, try to work through the present with the minimum of cost for the children, and plan for a positive long-term outcome.

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