Adapted from work by Jennifer McIntosh, Ph.D., North Carlton, Victoria, Australia
1. Parents have a large influence on children’s separation outcomes
To a great extent, your child’s outcomes after separation are in your hands. That’s the good news and the challenging news as well. The way you go about your life will make a difference to your children’s ability to cope with the family separation as well as their long term well-being.
2. Warmth, availability and emotional safety
It’s important during and following separation for parents to be available and responsive to their children. That means warm, real time parenting, and not good time over-compensating. Let your children know you are willing to hear about all of their feelings, not just the ones that feel good or seem fair.
3. Doing the emotional work
Being available to your children means clearing a space in your own mind for thinking clearly about them. Sadness, anger or confusion are normal and necessary emotions for children as well as their parents after divorce. Adjustment and working through them is what matters.
4. Keeping it predictable
Just like before separation, infants and children need the same predictability, routines and practical and emotional support from Mum and Dad. They need parents to stay attuned and be responsive to their needs. Make sure your parenting arrangements enable this to happen.
5. Cleaning up the conflict
Parents may take a while to sort through the conflict that came with the separation. Get all the support you need to sort it through, as early as possible by getting early legal advice and possibly working with a mediator. While you are in the thick of parenting decisions and settlements, your children shouldn’t be. Reassure them you are working together to resolve things.
6. Separating your spouse, not your child’s other parent
Building a working relationship with your ex-partner is crucial to your child’s emotional security after separation. That doesn’t mean being best friends, but it does mean agreeing on how to communicate safely and effectively about your child’s needs.
7. Don’t drag it out
The longer parents’ take to build a working relationship and resolve their disputes, the more energy a child has to use to cope with strain and stress in the family. This can drain a child of energy. They need to get on with their normal development: learning, building their identity and esteem, having good friendships, and achieving their goals.
8. Legal advice versus legal action
Many parents benefit from the advice of lawyers, to inform them about their rights and responsibilities in making parenting plans and resolving financial settlements. Be aware that getting legal advice is very different from going to court which is only necessary for a small number of people. Research shows that going to court can do further and long term damage to your relationship with the other parent. Do get legal advice, but try to avoid going to court.
9. Letting your children have a safe voice
Research also shows that it can be good for everyone if children are given safe opportunities, free from loyalty burdens, to express how things are for them and for their parents to better understand that. This is very different from asking children to make decisions which is never a good idea.
10. Permission and support for safe relationships with both parents
Despite the acrimony that many parents feel for each other during the divorce process, most children want to keep their relationship with each parent and need support to do that. Loyalty conflicts are common when children see and feel a lack of respect and co-operation between their parents. Worse still is the child who survives emotionally by distancing one parent in order to maintain a relationship with the other. Effective management your emotions is vital for your children’s well-being, especially their need to preserve supportive relationships with both of their parents.