In our list of tips to help parents minimise the effects of their separation on their children we have now reached tip three: making sure the arrangements are child centred. As we have suggested before this might sound obvious but it’s important that your arrangements take into account the different needs your children have.
Talking to your children is key in this. Sometimes parents worry about talking to their children following a separation: they worry that they might say the wrong thing, or be accused of saying something unhelpful about the other person. We often see parents who think their children are fine so they have said once or twice to their children “you know you can talk to me” and then left it at that. There needs to be ongoing dialogue during and after a separation so you know what your children are concerned about, what they think is going well, and what they may like to change in the future. This doesn’t have to be a ‘huge’ or serious or weighted discussion. It can just be a shared moment over cooking in the kitchen, or driving somewhere in the car. It can be a case of “are things OK for you?”. Or “can you tell me how you think things are going from your end – is there anything you feel would work better for you”. Often as adults we can get caught up in euphemisms and not be clear about what we’re saying. Adults can understand talking in code but children often don’t and it’s best to just be really clear about what you’re talking about. For example “I’m a bit worried you’re finding it hard to organise your stuff between two houses. Is there anything dad and I can do to help you with this?”. Or “I’ve noticed you’re upset when you come back from your mum’s house. Is there anything we can do to help with this?”.
The comments should be focused on how things can be made better or improved from the child’s perspective not apportioning blame on the other parent for anything that has happened as this is unlikely to encourage your child to be open. It may make them fearful that it will cause an argument with the other parent over what has happened and so not be willing to talk.
You know your children best and you know what they are likely to need from changing arrangements as a result of their parents’ separation. This may include a child who has autism who needs a very clear routine that they can easily understand about when they see each parent. They may also need certain key items to always travel with them or to have two of each item. Children may need certain things to be the same in each parent’s house. You may have a child who has important exams coming up. What arrangements will lessen the impact of any disruption on their revision schedule? In this situation you may make interim arrangements for the exam period with a view to changing them later? If you have very young children then they may need to see each parent often because face time or phone time won’t work for them and they need to see each parent regularly to maintain a close bond. You know your children best and you know what makes them happy, calm and relaxed and what sends them into a tizz, and your arrangements will need to reflect this.
If you are concerned about how your children are coping then consider using the services of an expert to help you focus in on what might be happening for your child can exist. This might include using a child psychologist to help, or a family therapist. You should also speak to your child’s school or nursery to see what changes they may have picked up on. They may be able to help and to direct you to any additional support that your child may be able to access at school or nursery.
Books such as Jack and Black Cat, or Mum and Dad Glue, can be a useful way of initiating discussion with children. Younger children may ‘puddle jump’ too, being very upset about the separation one minute and then distracted by a bird, or television programme that has caught their eye the next minute. It doesn’t mean they aren’t upset by what’s happening. It’s just how their minds and attention span works currently.
There is also a charity called Voices in the Middle that helps to support young people whose parents are separating.
If you do feel that things aren’t working well for your children then addressing this as soon as possible is usually helpful. This can be with an expert or through using a process like mediation to help you talk about what you can do for your children.
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