There is no doubt that marriage breakdown is increasing steadily in Ireland. In the IONA Institute study carried out in 2006, looking at the patterns of marriage breakdown and single parent families from 1986 to 2006. The statistics showed that:
When telling children about the separation, it is important that you reassure them that it is not their fault and that while you as parents are separating from each other, you will always be their Mum/Dad and always love them. They need to understand that they cannot fix the situation. They should be encouraged to ask questions and as parents, you should make sure that you are available as much as possible, so that they can ask questions and talk about their feelings and concerns.
It is also important that you have answers to their questions about where they will live, when they will see each parent, who will take them to activities (e.g. if Mum or Dad usually brought them to a sporting activity, will that continue?). It is essential when setting out the plan to try to keep change to a minimum for your child – the less change they have to cope with, the better.
One of the most common feelings a child experiences at this time (based on the Trinity study) is worry about their parents and their own future. On that basis, try to reassure them about where each parent will live, how they can contact the non-resident parent when they want to, how and when they will get to spend time with each of you. Children also often worry about finances so if you can, reassure them that you have worked all of details about money issues and they are not to worry.
Separation and the future living and access arrangements are a lot of facts for a child to digest so do reassure them that they can ask questions at any time. If the child is young, it may be useful to help them to draw a chart with the times that they will spend with each parent. For an older child, it may be as simple as filling out a calendar or helping them to put the arrangements into their phone diary. Teenagers may use their school journal, iPhone or another method to lay out their arrangements but remember, for teenagers, they should be allowed to work the schedule out with you both and a lot of flexibility has to be allowed.
The role of the extended family cannot be emphasised enough! Just because their parents are separating, this should not mean that the child will not get to see their grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins etc., as much as they used to. Try to get the extended family involved in keeping in contact with the child and seeing them regularly. If there is animosity in that the extended family do not want contact with your ‘ex’, then make sure that you ensure that you arrange for the child to see their extended family as often as they used to. Be firm with your extended family about not criticising the other parent in front of the child or asking lots of questions about the other parent to find out ‘what they are up to’. This could make the child feel very uncomfortable and take the pleasure out the visits.
It is also vitally important that you recognise and support your child’s right to love both parents. Remember, this child belongs to both of you and is entitled to feel comfortable loving each of you. If your parents had (or did) separated or divorced how would you feel if you heard one of them criticise the other parent? Whether you agreed with the criticism or not, chances are that you would feel a bit guilty about listening to the criticism in the first place. For that reason, don’t put your child in the same situation. No matter how difficult it may be, you must each respect each other in front of your child. Be aware of how you speak to each other, what you say, your tone and also your body language – it is no use saying ‘oh your Dad was so nice to do that’ if you are turning your eyes up to heaven at the same time! I recognise that this can be a bitter pill to swallow and very difficult if you are feeling emotional, angry, hurt etc but you must try do it for the sake of your child.
Try to reassure your child as much as possible. The future is not dark! Be optimistic and upbeat as much as possible and talk to your child about other children living in the same situation. There are many useful books and other material to help with this so do some research. Also, brush up on your parenting skills! You will need to feel confident as a parent and also know how to build a strong connection with your child to help you to support them.
What if the other parent won’t cooperate or follow the principles outlined in this article?
There is really nothing you can do in that situation but remember, you can still follow these tips. By respecting the other parent and not criticising him/her, your child has a ‘safe place’ to go to if they need to talk about how they feel. It is ideal if both of you commit to supporting in child in these ways but even if one of you can do this, it will be of invaluable support to your child.
On a final note, realise that you are not Superman or Superwoman. You cannot keep everything exactly as it used to be as you don’t have two people to run the house anymore. So don’t be hard on yourself, if the grass is getting long or the house isn’t spick and span, then get some help or simply don’t worry about it. Make sure that you get support for yourself by minding your health and getting time out with friends to talk through your feelings or simply relax and enjoy yourself. You may feel like you shouldn’t ask for help but think about it – if your friend or relative was going through the same situation, would you prefer them to ask you for help? Chances are you would be happy to help them so chances are that they are happy to help you.
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