5 tips and observations the impact parents separating can have on children

Anju Regis discusses with Renee Fedele, a Family Dispute Resolution (FDR) Mediator & Child Consultant, what she observes when parents are entrenched in the battlefield that a separation/divorce can be.

  1. When you see families in mediation, and children in child consultations, what are the common themes you have seen?

In the initial session/s, the norm is to see some of the more negative themes such as sadness, anger, hurt, mistrust and everyone being guarded. Sometime after however, these themes can change to acceptance and a readiness to move forward.

  1. Based on your many years of experience what are the common misconceptions of separation and children?

The biggest misconception is that separation, in and of itself, harms children. However, it is actually the ongoing parental conflict that is harmful and has lasting negative effects on children. Another common misconception I encounter regularly is that parents should shield their children from everything to do with the separation. Nothing is discussed, children’s questions are left unanswered as it’s ‘adult business’ and children are subsequently left feeling more overwhelmed and confused. This normally results in children developing their own ‘truths’ regarding the separation and having to make sense of an adult issue with their child’s mind, which is never effective.

  1. What 5 tips would you give to parents separating that will help break the trends you have observed?
  • Your children need an age-appropriate, child-focused and blame free explanation of the separation. This explanation can develop as your children do.
  • Your children hear everything, even things you don’t say. It is now well noted and accepted that verbally denigrating the other parent or questioning your children about the other parent are definitely to be avoided. However, children are also closely monitoring your non-verbal language, such as sighs at particular moments, possible eye rolls or a clenched jaw. Try to imagine a mirror in front of you when separation topics are raised so that you can see what your children do.
  • Your children may say and do things they think you want them to (e.g. I hate mum’s new partner, dad’s place is so boring); check your facts before acting! Children might also try playing their parents off each other to achieve their own desires. Be open and honest with your child’s other parent when it involves your child. You are both still a parenting team and need open communication to effectively raise your children.
  • Your children will benefit when your love for them overrides any of your ill feelings towards your ex-partner. How well your children cope with the separation depends on you. As much as you might not like having to do certain things, such as communicating with your ex-partner, tell yourself that you can live with doing it for the sake of your children. Separation is about reaching a balance between things that you want and things that you can live with for the sake of your children.
  • Your children don’t want to make decisions because that’s an adult job. However, your children don’t want to be completely excluded from the decision-making process either. Consult your children in an age-appropriate way and make it known to them that you and their other parent will ultimately be making all decisions, however, want to consider how they feel about certain issues in your decision-making process.
  1. What examples/How have you seen children react to their parent’s separation?

All children I see, no matter their age, initially react with sadness to their parents’ separation and may fantasize about their parents reconciling. Their sadness can manifest itself in different ways, particularly with teenagers, who tend to display their sadness through anger. It’s always useful for parents to remember that anger is unresolved hurt and to reinforce the finality of the separation so their children are not living with false hope.

Children are egocentric and may blame themselves for the separation. If they were better behaved perhaps their parents wouldn’t have fought so much and therefore separated. If their parents had more time to themselves, rather than having to be parents, perhaps they wouldn’t have been so frustrated and would have had a better relationship. Hence the importance of an age-appropriate, blame-free separation story to ease any confusion and to help children make sense of the separation effectively. Behavioural changes can also occur, such as withdrawal or acting out.

  1. Do you have any recommended reading that parents or kids can read about separation?

There is a plethora of reading now available to separating families. For parents, I recommend The Guide for Separated Parents: Putting Your Children First by Karen & Nick Woodall. Tip sheets are also effective reading for parents as they offer absorbable pieces of practical information that can be put into practice rather than having to read exhausting research papers (tip sheets are all based on research papers anyway!) Tip sheets are available at the Australian Government’s Family Relationships online or Anju Regis at the Separation Exchange

I always recommend that parents read the children’s recommended reading WITH their children as a joint exercise. If the child refuses, I suggest that parents at least read it first and make it known to the child that he/she had read it and is open to any discussions about it.

These are some of Renee’s recommended books for children:

Dinosaurs Divorce by Laurene Krasny Brown & Marc Brown

Mum & Dad Glue by Kes Gray

Was it the chocolate pudding? by Sandra Levins

Two Homes by Claire Masurel

Renée Fedele has worked in the FDR field for over 10 years, during which time she has supervised many trainee FDR practitioners. Renée is also a qualified Child Consultant and is able to supplement the FDR process by meeting with children of separation and providing parents with feedback and recommendations.