There are a number of ways that you can help your children feel more secure during family separation and some key things that you can think about to help them adjust to the changes.
Research has shown that the factors that can be most detrimental to children are:
Children develop a sense of themselves from the messages they receive from the world around them. These messages are reinforced by the relationship between their parents and the availability of both parents throughout their development. If a parent’s availability is interrupted or parents are in open conflict and demonstrating a lack of respect for each other, it makes it more difficult for children to identify positively with each parent and complete their psychological development.
Explain the situation
Children need to know what is happening in age appropriate language. Parents need to be straightforward and to the point but avoid simply saying that mum and dad no longer love each other as this can lead younger children to believe that the day may come when their parents no longer love them. Parents can use toys or pictures to help explain the changes to younger children.
Establish new routines
Separation inevitably brings disruption. In the early days, parents should avoid unnecessary changes. However, new routines should be established as soon as possible. Children need to know where they will be and when they will be there. Secure boundaries will help to keep children feeling secure. Picture charts can be used to help younger children understand.
Listen to children’s experiences
It’s vital that parents pay attention to their children’s experiences. Children are very adept at hiding their true feelings in order not to create more upset than there already is. Parents should gently offer children the chance to describe their feelings about the separation - even though it may be difficult for parents to listen to. Acknowledging children’s feelings will help them come to terms with changes and allowing children to cry will help in the healing process.
Children need reassurance that both of their parents still love them and care about them. They need to know that they were not responsible for their parents’ separation and that they can’t bring their parents back together.
Children must be free to have meaningful, relaxed and flexible relationships with both of their parents. Different post separation parenting arrangements will be more suitable in different situations but these should be based around children’s changing needs over time. Parents should try to establish good levels of communication and support each other’s parenting input.
However difficult the ending of a relationship has been, it is important that disputes are kept to a minimum and that any conflict is resolved away from the children. Parents do not need to stay friends after the separation but should aim to build a respectful business-like relationship that puts the needs of their children first.
Be consistent and reliable
Do what you say you are going to do when you say you are going to do it and be in a fit state to do it well.
Look after yourself
If you need to cry, do it after they have gone to bed. If you need to talk, find a friend or counsellor. If you are angry, find somewhere away from them to get it out. Make sure that you look after your own physical and emotional well being so that you can be there for your children.