This is our third in our series of blogs focusing on keeping children out of conflict. We have already talked about what it means not to argue in front of your children, and what to do when you really aren’t on the same page
In this blog we are talking about how can you know how your children really feel? When we first meet with a client one of the questions we ask fairly early on is whether they’ve noticed some changes in their children’s behaviours and how they feel their children are coping (if they are aware of the separation between their parents). We also separate out children to talk about them individually as it is likely that children, as different people, will not all react the same as their siblings. Sometimes people say that they are fine or that they do not seem any different.
It can of course be the case that, particularly older children, may have had an inkling that their parents might separate. They may have witnessed that you were not getting on or understood that you were leading separate lives. Many children will have friends or cousins whose parents have separated and so they may well be familiar with the concept and have been alive to this possibility. This doesn’t mean that they still aren’t going to worry about what it will mean for them and grieve the loss of their parents living together and you being a family unit under the same roof.
It may also come as a big shock to some children. They may have been unaware of the difficulties if you had kept them away from them – or even if they had picked up on things they may have simply thought this was a normal part of life and relationships. They may also feel numb and be unaware of exactly how they’re feeling. They may take time to process the decision you’ve made and it may be that they experience different emotions as they start to come to terms with the changes to their family. There is no right or usual way for children to react and you may experience tears, anger, resentment, withdrawal, out of character behaviour – maybe all in the same day!
It’s important to see this as an ongoing process and one that you will need to monitor carefully over the coming months or even years rather than as the immediate aftermath of explaining that you are going to separate. Keeping an eye on how your children are will mean you are best equipped to react if you feel they are problems.
Our top key tip from this blog is talking. Talk to your children – together and individually – about how they are and if they have any questions. It can also help to talk to the other parent. There may be some things they feel more comfortable discussing with the other parent or it may just be that that parent was there at the moment lots of things came out and they opened up about how they felt. It’s important to share the information with the other parent so that they know what’s going on too. Share the information in a factual way explaining what was said. It may help to share your ideas on what you think should happen next but if this is likely to cause difficulties it may be sensible to simply share the facts at this stage. It’s important not to add blame to what is being said or to make the other parent responsible for any upset your children are experiencing. It is much easier to work together when you create a dialogue between you where you can share information about your children. If you feel disinclined to share information ask yourself how you’d feel if the other parent withheld the contents of that conversation from you.
Keep in regular contact with any other caregivers in your children’s lives too. Their teachers or nursery staff should be aware of what is happening so they too can keep an eye out for any behaviour that is out of character. It can also be helpful to ask grandparents or other close relatives or friends to keep an eye out too. Remind them not to express any negative opinions about the child’s other parent to the child. Sometimes children prefer to talk to someone that is not their parent. The friend or relative may not want to completely share what was said but it can be helpful if you know they are talking to someone.
If your child is of an age where they access the internet or social media independently then it can also be helpful to keep a close eye on this. You may get a heads up about what’s going on if you are aware of what they are searching for online. If they are struggling and turning to online escapism then it can be helpful to know where they are spending their time so you can check if it’s safe and age appropriate.
If you’re worried then talking to your child’s teacher can be a useful next step. They are a professional working with children your child’s age every day and so they may be able to guide you on whether what you feel is happening is likely to be a cause for concern. They may also be able to direct you to other resources or professionals your child can access within their educational establishment that may help. Your GP can also be a useful source of information. The Voices in the Middle website is also useful too together with the CAFCASS site.
If you’d like to see more of our top tips and guidance on all matters related to life after separation then please join our mailing lists for separating couples, or for professionals working with separating couples.
To watch the Facebook Live discussing this topic in more depth and the initiative Family Mediation Week have a look at the video below.