Top Ten Ways to Protect Your Kids from the Fallout of a High Conflict Break-up
(By Joan B. Kelly, Ph.D.)
1. Talk to your children about your separation
Studies show that only 5 percent of parents actually sit down, explain to their children when a marriage is breaking up, and encourage the kids to ask questions. Nearly one quarter of parents say nothing, leaving their children in total confusion. Talk to your kids. Tell them, in very simple terms, what it all means to them and their lives. When parents do not explain what’s happening to their children, the kids feel anxious, upset and lonely and find it much harder to cope with the separation.
2. Be discreet
Recognize that your children love you both, and think of how to reorganize things in a way that respects their relationship with both parents. Don’t leave adversarial papers, filings and affidavits out on your kitchen counter for children to read. Don’t talk to your best friend, your mother or your lawyer on the phone about legal matters or your ex when the kids are in the next room.
They may hear you. Sometimes kids creep up to the door to listen. Even though they’re disturbed by conflict and meanness between their parents, kids are inevitably curious – and illequipped to understand these adult matters.
3. Act like grown-ups: keep your conflict away from the kids
People with personality disorders have chronic internal distress and/or ongoing impairment of social functioning in many settings. They are characterized by an inability to reflect on their own behavior and an inability to adapt their behavior to changing circumstances. This is part of who they are. There are at least ten different types of personality disorders.
4. Dad, stay in the picture
Long-term studies show that the more involved fathers are after separation and divorce, the better. Develop a child-centered parenting plan that allows a continuing and meaningful relationship with both parents. Where a good father-child relationship exists, kids grow into adolescence and young adulthood as well-adjusted as married-family children. High levels of appropriate father involvement are linked to better academic functioning in kids as well as better adjustment overall. That’s true at every age level and particularly in adolescents. Fathers, be more than a “fun” dad. Help with homework and projects, use appropriate discipline, and be emotionally available to talk about problems.
5. Mom, deal with anger appropriately
In their anger and pain, mothers may actively try to keep Dad out of the children’s lives – even when they are good fathers whom the children love. When you’re hurting, it’s easy to think you never want to see the ex again, and to convince yourself that’s also best for the kids. But children’s needs during separation are very different from their parents. Research reports children consistently saying, “Tell my dad I want to see him more. I want to see him for longer periods of time. Tell my mom to let me see my dad.”
6. Be a good parent
You can be forgiven for momentarily “losing it” in anger or grief, but not for long. Going through a separation is not a vacation from parenting -providing appropriate discipline, monitoring your children, maintaining your expectations about school, being emotionally available. Competent parenting has emerged as one of the most important protective factors in terms of children’s positive adjustment to separation.
7. Manage your own mental health
If feelings of depression, anxiety, or anger continue to overwhelm you, seek help. Even a few sessions of therapy can be enormously useful. Remember, your own mental health has an impact on your children.
8. Keep the people your children care about in their lives
Keep the people your children care about in their lives. Encourage your children to stay connected to your ex’s family and important friends. If possible, use the same babysitters or child-care. This stable network strengthens a child’s feeling that they are not alone in this world, but have a deep and powerful support system – an important factor in becoming a psychologically healthy adult.
9. Be thoughtful about your future love life
Ask yourself: must your children meet everyone you date? Take time, a lot of time, before you remarry or cohabit again. Young children in particular form attachments to your potential life partners and, if new relationships break up, loss after loss may lead to depression and lack of trust in children. And don’t expect your older kids to instantly love someone you’ve chosen – this person will have to earn their respect and affection.
10. Pay your child support
Even if you’re angry or access to your children is withheld, pay child support regularly. Children whose parents separate or divorce face much more economic instability than their married counterparts, even when support is paid. Don’t make the situation worse. In this as in all things, let your message to the kids be that you care so much about them that you will keep them separate, and safe, from any conflict. They will appreciate it as they get older.
The Family Mediation Resource Centre will be holding regular workshops to keep our community informed about important family mediation topics.
To view our upcoming workshops and register, head over to the workshops page.
Throughout our lives, we will all face adversity and confrontation, often simply because others disagree with our wishes, desires or opinions. These challenges can be as simple as what to watch on television or as complex as custody plans after a family undergoes a separation. No matter the issue, it is often helpful to a mutually beneficial resolution to understand why others are saying No, and how to turn that No into a Yes!
Many people feel that the only successful outcome of a negotiation is to get the other person to agree with everything that they are proposing to settle the matter. While this will certain leave one party happy, it will almost certainly cause resentment, frustration and dissatisfaction for the other party and may result in a repeat visit to the issue in the (near) future.
It is almost a given that some people will say No to a proposal as we are all somewhat conditioned to hearing No throughout our lives. No – you cannot have another cookie! No – you can’t stay out late on a school night! No – you can’t do your homework later! So, when we hear a No, it doesn’t always mean that the person who said No is convinced that is the correct response. It may be a conditioned response, especially in a new and confusing situation. The role of the mediator is to discover the true reason behind the response so that the core issue can be discussed. Sometimes, a No is simply automatic and may not have any conviction behind it. This is when everyone has to remain calm and not let emotions interfere. Instead of getting frustrated or upset, the path to agreement is to see the response of No as a step and not as the final decision. It is important to continue the discussion and to focus on the desired outcome, which is to find the best way to satisfy everyone’s objective. This is best accomplished by dispassionate discussions as to why each party feels that they are correct in their position, why they feel this way. One of the best methods of discovering this reason is to inquire as to the worst possible outcome of each decision, and then digging deeper as to why those fears exist. For example, if one parent feels reluctant to have the children stay with their ex-partner without supervision, it is important to determine what they fear will happen. Do they fear that the other parent will neglect the child’s needs or not care for the children according to their standard? And if so, what do they fear will be the outcome of this neglect? Will the children suffer any real physical or emotional harm, or will they be left to watch too much television? If real harm is feared, then the reluctance is justified and must be addressed, especially in regard to what has occurred in the past to introduce these fears. If the fear is that the children won’t be engaged and kept busy, then perhaps the resolution would be a schedule of expectations that each parent will respect and follow. Homework, hygiene and proper sleep and nutrition for children are usually a shared concern and one that may be easily resolved. If there are other underlying concerns, such as substance abuse or emotional manipulation, then the outcome may be complicated by these concerns. However, no resolution is possible without open and honest communication. Problems are usually easy to recognize – what makes the mediation process powerful is when both parents work together to both identify and offer possible solutions to turn those NO’s into YES’s!
– Jon Himelfarb, Father and Friend
Separation and divorce is a very scary and confusing time for children and they often do not have the communication tools that they require to let parents know what they are feeling or experiencing. The role of a parent is to educate and nurture their children to the best of their ability. However, the age of the children and the uncertainty that are feeling will have a huge impact on how they perceive the separation and how they understand the new family dynamic. There are many underlying emotions that the children will experience and parents may be excluded or unaware of the complexity of what their children feel or thinks. To help parents and children adjust to the family transitions, we have prepared some guidelines:
- Children will be better able to cope if their parents can be seen to share the responsibility for their welfare. So, telling them together about when and what is going to happen will show them that you can still be Mom and Dad even though you’re not together as a couple any more.
- While you want to be open and honest with the children, try to keep in mind what they can cope with at their different ages. They do not need to know every single detail about what has gone wrong, nor should they be involved in any conflict between you and your partner.
- Try to keep as normal a routine as possible going. When the routine has to change, introduce the changes as slowly as you can and talk them through with the children.
- Remind them that you will always be their parents even though you may not be a couple any longer
- Reassure them that it’s not their fault that you have decided to separate – this is between the two of you.
- Do everything you can to help yourselves adjust to your new situation, especially if you are the parent with primary residence. Children are very sensitive to their parents’ feelings and may see and be affected by a parent’s state of happiness or any lingering bitterness or animosity.
- Reassure them that you have decided to separate from each other but not from them; you are still their parents.
- Do not put the children in a position where they have to choose between the two of you. The children should never feel as if they have to choose sides, they should only feel that their parents love them unconditionally. Even a simple act such as asking a child to pass along a message or mentioning that financial or custody arrangements are interfering with a scheduled trip, may cause the children emotional distress.
- Always try and speak in a positive and encouraging manner about your ex-partner. Hearing a nasty comment about a parent will always cause a child to feel anger and distress, regardless of the source. Remember, the child is 50% you and 50% your ex-partner; denigrating your ex-partner is denigrating half of your child! That’s how your child will internalize it!
- Try and understand the situation from the child’s perspective. For example, your ex-partner may have a new romantic interest that your child will meet. While you may not approve of this new relationship, it is important not to send this message to the child. Your child may enjoy the attention and affection of your ex-partner’s new romantic interest and shouldn’t feel guilty or that they are betraying you because of this. Ultimately, your child will always grow and benefit from love, affection and encouragement and, while it may be difficult for you, keeping the child’s welfare in mind in this new dynamic is crucially important.
– Jon Himelfarb, Father and Friend