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Children and Separation/Divorce

Julia Pemberton

Registered Psychologist
Perth, Western Australia

It is easy for young children to believe that divorce is their fault. Provide age-appropriate reasons for your separation. Avoid discussing your anger or blame. This confuses and upsets them. Avoid putting down the other parent in front of your child. Remember your ex partner's good qualities may no longer be available to you, but it is likely they are still available to your child. Make sure children know they don't have to choose between parents and that both parents will always love them.

Children experience many different feelings during separation, including hurt, anger, sadness, loneliness, guilt, fear, confusion, disappointment and grief. Acknowledge their feelings ("I see you are sad") and help them find a way to express them. Children may not always have the words to talk about their feelings. You could encourage them to draw pictures or express them through play or reading stories together. Often they can relate to feeling "bad" ask them where in their body they feel this (eg upset tummy, butterflies, sore head). Let children know their feelings are natural and to be expected.

It can be hard to accept children's hurt and anger, especially when it is directed at you. Be patient. Dealing with separation is usually much newer to them than it is for you. It's natural for a child to miss the other parent when they are separated from them- even a parent who hasn't been overly involved or present. Children have a right to love each parent regardless of what has happened between the parents. Knowing that parents no longer each love each other is painful for a child and it's normal for children to hope they will reunite. Acknowledge their hopes but provide kind, straightforward responses to their questions.

Children can feel embarrassed and not want to talk about family breakdown with others. They may feel different to the other children and no longer see their family as 'normal' in a traditional sense. Help your child understand there are many types of 'normal' families and ask them about other children they may know whose parents are separated. Stress at home can affect children's ability to concentrate at school and it is important to inform their teacher of the changes.

Shared parenting can be challenging. Children need to know specific details about the time they will be spending with both of you, grandparents or pets. Let them know in advance who will be picking them up from school or daycare. Try to avoid last-minute changes in plans where possible. This can create anger, disappointment and loss of trust in your child as well as in the other parent. Weekly schedules and checklists can help keep everyone informed. Don't make children responsible for care arrangements or communicating changes to the other parent. Children feel more secure when parents take control of this and are less likely to feel in the middle or like 'messengers'.

Children may feel apprehensive sleeping in a new place, even with a familiar parent. Family routines, especially at bedtime, are important in times of change. Similar parenting styles and household rules are helpful but not critical to children's adjustment to separate homes. Children may wish to take some of their things between homes. It can be irritating when things go missing, but a favourite toy or item can help them feel more at home in both places.

Family breakdown can be difficult and painful, but separation itself does not damage children. How you handle your separation, however, can.

Julia Pemberton
Registered Psychologist
Email: juliap@postmaster.co.uk
Phone: 0407 772 410

Mt Lawley Counselling
13 Alvan Street Mt Lawley
Western Australia 6050

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