Every parent wants the best for their child. When parents are in harmony this goal is worked at together as a couple. However, when a couple is not getting along well, have stopped respecting each other and are in the process of separation or divorce, this could become the toughest goal to achieve as they themselves are so deeply disturbed. In their anguish, it can be challenging for them to keep the child’s wellness in mind all the time.
When a child knows that his parents are separating, he is worried about what is going to be his future. The world he has known is changing and he has no say in the matter. Sometimes he feels guilty or responsible for what is happening.
In this article, we explore how we can minimize the adverse impact of our failing relationship on our children. Just like each marriage is different, so is each separation. It is a painful experience for the whole family and every parent does their best to support their child and help them cope with this challenging situation. Here are some pointers that could help parents in making the situation less painful for the child:
1. Keeping the child’s relationship with each parent intact:
It is very hard for a child to be asked to choose between parents or take sides as a child loves both his parents.Avoid putting the child in this position. If he sees you communicating with civility with your partner, despite your differences he will learn that though people may have conflict there are ways of handling differences without vengeance.
Remaining connected even when angry:
Single parenting can be hard. You will need a place to vent, and it cannot be on children. Sometimes you may get very angry with your child and tell her to go live with the other parent. This can be scary for the child and lead to deep feelings of rejection. Keep in mind that this period is hard for the child too and hence she may be challenging you because she is going through so much turmoil. She needs your unconditional love right now
Maintaining the dignity of the other parent:
We might be angry and upset with our ex- partner, but children feel loyal to both parents and find it very hard to listen to one parent complain about the other. Allow your child to continue to love and respect the other parent. Find other adults with whom to share your troubles. In the same vein do not have discussions about these personal problems with guest or relatives in front of the children.
Being fair to each child (even if you have your own biases!):
At such times siblings really turn to each other and need that bond. Try not to separate them. If a situation arises where custody or responsibility is going to be divided then do involve the children in the process, share the difficulties and let them have a say in the decision (if they are old enough). Its very important that children feel equally welcomed and cared for by both parents. Any kind of favoritism will hurt them deeply.
Allowing them to be children:
Once there is a breakdown of the initial family structure, each parent does get lonely and may become overly dependent on the child for our happiness. Making a child feel responsible for the parent’s emotional wellbeing is too heavy a burden. Being in-charge of your own wellness models for children qualities such as strength, resilience and positive thinking.
Sheltering children from financial conflict:
Changes in the financial situation can be stressful for the parent since disputes about finances are common between separating couples. Partners may want to punish the other and make them suffer. In the bargain, the child may go through guilt or other big feelings. It helps to keep the best interests of the child in the forefront and make them feel secure by avoiding such discussions in their presence and reassuring them that their needs will be taken care of.
Not making the child bear the responsibility for the separation:
Sometimes sharp differences in the way each spouse wants to raise their child could lead to a divorce. It is traumatic for a child to be told “Most of our fights were because of you”. The child cannot be made to feel guilty for this choice. He might think ‘Maybe, if I wasn’t there my parents could’ve still been friends!’
Avoiding statements like “You’re just like your mother/father!”
When we say this as a reprimand the child is devastated as he knows that you obviously don’t like the other spouse (Isn't that why you are separating?). Be conscious of how deeply such statements could affect the child’s self-worth.
Separation is a troubling time for all in the family. Managing to hold one’s self and children during this period is hard. We may say or do things we regret as we are under so much stress. Reaching out for support to other trusted adults could help us in continuing to give our children the secure environment they need at this point of time.
Author: Shalini Modi is a trained Montessorian and part of the team at Parenting Matters, an organisation which empowers parents to build deeper connection in families.