Post-separation parenting – how to make it work

The impact of separation on children

Separation is very difficult for parents. It is even harder for children.

Psychologists say that the impact of separation for spouses is similar to the death of a loved one. Spouses will mourn their lost relationship and planned future. They will experience a range of emotions – shock, denial, fear, depression, anger, sadness and finally acceptance.

It is common for parents to separate at different speeds. In 75% of family breakdown, one party does not want to separate. The initiating spouse may spend up to three years thinking about separating before taking steps to do so. It can take over two years following the physical separation for the other spouse to accept the separation, and for both to resolve issues about money and property. This is a long time for parents. It seems an even longer time to children given their shorter lives.

Children are just as hurt and vulnerable at separation as their parents. They need extra love and support at a time when their parents are least able to provide it. A huge number of changes occur for children about which they have little understanding and no control.

Research reports that most children are not adequately informed by parents about the separation. In an Australian study, 25% of children reported no one talked to them about the separation, and only 5% said they were given a full explanation. Children can be confused when given different explanations by each parent.

Most children can cope with the separation if handled sensitively. The greater problem for children is high conflict between their parents. High conflict is a bigger problem for children than the amount of time they spend with each parent (which is more typically a concern of parents). Moving between two households in dispute can be extremely difficult. Children struggle to adapt their behaviour in each household in order to cope and please each parent. It is common for children to say different things to each parent (what the child thinks the parent wants to hear) in order to please them. They can become preoccupied with surviving in an emotionally volatile environment – rather than being children and focusing their time on studies, sports, friendships etc. Children can interpret parental unhappiness over children’s living arrangements as being their own fault. Internally, children may process the dispute as “Mum and dad are unhappy and angry about the time I spend with them, they are unhappy and angry about me, I must therefore be to blame for them being angry and unhappy, I must be bad”.

Some problematic behaviour can include:

  • Children trying to be perfect, and not wanting to cause their parents more distress. In some cases, roles are reversed and the child looks after the needs of the parent.
  • Acting up to get attention from their parents who are distracted by their own problems.
  • When each parent has entrenched antagonistic views of the other, a child may become aligned with one parent to reduce their own confusion and frustration and avoid movements between warring homes.

Most children experience confusion and dissatisfaction with post separation living arrangements. After all, they are the ones suffering the inconvenience of having to regularly move between houses and spend less time with each parent than before separation. A lack of complaint from children about these things may be a problem in itself as it suggests they are reluctant to express their own needs and are overly concerned about their parents.

Common reactions of children to parental conflict can vary according to age and gender:

  • The younger the child, the greater the short term impact. Infants and toddlers cannot comprehend what has happened and can experience problems with bonding and attachment with each separated parent.
  • 5 year olds do not readily conceptualise parents as having any other roles than as their parent – they think their parent’s emotions and behaviour is about them and they self-blame.
  • 5 to 8 year olds can try to distract parents from fighting by misbehaving themselves.
  • 8 to 12 years olds might think about or actually try to intervene.
  • Older adolescents are more likely to avoid conflict by absenting themselves and spending more time away from home. This can lead to risk taking behaviour.
  • Boys are more likely to tend to experience a higher level of threat from parental disputes whilst girls self-blame.

Successful post separation parenting – some suggestions

  • Avoid conflict

Work out issues with your ex about money and parenting arrangements. Do not be fixated about how many nights the children are with each of you. Parents count nights – not children. What kids are most commonly reported as wanting is no conflict.

  • Tell the children the same story as the other parent

This means having to discuss, negotiate, compromise and agree on arrangements with the other parent. This takes careful communication – see our page on Effective Communication. Mediation can help you reach wise agreements.

  • Develop a strong parental alliance

Children do not just have a relationship with each individual parent. They also have a relationship with the relationship between their parents. The better and more cooperative the relationship between the parents, the happier the child will be and the better the relationship the child will have with each parent.

  • Get happy (both of you)!

Happy relaxed parents make for happy relaxed children. It is in the best interests of you and your children that the other parent is happy.

  • Do not denigrate the other parent

Children identify with both parents. They interpret parents criticising the other as criticism of themselves. Denigration can be subtler than straight out abuse. It can be comments like “S/he left us …s/he does not love us”. Make a clear distinction between your feelings for the other parent and how the children feel for them. Your children’s needs and feelings for the other parent will be quite different to yours.

  • Do not use children as go-betweens

Do not use your children as carriers of messages or as sources of information about the other parent. You need to work out new ways of directly communicating with the other parent. You need to find ways to deal with each other as parents – not partners.

  • New partners – take care

Some parents agree not to introduce their children to new partners until a certain period of time has passed. For example, six months to ensure that it is likely to be a long term relationship. Many parents also agree not to introduce their children to new partners without advising the other parent beforehand. This avoids potential conflict and emotions arising from the other parent finding out about the new relationship through the children, which places the children in an embarrassing situation.

  • Be prepared for change

The needs of children (and each of their parents) will inevitably change over time. What is best for your children now will be different in 12 months time, and different again in five years time. Parents need to review parenting agreements upon the occurrence of milestones such as children starting school, children starting high school, parents entering into new relationships or wishing to move etc.

  • What kind of parenting style is best for your children?

There are three common patterns of post separation parenting:

Cooperative parenting:

Parents communicate regularly and collaborate on decision making, health, activities etc. They treat each other with respect and will vary routines and responsibilities according to the needs of the children. 25% of separated parents achieve this.

Parallel parenting:

This style features little communication between parents and is low in conflict. Each parent does as they wish during their time with the children. Parents treat each other as business parents – they do not need to be friends or to like each other. Children can do well as they are protected from conflict. Parallel parenting fails to coordinate routines and can fall down on monitoring homework and health issues. 50% of separated families feature parallel parenting.

Conflictual parenting:

This features continued negative emotional entanglement and parents. Parents maintain hostility and conflict. They communicate frequently but poorly. Conflictual parenting is damaging to children.

Learn more

Read books, do courses. Speak with a counsellor. Invite the other parent to attend family dispute resolution or mediation with you.

For more information about family dispute resolution or mediation, call us on (02) 9877 0877.

Compulsory mediation and family dispute resolution is increasingly required by legislation and courts.

We provide mediation and dispute resolution services that satisfy these legal requirements and can help you reach better agreements.