How do I talk to my kids about separation
What do I do about the other parent?
Your attitude towards the other parent will be key to your child’s matter. The heart of every child’s matter is what’s best for the child. Most of the hidden traps of the area are behaviours indicating a parent is focussed on themselves and not the child. The easiest way through parenting matters is to be genuinely dedicated to the child’s interests above your own. However, otherwise ideal parents often get into trouble with their attitude to the other parent. Essentially, is there any goodwill between you?
The law presumes a meaningful relationship with both parents and the parents having joint decision-making power is in the child’s best interests. This can be hard to swallow in the middle of your collapsing relationship, when you’re worried about your child’s future and your own.
These presumptions are balanced against the need to protect the child from harm the other parent could cause. If you are genuinely worried the other parent will hurt or neglect your child, you need to act protectively. Unacceptable risk of harm and how to respond to a genuine fear of the other parent is a topic that deserves more attention than the scope of this article accommodates.
Your child’s relationship with their other parent is vulnerable to how you talk about that parent. The law takes any suggestion you are a danger to that relationship very seriously. It typically considers harm to the relationship is harm to the child. So, a child’s matter often hinges on the question “Will this person assist the child’s relationship with the other parent, or will they hinder that relationship?”
The wrong answer can have devastating, determinative, impacts on your outcome and your child’s outcome.
Speaking badly about your ex to your child can be a terrible experience for the child. The psychological and family reports we see frequently discuss a child feeling they need to take sides to survive the separation. Your child loves both their parents, it usually distresses them to hear their parent spoken badly of. They’re often bad at reporting these feelings to you, if they think appearing to agree with your view will make you happy.
Generally, we find parents can be reminded that their ex is also their child’s mother or father. Your child’s relationship with their parent isn’t your relationship with that person. Taking a step back from their feelings about their ex, most parents see the harm they cause their child by undermining the other parental relationship.
Still, some parents don’t get how to protect the relationship for their child. Others, frankly, need to fake it till they make it.
The heart of it is simple, you live by two principles:
- My child needs a relationship with their dad/mum and I am going to help them have it; and
- My child needs to be protected from adult problems they don’t understand yet.
Practicing these principles can be tricky. You do not have to be perfect. You just need to try, and appear to try, to live by these principles as much as you can.
Children can have difficult questions when their home life is disrupted by relationship breakdown. Parents with the best intentions frequently do things they need to explain later.
It is better not to expose your children to the nuance of adult conflict or issues. It is generally considered to be harmful. In extreme cases, it can appear that one parent is coaching the child to dislike the other or is leaning on the child for emotional support they are developmentally not able to provide.
Some discussions cannot be avoided; your children are going to notice if a parent moves out. Try to be as neutral, or positive, as you can in these conversations. Avoid blaming the other parent for problems when speaking to your child, even if you blame them in your own mind. Not “your mother/father has left us” but “your mother/father isn’t going to be living here anymore.” Not “your mother/father won’t let me see you as much as you need” but “we’re still figuring things out”.
Obviously, every parent needs to figure out how to speak to their own children. Older, or more mature, children might press for a more complete answer. It is a difficult issue and it can be worthwhile engaging counsellors or psychologists to help navigate it.
We are often exposed to mental-health experts who specialise in the area and we are always happy to be contacted for a referral.