• February 14, 2023

Protecting children during the 3 key phases of family separation

protecting children during family separation

For many parents going through a family separation, understanding and processing the various stages of separation and divorce as they occur in real-time is an almost impossible expectation. Most parents are simply focused on a one foot in front of the other strategy to get through the mud. Taking a ‘whole family’ approach to your feelings can be a way of supporting your kids as well as yourself through family separation.

Broadly speaking, in most family scenarios there are three stages of separation that the whole family experiences:

The crisis stage (the breakup)

The interim stage (the first few years after separation)

The long-haul stage (following the first few years of separation)

The crisis stage:

When parents decide to separate, no matter the situation or the health of the relationship, this is a significantly traumatic time for the children. The child’s world as they knew it has changed forever, and it is hard for them to understand what the future looks like for them. Kids need some kind of context to help them process what is happening. Amid the change is the reality that many parents in this early crisis stage retreat into a world of their own pain and loss, and this can sometimes shroud their awareness of the needs of the children. The worst assumption we mediators hear concerning children during this period and the interim stage is that they are resilient. According to renowned child psychiatrist, Bruce Perry, if anything, children are more vulnerable to trauma than adults – and resilient children are made not born. Kids can be easily transformed by trauma when they are young and for some children, their experience of stress can exceed their system’s capacity to carry it and leave a profound mark on their young lives.

During this raw and emotional time in the separation process, parents must focus on ensuring their children feel safe and stable in their little lives. As challenging as it is, both parents should strive to offer their kids a secure emotional base, and help them understand that what is happening is not their fault. With no perfect fix nor remedy for the loss the children will feel, parents can talk to the children gently and reassuringly, appropriately explaining that the family is still a family, it’s just that it is changing. It also helps, if both parents can agree and emotionally reinforce the same narrative with the child. Critical at this time is that the parents become active listeners to their children – hear their thoughts and ideas and needs as they are able to express them. This may be as simple as what will happen to my toys? Or as heart breaking as does mum still love me? Difficult as it may be in some family separations, children should see both parents and there should be flexibility to meet the children’s’ needs around this (i.e. parents sharing the school drop-off/pickup or attending a child’s activity if that is what the child wishes).

The interim stage:

This phase of family separation is characterised by a finality to the parents’ decision to separate, whereby the hope of a reconciliation has faded and both children and parents begin to accept the reality of a separated family, and try to design what the new family structure looks like. While parents may experience a period of relief and acceptance, there are other complexities that can (and often do) arise, leading to children feeling vulnerable and unsure, especially if they feel caught up in the middle of their parent’s residual antagonism towards each other.

Often in these first few years following family separation, anger and resentment can manifest and fester between parents and sometimes feelings of guilt and shame at the dissolution or failure of the parental relationship can present to children as one parent heaping blame on the other. Some children can be influenced into an alliance with one parent over another which can inadvertently impact the child having a quality and meaningful relationship with both parents. Another challenge for parents is to resist leaning to heavily on the child or children for their emotional support during this time of transition. The child may feel overburdened by their unconscious role as emotional caregiver to one or both parents. One of the most damaging impacts to children during this period is when they are unwittingly used as negotiators between parents – as this can impact their capacity to engage in healthy, equitable relationships into adolescence and adulthood.

The long-haul stage:

Ideally, this stage is exactly as it sounds – the long haul of life goes on. Ideally, emotional wounds begin to heal over space and time, and a different family structure, now permanent, can bring new sources of happiness and healthy relationships. Unfortunately, though, that is not always the case. Some parents maintain – even increase – their feelings of hostility towards each other over time, because one – or both – parents cannot move forward in life and remain stuck in the negative impact of the separation or one parent is perceived as thriving while the other is in a period of declining wellbeing. This can manifest in multiple ways including the decreasing mental and physical health of one or both parents. Some children assume a more permanent caregiver role in their relationship with a parent, and this can be in terms of physical, emotional and social support. Sometimes tricky to navigate for kids at this phase, is the prospect of a blended family. New partners with children widen the definition of family and can either positively or negatively impact children. If one parent remarries, this too, may be difficult for a child, as it extinguishes the unlikely, long-held hope of a romantic reconciliation between parents. Sometimes in this phase, if parents remain in conflict, a child will learn to self-censor in loyalty to one or both parents. This learned emotional behaviour can also be detrimental the child’s capacity to develop honest, transparent and healthy relationships into adulthood.

There is no ‘perfect’ family separation

There are a number of things parents can do to ensure the wellbeing of their kids and minimise the impact of separation in their young lives. It might help parents to know that the brain of a 4 year- old is 90% adult size – and the period of development of the brain’s key neural networks happens from birth to 4 years. According to Dr Bruce Perry, while this phase of a child’s brain development can be safe and nurturing enabling their brain to express a full range of genetic potential, it’s also the time when the developing brain is most vulnerable to the impacts of threat, neglect and trauma. Evidence shows that during this time, when a child is impacted by a traumatic event, their ability to heal is largely dependent of the number of healthy relationships they share in and bear witness to, including most importantly, that of co-parents.

Author: Cath Pope

Family Dispute Practitioner, Fresh Start Mediation


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