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A month after her husband abruptly packed his bags and left, thirty-eight year old Elle was tucking in her three year old son Nathan, who was struggling to come to terms with the sudden upheaval in his family life.
“I love you to the moon and back,” Elle remembers whispering, kissing his forehead in what was becoming a nighty ritual.
“I am sad to the moon and back,” Nathan would reply before reverting to a set of panicked questions about where daddy was and why he wasn’t sleeping at home anymore?
“It was a tough time,” she recalls.
“When my ex left me, we had no idea where he was staying for the first month. I wanted to find ways of comforting Nathan but I was inexperienced and didn’t always know the right things to say. The struggle for me was how to answer his questions truthfully as he was so insightful but I was falling apart inside and felt as in the dark as he did.”
Nathan briefly regressed with his toilet training, a natural impact the breakdown of the family has on many young kids.
As for day-to-day coping in their new world, Elle would drop Nathan and his one year old sister Eve at day care and then spend the day in tears and a panic until it was time for pick up.
“I had to process how we were going to make it through emotionally and financially, but kept hoping my husband would come back and try work things out. The unknown was unbearable,” Elle recalls about the first few weeks post-separation.
Finding some casual work that fitted in around child care hours and with the support of friends and a therapist, she made her way through the first raw months, something she says didn’t seem like a possibility at first.
“I felt like my world was crumbling around me, but I aimed to get through one day at a time, which somehow just made it bearable.”
Guiding the kids
While every marital break-up plays out differently, there are some fundamental tools that parents can use to help kids adjust to the new reality of their family.
According to best-selling author of ‘Parenting without anger’, clinical psychologist and parenting expert Renee Mill, the key to parenting kids through a relationship breakdown is being honest, telling them what is going to happen, being consistent with routines and avoiding impulse decisions.
“Honesty is important. Not details of the anger or hatred but facts like ‘the relationship is over, we are not getting back together’ or ‘today I am feeling very sad about the divorce, I am not angry with you.’
“Also, telling your children what is going to happen is vital. For example, on Friday Dad is going to move out. Next Wednesday Dad will take you to see his new place. We are going on holiday without mom this time,” she explains.
Despite the avalanche of changes needed to be made by separating parents, avoiding impulsive decisions is key to Ms Mill’s advice on minimising the impact on your children.
“Plan and let your child know the plan. Try not to change homes, schools and friends all at once.”
Many recently separated parents struggle to come to terms with the fallout of their relationship. At times, revealing the details of the break-up to their kids, oversharing ‘adult’ information as they try to explain and make sense of their own range of emotions.
Ultimately this will negatively impact the kids and to combat this Renee Mill has a 6 point guide she recommends to both parents.
PARENTING TIPS WHEN SEPARATING OR DIVORCING
Parents must find their own support and not overburden their child with too much information or excessive emotion.
Parents should not fight in front of the child and find channels to work out details of visitations such as mediation.
Parents should not use the child as a pawn.
The child should be given permission to love both parents.
Parents should not say the child is their best friend even if it is a teenager. A child needs the parent to be the parent who is steering the ship.
No threats should be made about money or cars or even the home that would leave a child feeling insecure.
Source: Renee Mill, Clinical Psychologist and author of ‘Anxiety Free, Drug Free’ and ‘Parenting without anger’
Relationships Australia are a national not-for-profit organisation that offer several programs designed to help families through the transition. Psychologist Elisabeth Shaw who oversees RA’s clinical services in NSW says children should feel able to talk openly about their lives in both households, but not feel obliged to do so.
“They should also feel safe when expressing their feelings regardless of which parent they are with,” she says.
In fact, according to the Family Court of Australia’s “Parenting conflict and its effect on children” factsheet, the negative parental behaviour that has the worst impact on children occurs when parents use their children to express their anger and hostility.
“Children who are placed in the middle of their parents’ dispute (by either parent) are more likely to be angry, stressed, depressed or anxious, and have poorer relationships with their parents than children who are not used in this way.”
A sentiment echoed by Ms Mill who stresses the importance of adults seeking their own support network outside of their children and even wider family.
“Sometimes family and friends fuel the fire so external therapists and mediators are necessary.”
For Elle, this advice rings true when reflecting on her own divorce.
“It’s nothing short of trauma. Sometimes you make decisions that aren’t so wise but they’re made out of desperation and fear of dealing with the unknown. I can’t stress enough how important it is to find a good support person that you can nut out all of your uncertainties with.
Also get good professional help to guide you emotionally, financially and legally because in hindsight if I knew then what I know now, I would have done certain things differently. But have hope, because it does get easier!”
Relationships Australia offer face to face counselling, family therapy and mediation.
If you have gone through a divorce or are separated from your partner, Relationships Australia offer the Parenting Order Program. POP will assist you to build better relationships with your ex-partner and focus on your children’s best interests.
1300 354 277
For more ideas on how to help your kids manage your separation or divorce