This row, for me, signaled the end of their relationship and the beginning of the most difficult period of my life. As an only child, sadness and grief became my siblings. I was lucky as my mother was, and still is a deeply compassionate person and understood what I was going through. Despite this, my fear of losing my father prevented me from allowing myself to show him the true impact the loss and hurt had on me personally.
During the mid eighties separation was not so common. I don’t remember any other kids on my street being in the same situation so immediately I felt different. My routines were not “normal”, while most kids spent the weekends at home with family and hanging around with friends mine involved waiting on buses and spending time with my father. This was a pattern which lasted through to my late twenties and I found it incredibly hard to relax on weekends as the strong impulse to visit my father was always present.
Often during and after a relationship breakdown parents are so caught up in their own hurt and fears, and the thoughts of being alone again that they are oblivious of the impact the separation has had on their children.
A child’s connection to his or her parents is biological in nature, it is not rational and not something that can be fully understood. Breaking the connection can be extremely painful, not unlike losing a limb but there is no physical disability for others to empathise with.
The age and the timing of the separation is critical, as for example during the first 7 years where a child’s brain is developing they can be easily influenced by negative experiences.
From birth, life is full challenges, each one must be negotiated carefully with the support to grow and move onto the next phase of development whether it is emotional, cognitive or physical support.
From birth to 1 ½ years, the challenge is creating a sense of trust in the world, a sense of security that your primary caregiver will always be there. Consistency and predictability is essential as through this your child can feel optimistic and hopeful about other relationships in their lives.
If your child is born into a home with inconsistent attitudes and behaviours this can be deeply disruptive. If the primary care giver changes frequently at this stage it can cause confusion and uncertainty. If parents separate and the child’s time is divided between two homes, they will not have the fundamental stability required to grow into a healthy child. If separation does occur and if at all possible, choose one home as the anchor in which the child is to be reared and keep it that way. Be consistent in your engagement with each other, it’s in your child’s best interest.
From 1 ½ to 3, as the child begins to develop mobility and wants to exert their independence they must be given the freedom to develop their own skills in an open and loving environment. For example such basic skills as learning to feed themselves, put on or off their clothes, choosing what toy to play with are essential skills which will help develop their independence and belief in themselves.
In the midst of or after a separation the child may be slower to detach from the primary caregiver. It’s important during this time to promote curiosity and freedom for your child at this stage. Don’t push it, gently encourage and let them know it’s safe to explore their surroundings.
From 3 to 5, the child will look for more interaction with kids their own age. Playing and having creative fun are essential ingredients in helping your child to develop initiative and decision making skills. Constant questioning is also quite common during this phase.
An overly critical, protective or impatient parent can hinder this process and might create feelings of guilt in the child. This could create a pattern of approval seeking throughout the rest of their lives. The best parent in the world needs direction at times and this should come from the other parent. If this is not the case, a situation could arise where the sole parent may become too serious and discourage the child’s natural tendency for play.
Leave the child be to have fun and be silly. Encourage questioning and also be prepared for your child to step over boundaries and misbehave. Boundary pushing is a normal behaviour which all children display however while it is important not to be too hard on your child it is equally important that clear boundaries are set and respect is maintained.
From 5 to 12, academic development begins as the child learns to read and write. This stage is also when they are likely to develop athletically. Friends and peer relationships with other children play a greater role here, as well as teacher relations.
The work involved in this stage of your child’s life must be reinforced by both parents so the child can know its ok to trust their own initiative and meet their own goals. Accepting failure is also an important lesson to learn.
Role modelling is a key part of parenting, demonstrating for the child the importance of education and exercise and how to deal with failure. An absent parent can’t fulfill this requirement and the child may feel inferior if they don’t receive the necessary encouragement.
From 12 to 18, the child transitions from adolescence to adulthood. They are trying to find out who they are and what role they might play in life. Identity is created through belonging to groups which mirror the new developing opinions and beliefs about themselves and life. Body image is also an issue around this age and insecurities must be managed while they become comfortable with the natural changes occurring in their body.
Concern and fears for their future could force a parent to pressurize their child into conforming to socially accepted norms. These fears should be grounded by both parents acting as a partnership but this will not happen if the communication between them is non-existent.
Acceptance is essential. The parent should not be threatened by their child’s natural desire for independence and freedom. While offering your own opinion is important don’t force your opinions as this will cause conflict and possibly rebellion.
Dealing with the aftermath for the separation
1. Don’t diminish the impact
I’ve seen parents convince themselves that their child will be OK, that the separation didn’t affect them and that life goes on. If only this were true. Whether it’s visible or not, your child could be harboring many hurtful feelings and unable to understand or process what’s happening.
Don’t minimize what has happened. Accept damage might have been done and it needs to be given time.
2. Dealing with your guilt
Feeling guilt over hurting your child is a completely natural process and shows a healthy compassion for their well being. In fact I would be more concerned if there was no guilt at all but it’s important not to project your own guilt onto your child, be it through anger or over-compensating with excessive love. One unfortunate reality is a parent projecting their guilt onto the other parent; this is a huge mistake and you are really only hurting the child.
All children need parents with healthy self-esteem and the traits associated with this, such as strong boundaries, clear expression and confidence in their ability.
To resolve guilt, it’s essential to go inside yourself. Ask yourself why you are choosing to be so hard on you. Do you feel like you deserve love? Have you carried guilt around with you all your life? Could you have inherited it from your parents?
Rebuilding self-esteem involves prioritizing your needs, looking after your body and surrounding yourself with healthy people who support your decision to end your relationship despite having a child.
If the breakup is particularly nasty, you might face resistance from your ex-partner. Jealously and resentment are commonplace and can be destructive for all parties involved in the split; it is important to detach from the hurt and stay focused on who you want to be.
3. Ensure your children are not carrying the burden
I felt responsible for my parent’s separation. I felt like it was my fault. I also felt I was responsible for their happiness. I worried about them constantly and I wanted to protect their feelings.
I took responsibility for something which didn’t belong to me. A child CANNOT carry their parents. They CANNOT fix a marriage and it is NOT their job to make their parents feel good about themselves.
Your child needs to feel valued for who they are, not for what they do. They will need to be reminded, preferably by both parents that they are not responsible for what has happened, that each person is responsible for their own emotions and nothing that has happened changes the fact that they are a special little person and deserve all the happiness in the world.
Watching my father leave during the early stages of the separation created a sense of abandonment, a fear that he would never return. This is something which I carried with me right through to adult life. To be abandoned by a parent is an indescribable loss. The child needs to know that they have not been left behind. That the parent will always be there for them and will never leave no matter what happens.
5. Emotional Expression
It’s ok to be sad. It’s ok to be angry. It’s ok to be afraid. These are natural reactions to what has happened and your child should be allowed to express this. They should know its ok to feel how they do and talk about it.
6. Filling the void
It’s important to surround you child with positive role models be they male or female who can see your child’s potential and demonstrate healthy behaviours and self-respect.
7. Park your bias
One of my college lecturers once told me when working through a separation; a child will always side with the parent who DOESN’T speak badly of the other parent.
My mother never once spoke Ill of my father as she knew this would not only be unfair on me but would only serve to deepen the wound further.
A young child is still emotionally bound to both parents, so to speak badly of one parent to a child is as good as saying that the child themselves is bad. They might internalise the words and believe they are in some way flawed or unworthy.
8. Freedom to choose or not choose
This will be a time of great confusion and inner conflict for your child. They love both parents and having to decide where to go and who to be with could cause not only anxiety but trauma as the child is terrified of making a mistake and losing someone.
Put zero pressure on your child. Offer options and suggestion as to what they might like to do around visits, but then leave it up to them to decide.
Children know what feels right and wrong, but fear might drive them to make the wrong choice. Take away the fear of any consequences and trust them to know what’s best for them.
9. Don’t over compensate
A child still needs to understand boundaries and learn self-love is not the same as narcissism.
No one person is more important than anyone else. We are all mutually important: child, parents and siblings. If the child is acting out and behaving disrespectfully after the separation, they need to know it’s not ok.
By creating a sense of over-entitlement in your child through placating bad behaviour or competing for the child’s affection, you are setting them up for a difficult life of disappointment and relationship struggled.
10. Maintain the parental role
Parenthood doesn’t end just because you only see your child part time. It doesn’t end because you are lonely and have no one to share your own problems. Parenthood is for life. You can’t park your job because you are having a bad day.
I’ve seen so many parents of broken homes abuse the power they have over their children by changing the relationship to suit there own needs. Using your child as a shoulder to cry on or to burden with worries is not acceptable and WILL damage your child and their mental health.
Relationships end. Marriages fail. This will never change. But the collateral damage can be controlled. When it comes to your child, it’s time for parents to grow up!
Irrespective of how you feel about each other, get over it and stick to the job at hand. If you prioritize your child you will both benefit greatly as you watch them grow and develop into a happy little person whose love will drive you to be a better version of yourself.
Keep the lines of communication open between you and your ex-partner and do not use your child as a pigeon carrier. If you have friends or family who are encouraging childish behaviour or using your child as an emotional chess piece, rise above it and choose a mature response to every issue or challenge.
Not everyone is suited to parenthood but if there is a real mutual love for the child there is a good chance everyone will come out unscathed. Even if you are completely on your own in rearing your child, just focus on being genuinely there for him/her and life will work itself out.