Your children are going to be sad if you are separating from your partner. That’s a truth you need to accept. For young kids, in particular, their parents are the rocks around which their world revolves.
This can be an awful thing to accept – for me, it was the hardest thing of all – but the good news is that they can cope and they can get through it. And hopefully, your support will be enough to help them do that. There may be times, however, when you and your child will need some additional support. There’s absolutely no shame in that, and there are plenty of services available.
HOW TO SUPPORT YOUR CHILD YOURSELF
In a piece earlier this year about how to tell your children their parents are separating, we discussed a lot of ways in which you can support your child through this difficult time.
In brief, do everything you can to ensure that your kids know they are still loved by both parents. For younger children, in particular, concerns are more likely to dwell on the logistics of the change – where will they be living, will they still go to the same clubs, when will they see the absent parent etc. Trying to ensure their normal routines are as undisturbed as possible is important. Also important is doing all you can to make your children feel they’re able to talk about the subject, and when they do so to listen to what they have to say.
Most importantly, they should never be made to feel like it’s their fault, and should never be forced into taking sides.
NOT COPING IS TO BE EXPECTED AT FIRST
As a parent, as well as making sure you’re dealing with all of the changes to your life, you need to be the one to make sure your kids are too. But the reality is that they are going to find this difficult. It is not the end of the world if, especially in the early days, your children are upset and unhappy. That can be the hardest thing in the world to see, and to know that you played a part in causing it is emotionally devastating. But this is an unavoidable consequence of parental separation and the sooner you accept this, the sooner you’ll be in a better position to support them.
Some tears and maybe some anger is not the end of the world, and while it’s upsetting to see, it is nothing to be overly concerned about in and of itself. Some visible upset and reaction is a sign that your kids are processing what’s happening. If you’re there to help them through this stage, there’s every hope they’ll emerge OK on the other side of it all.
WHAT SIGNS SHOULD YOU BE LOOKING FOR?
It can be incredibly easy to read too much into a child’s behaviour in the aftermath of separation, and was certainly something I struggled with at times. What would have previously been a normal tantrum or bout of over-tired tears can suddenly feel symptomatic of some deeper trauma that may not necessarily be there.
Telling the difference between normal childhood behaviour and something more concerning is very difficult. The key is to look for changes in behaviour, rather than simply the behaviour itself. Disinterest in hobbies, breakdowns in established friendships, playing up at school or emotional outbursts at times that are not typical are all signs that your child’s upset may be straying beyond what might normally be expected.
WHEN DO YOU KNOW THAT EXTRA SUPPORT IS NEEDED?
Your child’s school is an excellent starting point. If there are deeper issues at play, they will almost certainly present themselves in the school environment. Most schools will have systems in place to monitor behaviour in these situations. I spoke with the head teacher at my daughter’s school shortly after her mother left and she was incredibly helpful. The staff had already been trained on what to look out for and my daughter was watched closely for a few weeks. I was then invited back in to discuss things, at which time I was fortunately told that there had been no adverse change in behaviour.
Communication with your ex, too, is also important. Even though your relationship has broken down, you are still both parents. Being able to talk about how your child is behaving on both sides of the curtain is very important.
TRY AND GET ANOTHER OPINION
It’s good if your child has someone to speak to aside from their parents. Kids can become very worried about being perceived to have taken sides, and may be reluctant to be honest about their feelings for fear of upsetting a parent (this can become a particularly strong anxiety when coming to terms with the loss of one of them). A family friend or member of the extended family can often present neutral ground. Confide in someone you trust with your children and see how they feel after speaking to them.
WHAT SERVICES ARE AVAILABLE?
Your GP is always a good first point of call. NHS provisions for counselling and mental health can vary by region, and certainly in some areas the available help is minimal. But it cannot hurt to ask, and certainly awareness of the importance of mental health, even if not the infrastructure surrounding it, is only increasing.
- Childline specialises in all sorts of support for young people and can be an excellent resource for your kids. Their number is 0800 1111.
- Relate, which is best known for its couples counselling, also offers a range of support services for children. Their number is 0300 100 1234
- In more serious cases where abuse has played a part in the separation, the NSPCC can be an important resource too. Their number is 0808 800 5000.
- Charities such as Families Need Fathers and Gingerbread also offer a range of services for parents to best help their children cope.
- There are also lots of regional services and charities available, most of which can be found via a Google search.
REMEMBER, SADNESS IS A PART OF LIFE – AND IT GETS BETTER
We never want our kids to be sad, but sadness is a normal part of life and a step on the road to recovery. With the right love and support a child who is sad about a bad thing happening will get better. Allow them to be sad when they need to be and help them be happy when they can and your kids will get through this. And if you do need extra help, don’t ever feel bad about it – that you care enough to make sure your child receives the support they need is only a good thing.
Image (cropped) by jcookfisher under a creative commons licence