Parenting after Divorce

Relationship breakdown and Children

Relationship Breakdown - It’s like a bereavement

One, or both of you, has decided the relationship is over. You will both be struggling to manage some quite difficult emotions. Shock, disbelief, anger, guilt, rejection, fear and a sense of betrayal are all common responses to the ending of a relationship.

Divorce and separation are emotional as well as legal processes which are generally understood to be similar to a bereavement. You are both likely to experience a sense of grief and loss- if not for what was, at least for what might have been.

Facing the future

It is generally acknowledged that the process of coming to terms with a loss takes years rather than weeks or months and that in the meantime your emotions could be all over the place – particularly in the early days. Ending a relationship means facing an uncertain future, particularly where there are children involved. The only way to deal with the uncertainty is to make plans and to reach some important decisions at a time when you probably feel least able to do so.

Helping your children cope with your separation

In the midst of this emotional turmoil and future uncertainty you are still having to parent your children and will want to know the best way to handle the situation for them. Children can adapt to parental separation and divorce providing it is handled well by the adults themselves. That’s not easy when you are hurting.

Most parents understand the need to make decisions about where the children will live and how much time they will spend with each parent. It is also important for the children that you work out these decisions together as parents, rather than fighting it out in court or on Facebook. What can be harder to understand is that when we are talking about the end of a relationship, we are only talking about the relationship as partners or as husband and wife. There is also the relationship you have as parents, and that relationship doesn't end, so it is important to find new ways to manage it.

What do we tell the children?

You will need to decide what to tell the children about what is happening before or as soon after you physically separate as possible.

It’s not necessary to have all of the answers. Children just need to feel reassured that the adults are still in control and are making sensible decisions. As long as you stay positive around them and let them know that you are talking to one another and listening to them they will feel more secure. They need to know that you both still love them and will continue to do so; that it’s not their fault; that they will still see both parents after you separate and that it’s safe and ok to talk to you about how they are feeling. Of course they may want to know if they will still be able to live in the same house and go to the same school and you may or may not be certain of the answers to all of their questions – but as long as they know you are listening and trying to work things out so that they don’t have too many changes then they will be reassured.

Take a look at some children’s books on parental separation and divorce. This website provides a useful synopsis of each book.

For more information on a child’s perspective on divorce, at different stages in their development take a look at the Voices in the Middle website. There is a section especially for parents which helps you to think through what your child might be experiencing and how to respond.

My ex-partner is saying bad things about me to the children.

It is just too easy to make some common mistakes such as using the children as allies in your battles with one another; using them as messengers; blaming and criticising the other parent in front of them and forgetting they are there when you are caught up in an argument. It is really hurtful to you to hear that your ex is saying these things but try to remember it is even worse for the children to get caught up in conflict in this way. Trying to stop him seeing them is only going to escalate the conflict.

You need to sit down together, as parents, and discuss how you are each going to behave in front of the children. Try to make sure that other family members know you are doing this as well. Families can be very loyal to one or the other of you but children need to be protected from feeling that they have to take sides. Overhearing adult conversations that blame or criticise one of their parents can be very confusing and difficult for them.

I don’t want my ex’s new partner seeing my children.

At some stage in the future it is possible that you will both have new partners and will need to think about how and when you introduce your children to them. It is really important to see this situation from the child’s perspective and not your own. You may be anxious to introduce them to a new partner because you want their ‘approval’ but this could put them under pressure as they may feel they would be being disloyal to the other parent. If you have already discussed this with the other parent and can prepare the children together then they won’t have to worry so much. Bear in mind children can still be jealous in their own right – particularly if they are still adjusting to the separation. So the situation needs careful handling.

If, as a parent, you feel you don’t want a new partner to be introduced to your children just yet it is important to ask yourself why – is it because you don’t know anything about them, or are you scared that they will try to replace you rather than because you think it is too early for them? All normal responses but best dealt with through discussion with your ex.

Advice Now also produce some useful Survival Guides for Sorting Out Arrangements for your children and for using Family Mediation after a relationship has ended. You can download copies from their website.

Do we need a Court Order in respect of the children?

Going to court and letting someone else take over and make decisions for you can seem like the easiest option, but it can be a lot more expensive and it doesn't usually give the best result for the people involved. Many people end up with a court order which nobody is really happy with.

Courts recognise that when it comes to making decisions about your own children you are the real experts and there really is no need for them to be involved unless there are serious safeguarding issues or there is a history of domestic violence.

In any case, as children’s needs change – often quite quickly- you really need to start thinking about how you, as parents, are going to find a way of communicating so that you can continue to make decisions together. You won’t be able to go to court every time a decision needs to be made.

The Courts encourage parents to try mediation. if you intend to apply to court for an order in respect of a child following divorce you usually have to see a mediator first. If you or the mediator feels that mediation is not right for your circumstances, then they can sign the section of the form (C100) that tells the court that you have considered mediation but it is not suitable. For more information on how the courts deal with children’s issues visit the website.

Advice Now also produces a guide for using family mediation.

How can Prime Resolution help me?

Prime Resolution offers a Family Mediation Service to divorced and separating couples, already separated parents and grandparents. Mediation gives you a forum to express your feelings and concerns and to talk with one another about how you can both manage the ending of your marital relationship whilst preserving a relationship as parents. We can help you to find a way through.

You may need additional support for yourself such as counselling, in which case we can signpost you to local services who will be able to help you. Talking to family and friends will help - but beware because they are on your side they can sometimes encourage you to be negative about the other parent, which is not what your child needs, and they may find it just as difficult as you do to focus on the child’s need to maintain a positive view of both parents.

As mediators we are on both your sides. We understand how difficult it is for each of you. We work with parents to help them sort through all of the decisions they need to make – from what to tell the children now to how to introduce a new partner when the time comes. We help you to focus on your continuing relationship as parents and to discuss whatever you feel is important. We also help you to think about your children’s needs and how to involve them in your decisions. You can read more about our Family Mediation service here.

Will the mediators see the children?

In mediation we encourage the parents to listen to their children and to bring their views to the process. We will help them think through how to do this. Sometimes though, parents feel that they need a little extra help – usually either because they feel their child is not being open about how they feel or because they are both getting different information. Some of our mediators are specially trained to consult directly with children and to help them to present their views to the parents. This only happens with both parents’ consent and, of course, if the child is willing.

Will we still need to go to Court?

We will record your agreement for you and there will be no need for you to go to court as you will each have a signed copy of your own agreement. If you want to we can help you to agree a detailed Parenting Plan which is a written plan which helps you to clarify the arrangements, you need to put in place to care for your children. It helps everyone to know what is expected of them now and in the future as circumstances change.

If you want to see what a Parenting Plan looks like you can download a free copy from the CAFCASS (Children and Families Courts Advisory and Support Services) website.

Article by
Marilyn Webster

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