9 Tips to help your child adjust to separation

Child coping with separation

When a family breaks up it is an anxious time for any parent.

You’re struggling with your own personal pain and sadness when a relationship ends.

Your children are also going through these same experiences, often without the language or emotional skills to explain what they need.

Everyone in your family might be experiencing different emotions:

  • Shock and confusion
  • Anger and wanting to punish
  • Loss and grief
  • Abandonment and insecurity
  • Fears about the future
  • Relief an abusive environment has ended

It can be a disturbing time for children who can’t do anything about a stressful situation they don’t want.

Tips to help your kids with separation

1. Your first priority is your well-being

It’s not easy facing single parenthood when you are stressed and emotionally vulnerable. Your self-care is all about modelling emotional intelligence. You are showing you have resilience, even when you have tears in our eyes. Lay off the alcohol, increase your exercise, get a massage, be informed with good legal advice and let go of negative friendships. Get counselling support if you need a safe space to explore your overwhelm.

2. Remember to breathe

To manage a moment of emotional overload, slow down your breath rate. Your heart rate will reduce, as will your thought rate and your stress levels. Settle into a regular, steady breath rate and get your pulse rate down well below 90 beats per minute. Use your smart watch or phone to measure your pulse. Give yourself time to resettle and be still together with your child while you calm down.

3. Kids of any age are not ‘acting out’

They are reaching out for your understanding and reassurance. You are their safety zone and security.

Kids want to love and feel connected to both their parents, regardless of prior conflicts. When one or both parents are angry, they can be unsure if they can openly show this.

Some kids will feel responsible for the parent who moved out of the family home, worried about how they are going.

4. Young children are often overwhelmed and confused

Their world seems no longer reliable. Some changes are likely and often short term:

  • Changes to sleep and eating
  • Being clingy, unsettled and more demanding
  • Acting out with anger or aggression towards one parent
  • Regressing to younger age behaviours.

They can’t tell you how they feel, so you need to look and listen with care. Your comfort will help them move through this distress and feel secure again.

5. School age children can tell you more about their feelings

Make time to tell stories, listen and be together.

Active listening is an important skill to use. Help your child name emotions and recognise what they are feeling to help reduce frustration. Remember you’re not telling your child what they are feeling, you are helping them understand more about their emotional experience.

6. Teens have strong opinions about family life

They will want time to explore the morality and consequences of family changes. Their stresses are often about the disruption to their sense of security, study stresses, and the impact in their social and relationship networks. They are more likely to challenge your decision to separate and be angry and hurt about the failure of family life. Listen with empathy and validate their feelings. Pay attention to body language, facial expressions and gestures. Take what your child is saying seriously and try not to judge or criticise him/her

7. Emotional moments are opportunities for intimacy

Don’t reject your kid’s negative emotions, such as anger, resentment or jealousy. Instead accept their emotions and encourage your child to explore these with you. These moments are opportunities to build a connection and to teach your child skills to soothe themselves. Stick with your parenting values. Set limits on inappropriate behaviour and help them problem-solve one step at a time towards behaviours that you see as reasonable.

8. Play smart and stay fair

Support their relationship with their other parent and make sure handovers are neutral times. Accept there will be differences in their two new homes.

Keep your routines as predictable and structured as you can, even if the other parent doesn’t.

Work out how you can both attend sports and extra-curricular activities respectfully.

Don’t quiz the kids or let them be conduits for information, messages or problems.

Drop the fantasy that one day you’ll tell them what really happened, and that they will take your side

9. Don’t be shy to seek help

But start with your needs first. If you are managing your moods, worries and difficult decisions well, you will be able to guide and lead your kid’s adjustment needs. If you are really concerned about your child’s wellbeing, don’t hesitate to seek counselling together, so that you are supporting your child.

Elizabeth Williamson

Elizabeth Williamson

Elizabeth Williamson is a respected relationship coach. She has over 30 years’ experience working as a counsellor, couples therapist, accredited mediator and leadership consultant. She works with individuals and families to reconnect, repair after trauma, gain resilience and renew relationships.

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