Each sibling responds differently to their parents’ separation

Have you ever wondered why one child copes well with your separation, while another in the family seems to falter or take the separation very badly?  While it isn’t of course possible to give a definitive answer to a complex and multi-faceted question such as this, there is a growing body of evidence that assists us in considering some of the relevant and contributory factors – most of which are as you might expect! 

In this blog, we take a look at some of the potential factors affecting individual children – for example in a family with three siblings of different ages and genders who all respond differently to their parents’ separation.

A major factor affecting any child’s chances of a positive recovery following their parents’ separation is the ongoing level of conflict between their parents – higher conflict means children are more likely to struggle in all sorts of ways.  And the fact is that some children are more sensitive to conflict, whereas others seem to possess a natural resilience.  That is why, as parenting coordinators (in common with other professionals working with separating families), we work hard to help you identify together what a healthy parenting relationship looks like for your separated family, including:

·         what communication you actually need to have;

·         how it can happen with sensitivity to one another’s needs and triggers;

·         maintaining constructive parental communication that is focussed on the children and their needs.

Don’t forget that many parents – despite an understandably rocky start in the immediate aftermath of a relationship ending – succeed very well in establishing and maintaining a parenting relationship even if their relationship as partners came with challenges.  The reality is that it takes time, some commitment to change and self-reflection from both sides.

What about different children within the family itself?  There are many factors that can help explain why some children cope better than others with their parents’ conflict.  The following list mentions only a few…

·         A child’s sex can be relevant, and their age at the time of their parents’ separation.  Research suggests girls may tend to internalise worries and try to involve themselves in a conflict to help resolve it.  Boys have a tendency to externalise as a means of coping, often showing some anger or acting out. 

·         The age of children is relevant.  Very young children are developing their executive functioning and so role modelling from parents is vital.  Older children have more ability to reflect and think about conflict on a multi-layered level, whereas younger children don’t yet have that capacity.  Older children may be thinking about the immediate and longer-term implications, various potential outcomes, see the conflict as a threat to themselves and so on.  Older children might also be impacted more because they have been exposed over a longer period of time.

·         A child’s temperament can be relevant.  Relatively laid back and easy-going children are less triggered or sensitized than children who are naturally more temperamental.  This is also true for children who can separate themselves from the problem rather than become subsumed or enmeshed in it.  Those who are better able to express their emotions may also find it easier to navigate their parents’ conflict.  Tied to this, children with a challenging temperament can be a point of conflict for parents in and of themselves and this can increase conflict within a parental relationship.  Being mindful of this can help parents to stand back from their conflict, look at the cause and find ways of managing it more effectively, such as by discussing it with the support of a professional.

·         Extra support networks, such as peer groups, wider family members and other role model adults such as a good teacher or coach can help buffer the experience for children.  Those with more developed networks tend to find an outlet, distraction and buffer support from these various sources.

·         Sibling relationships can be a great buffer for children, but can come under strain if children start to take sides or get involved in the conflict.  Trying to ensure children or siblings don’t take sides and split allegiances is important both now and in the longer term.

·         Additional challenges over and above the conflict, such as parental depression, parental mental health, economic strain, or a parent with an alcohol or substance misuse challenge all create extra layers of stress for children, known as adverse childhood experiences.

So, what takeaway points can we think about?

·         Depending on the circumstances, staying together for the sake of the children could be the right thing for a family, but consider it carefully.  It might not be if the conflict is very negative, long-standing and affecting your ability to function well.  If one parent decided to end the relationship because they couldn’t continue, research does show this may ultimately help children to do better in the longer term since living in an unhappy and conflicted family can be impactful.

·         Work to continue improving your communication about children.  These days we are so fortunate to have a plethora or professional services available to help us with different life adversities, including counselling, psychotherapy, couple’s therapy, coaching, mediation, online courses and online free resources to name but a few.  Work out what might be appropriate and consider trying it – children do best if their parents are able to tackle and resolve conflict and decisions about them respectfully and constructively – even small improvements can enhance everyone’s feelings of well-being.

·         Remember to look at each child individually and keep that under review, being mindful of their age, characteristics, support networks and so on.  A child may on the outside seem to be doing well, but check in with him or her regularly.  Helping children to develop life and problem solving skills can help them to see your conflict in a healthier and more detached way.  This type of mindful skill building can continue in different stages throughout childhood.

·         Whether children tend to internalise or externalise their feelings, some talking therapy may be helpful to support them both through their transition into two homes and to settle into new routines.  However, there is less chance of therapy for children succeeding if the underlying communication challenges between parents continue unimproved.  So consider assistance as parents to address the challenges you’re facing, alongside help for your children.  In medical/child developmental fields, this is often referred to as putting on your own safety mask before your children’s, as you are asked to do on an aeroplane in an emergency.

·         It is absolutely right that children spending time with both parents following separation should take priority over other activities that might have been part of their routine before a separation.  But reflect on what support networks might be dear and valuable to children, and where possible try not to interrupt them too much.  Sometimes this constancy in the face of considerable change can be a useful anchor to children.

·         If possible, agreeing broadly similar rules or boundaries for children is helpful.  It is no good if one parent says no to computers, for example, and the other gives a child free rein.  This only leads to manipulation and can discourage children from maintaining healthy relationships with both parents.  Believe it or not, children in adulthood won’t thank either parent for this – particularly perhaps the one who didn’t set age-appropriate boundaries or respect the viewpoint of their other parent.  Sensible discussions and compromise help children to respect parental boundaries and maintain appropriate family systems, which in turn helps children to develop healthily and with confidence.  Children who develop the right impulse control now, are more able to say no to difficult challenges they might encounter later in life, such as in peer pressure situations.

At the outset, it is important to acknowledge and accept that it isn’t a sign of personal failure, nor a guaranteed sentence of sadness you’re passing to children if your relationships ends.  Sometimes, in spite of our best intentions and efforts, things don’t pan out as we’d planned or hoped.  Children who experience parental separation surround us in all our communities.  They pay testament to the resilience children have and many might even want to tell you the experience was one that, while difficult during the transition, enabled them to develop some grit and decent life experience that has stood them in good stead in their adult life. 

Parenting coordination aims to help parents develop a family system that helps each child in a family have the potential and freedom to thrive in two homes.  Children do best if they benefit from unqualified parenting warmth and support, respect as between their parents (or parents who accept the limitations of their relationship and minimize conflict), appropriate boundary setting and a schedule that allows for some realistic and child-focused flexibility.