As Child Mental Health Week begins, here’s ten top tips for healthy parenting approaches following separation…

As separated parents, what can you do in order to ensure children are okay and able to continue being themselves?  In this blog, we look at TEN things parents strive to do well in order to help their children continue to flourish following their parents’ separation.

  1. Looking after your own well-being.  Don’t just take our word for it.  In support of Child Mental Health week, the Duchess of Cambridge commented:

 “…there has never been a more important time to talk about parental mental health and well-being too.  Last year, you told me just how important this was, but many of us find it hard to prioritise.  This is a hugely challenging time, so please look after yourself too….we really do need to be the very best versions of ourselves for the children in our care.”

How do you look after yourself following separation when there is a lot to come to terms with?  Try naming feelings and looking to address them, rather than, as is so often the case, prioritising others.  There may be feelings of loss associated with the hopes and aspirations you took for granted, and many parents experience a deep loss and sense of devastation when they face up to the fact their children will now only live with them part of the time – most parents didn’t sign up for that.  There are also quite understandable concerns about how you will manage emotionally and financially in a one parent household. 

The important bit for children is how you go about addressing these things.  Being caught up in tension or preoccupied with worry about what you are going to need to address in the aftermath of a separation can create a barrier to actually living in the moment and alongside children.  Becoming informed is empowering since you will know more, and have more confidence, about what you can expect and what steps are likely to be necessary.  Alongside this, seek some talk therapy so that you can talk through and organise your thoughts and feelings in a way that doesn’t overwhelm you.  Knowing you have a designated time to do this and sort out all that a separation entails means you won’t have to anguish over things in a way that is uncontainable and spills into your time with your children. 

Investing time to plan, process emotions and come out reflectively with insight and ready for a next chapter, even if unwelcome, will make things far more manageable, with the positive knock-on effect of being less stressful for children. 

  1. Accepting that change is happening – when you separate and so far as your children are concerned, you might be experiencing feelings of guilt, regret, hopelessness, fear and a plethora of other emotions.  Whatever you’re feeling, when a relationship has ended it is well worth working towards acknowledging and ultimately accepting that if one parent didn’t feel they could continue, being in an unhappy household in the longer-term has been found in research to be the most affecting of all for children.  Simply put, children cannot and do not thrive in environments of conflict and tension. 

Parents do well if they recognise their romantic relationship with their children’s other parent is distinct from their ongoing parenting relationship.  Is this easy?  Absolutely not.  However, framing things in this way enables parents to make healthy and child focused decisions, as well as recognising the need to develop a new cooperative relationship that places children’s needs above all else.

  1. Be clear and open with children – explain all changes in an open, honest, age-appropriate and reassuring way.  Children need to know that there might be a difficult period of adjustment, but that at all times their needs will be at the forefront of their parents’ minds and that they won’t be brought into the conflict.  Check in with children, and make sure they feel comfortable to approach you with any questions.  There are many, but one good resource for parents wanting to explain things for children is the toolkit/video-clips on the Sesame Street website: see here
  1. Make sure children are reassured that it isn’t their fault– check in with children to make sure they understand the reason for the separation isn’t their fault.  Children often misunderstand and blame themselves, thinking that something they did caused their parents to row and separate.
  1. Do not criticise your child’s other parent; in fact, be positive about your children’s other parent – children see themselves as half of their parents and so if you say or do anything negatively in your body language, children absorb it, impacting their own confidence and self-esteem.  Think about not only what you say, but your non-verbal cues, too. 
  1. Keep children out of the conflict – children exposed to chronic conflict between parents may not be able to flourish in lots of areas in their life as they would have done had the conflict not been present.  See our previous blogs, which explain the difference between constructive and destructive conflict resolution.  Seek professional help, if required, to assist you to form strategies to manage constructive approaches to making arrangements for the children.
  1. Develop your new parenting roles – sorting out the romantic relationship from the parenting one is key.  If parents have a child together, that parenting relationship must continue (barring safety issues) for the sake of children.  Working on what you both need to do in order to respect this and then setting in place boundaries or appropriate ground-rules can help for the many years ahead.
  1. Think short, but especially medium and long term.  What children actually need is love, reassurance, proper parenting boundaries, reliable and present parenting.  Say, for example, you are in dispute about your children returning home at either 6 or 7.30 pm on a school night from an evening with their other parent.  Before talking about it, try the following exercise.  Ask yourself: “On a scale of 1 – 10, how important is this to me?” and write down the reasons why.  Then try doing the same list from the perspective of your child’s other parent, and then for each of your children.  See if your view changes once you’ve done this exercise for everyone within the family and only raise it once you’ve thought about it from everyone’s point of view.  It means you will be able to talk about the pros and cons for everyone in a considered and calm way when you come to discussing any concerns or preferences.  Remember also that there are usually more than two solutions – 6 or 7.30.  Think of a number of possible suggestions as you may find one appeals to you both.
  1. Making sure you understand – when a relationship ends, there is often a lack of trust and risk of misunderstandings.  Listening to your child’s other parent is really important, and checking back what they have said to make sure you have understood things properly is a way of double checking.  Use “I” statements rather than “you” or blame statements.  Rather than saying “you are so thoughtless when you turn up late with the children each week” try “Please could you return the children on time each week because I find it difficult to get them settled down in good time for a relax and bed if they return home any later.  They always need some down time and re-adjustment time, and I find they are tired for school on a Monday on the weeks they’ve arrived home an hour late.”  
  1. Build separated parenting skills at an EARLY stage following your separation – parenting coordinators tend to come into the picture later on i.e. when relations are strained to the extent that being constructive is proving impossible.  Often, if parents just go to see lawyers, they don’t work on the other really important facets of transitioning in a separation.  Make sure you look not only at the legal side of things, but the emotional and psychological needs of you and your children as you go through this difficult adjustment.  Developing skills and strategies at this early stage will be really hard work, but in most cases will mean lots of gains over the longer term.

In summary, it can be helpful to remember the following:

Each parent makes up half their child. A bad word or gesture against your child’s other parent is a direct blow to a child’s self-esteem.

Adult parent relationships are important to children. Investing in your parent to parent relationship will in turn impact on the quality of your parent to child relationship.

Romantic relationships must transition to constructive parenting relationships.

Long term thinking and planning pays dividends.  Children grow into adults and will reflect on the entire course of their childhood and freedom to maintain positive relationships with both parents.

You are important.  Plan and designate time to process and progress the practical and emotional elements of a separation.