By Tarryn Skilling

Introduction

The dissolution of a relationship, whether a divorce or separation, is never easy and is commonly experienced alongside a plethora of conflicting emotions. Professionals frequently describe this process as akin to grieving the death of a loved one, explaining that many individuals go through a cycle of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance[1]. This underlying grief is often in response to a feeling of loss for what was or what could have been – having to say goodbye to an idealised or imagined future that is no longer possible.

As a highly complex and very individualised experience, it undoubtedly throws the parties into a period of instability and uncertainty. For those parties with children, this process is further complicated. In 2022, Statistics New Zealand reported that 5,853 children (under the age of 17 years) had parents who were granted a divorce[2], highlighting the significant number of children who are involuntarily exposed to and involved in this complex and highly emotive process.

Impact of divorce or separation on children

Researchers have identified that a key component of a child’s wellbeing is determined by the ability of their parents or caregivers to appropriately manage conflict and cooperate post-separation[3]. While some parents are able to work together amicably, many parents struggle to adjust to the changing landscape while trying to manage their own emotional turmoil and the demands of daily life. Without adequate support and coping strategies, parents often become consumed by their own experience, leaving children exposed to frequent conflict and toxicity. This can result in short-term and lasting negative effects that span into many facets of the child’s adulthood including issues with mental health, socialisation, relationships, physical health and academic performance[4].

But not all is lost. Parents have the ability to mitigate the negative effects and facilitate their child’s resilience to adapt to the separation, by considering the following.

Manage your emotions and access support

When flying in an aeroplane, passengers are always instructed to ‘secure your own oxygen mask before assisting others’ – even children, why? Because the reality is that parents need to prioritise their wellbeing to have the capacity to effectively help their child. As such, parents need to give themselves space and time to experience their emotions, without burdening their child, by developing emotional regulation skills and building a support network. As parenting capacity and skill are often compromised during highly stressful situations[5],  by using these strategies parents will be better able to implement consistent routines and appropriate rules, boundaries, and consequences, which help to create a sense of stability and normalcy for the child.  

Recognise and validate your child’s experience

Supporting the child to come to terms with the separation is particularly important. Communication, patience, and empathy are key. Finding an age-appropriate and child-focused way to explain the separation to the child (preferably together) is critical to facilitate the child’s understanding of the coming transitionary period. To avoid the risk of parents oversharing and burdening the child, or placing the child in the middle of the conflict, parents may consider accessing the Parenting Through Separation course or the abundance of online resources to help navigate this process.  

Children often experience difficult emotions and behaviours, which can be challenging for parents to manage as they navigate their own. To effectively support their child to process their feelings, it is important for parents to acknowledge and validate their child’s emotions. This can be done by helping the child to identify and name their feelings, reassuring them that it’s okay to feel the way they do, and reminding them that they are loved, safe and not at fault. By teaching children emotion regulation skills, they will develop resilience and be better equipped to manage their emotions and behaviour in the future.

Let your child have a say

Even the most well-intentioned parent, who believes they are acting in their child’s best interests, often struggle to see the impact of their behaviour on their child and are commonly ‘out of touch’ with their child’s views and emotional needs during this time[6]. This can cause a disconnect within the parent-child relationship, resulting in additional stress for the child. Researchers have found that children become more distressed if they are not told what is happening and when their feelings and views are not considered. Furthermore, parenting plans are also more effective and more agreeable when children’s perspectives are taken into account[7].

To better understand how a child is experiencing the separation, it is important for parents to actively listen to them and observe their behaviour. This will enable parents to more effectively support the child through the process. However, it is important that parents do not ask their child to choose where they want to live or use them as messengers between parents. To empower children by appropriately seeking their views and identifying their needs and best interests, the Family Court and Family Mediation processes offer Lawyer for Child and Child Specialist services. These services can further support parents in developing a parenting plan or agreement that is truly focused on the child.

 

Truly put the child’s best interest and welfare at the centre

As hard as it may be, it is imperative that parents put their thoughts and feelings about the other co-parent aside and ‘lead by example’ by not speaking negatively about the other co-parent to or around the child. This includes ensuring family members and friends practice the same. Hearing negative remarks about the other parent can be incredibly distressing for children and can cause them to feel that they need to hide their feelings or choose sides in the divorce to appease each parent.

Being amicable during transitions and normalising the co-parenting arrangement will help children adjust and feel more secure. To minimise conflict during transitions, it can be helpful to have a set of the child’s essentials at both homes (where practicable and affordable), and for parents to proactively monitor items the child needs for school. Children also benefit from having a ‘token,’ such as a soft toy or similar, that they can take between both homes to self-soothe and make them feel comfortable during transitions. Using a communication book or online application, such as Google Calendar, Our Family Wizard or 2 Houses, can help to facilitate communication of important information about the child while minimising potential conflict. 

How we can help

Parenting is hard and trying to manage the complexities of a separation or divorce can be incredibly challenging, especially when creating an appropriate parenting plan. Balancing both parent’s needs and schedules with the child’s best interests can be difficult, which is where The FDR Centre can help. Our Family Dispute Resolution (FDR) Mediation service involves specialist FDR mediators who empower parents/caregivers to negotiate flexible and creative care arrangement solutions. Alongside additional services, including Preparation for Mediation and Voice of the Child processes, FDR is a cost-effective and timely experience that has the child’s needs as the primary focus. This process can assist the child to adapt to their changing environment, improve their relationship with both parents, and build their resilience. As a result, it can minimize the long-term harm that divorce and separation can cause.[8]    

 

 

 

[1] Margola, D & Emery, R et el. (2010). Emotionally Informed Mediation. Processing Grief and Setting Boundaries in Divorce.

[2] Statistics New Zealand (2002). https://www.stats.govt.nz/information-releases/marriages-civil-unions-and-divorces-year-ended-december-2022/

[3] Australian Psychological Society (2018). Child wellbeing after parental separation. https://psychology.org.au/getmedia/8c68645b-1146-473a-9e0d-8ed660af3b7f/child-wellbeing-after-parental-separation-aps-position-statement-2018_2.pdf

[4] Cummings, E.M, & Davies, P.T. (2002). Effects of marital conflict on children: recent advances and emerging themes in process-oriented research. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 43 (1), 31-63.

[5] Lee, C. M., & Bax, K. A. (2000). Children’s reactions to parental separation and divorce. Paediatrics & Child Health, 5(4), 217–218. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2817796/

 

[6] Goldson, J. (2006). Hello, I’m a voice, let me talk: Child Inclusive Mediation in family separation. Innovative Practice Report. 1/06. https://thefamilymatterscentre.co.nz/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/Hello_Im_A_Voice.pdf.

 

[7] Goldson, J. (2006). Hello, I’m a voice, let me talk: Child Inclusive Mediation in family separation. Innovative Practice Report. 1/06. https://thefamilymatterscentre.co.nz/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/Hello_Im_A_Voice.pdf.

[8] Al-Alosi, H. (2018). Will Somebody Please Think of the Children?! Child focused and Child Inclusive Models in Family Dispute Resolution.

 

 

 

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