Splitting up is incredibly stressful for parents, and devastating for their children. There are, however, ways to side-step the fighting between you and instead create a working partnership to continue caring for your child. The way to this is a child-centered divorce, where the focus moves from the breakdown of the relationship to the ongoing wellbeing of the child.
We spoke to Nicola Baldwin, Parenting Lead at Fegans Charity, for advice on how parents can approach their breakup.
It’s not your fault
‘Firstly, it’s really important to tell the children that it’s not their fault. Even though it’s obvious to the parent it’s not always obvious to the child. It’s really important that they tell them that,’ advises Nicola.
Prepare children for what’s happening
It’s best to let the child know what’s going to happen before the divorce, if possible. ‘The routine is the main thing- they know when they’re going to see each parent, what they’re going to do and who is picking them up from school every day. All that kind of thing relieves a lot of anxiety,’ says Nicola. For younger children it can be helpful to have a visual routine up on the wall, like a calendar.
Reassure them that they’re loved
Tell the children that you still love them and that the split wont change that. Frame it as ‘we’re not getting on at the moment so we are going to live in two houses’.
Set aside time to talk
‘Give your child some ‘worry time’ where they can talk to you about their feelings,’ says Nicola. Children will often want to talk at bedtime as when they’re going to sleep is when they worry. However, you can introduce the idea at another time during the day.
Stick to what you say you’re going to do. ‘Sometimes changes to plans are unavoidable but to get that trust with your child, if you say you’re going to pick them up at 3 then be there at 3. It reassures them that they are important to you,’ advises Nicola.
Try child-led play
Child-led play is when you join your child in playing, following along with their ideas. ‘If you join them in child-led play you’ll often find they’ll play out their emotions at the time. They might make their toys go to a different house. If you role play that with them it helps,’ says Nicola.
Take care of yourself
In the midst of an acrimonious split, it’s important to focus on self-care for both parents. Do things that you like and enjoy and find ways to relax and calm down. This works to the benefit of everybody, making parents calmer both for themselves and for the benefit of the children.
Avoid arguing in front of kids
It’s easy to feel you need to get things off your chest in the moment, but it’s better for children not to witness parents at war.
‘If they do hear anything, say I’m sorry mummy and daddy were having an argument, we do still love you and we will work this out.’ says Nicola.
Arrange what needs to be arranged but otherwise keep communication to a minimum- try not to be involved in other games or squabbles with your ex.
Get your feelings out
A split can be incredibly tough and it’s important to get your feelings out somehow. Chat to a friend, keep a journal, or even write down everything you’d ideally like to say to your ex- then bin it.
Focus your communication with your ex on the child
When communicating with your ex, try using language that keeps the focus on the wellbeing of the child- e.g. ‘she would really like it if you could come to her play on Thursday’. Using this kind of language keeps you both on track with making the child the priority rather than on any bad feeling between you.
Think of the future
While things may be raw and emotional at the start, try to bear in mind the fact that you’ll have to deal with your ex for many years to come- you’ll both be at your child’s wedding, for example. In 15 years time do you still want to be arguing? Aim to think of how you’d like the future to be and act accordingly.
Acknowledge your emotions
And let your child acknowledge theirs. Accept however you’re feeling, and allow yourself to grieve your relationship. You’ll need time to process what’s happened, as will your child. There’s no need to rush it, and let your emotions be- don’t try to fight them.
Ensure you’re calm when talking to your child
When you’re stressed about dealing with your ex it can be tempting to vent your frustrations to your child. Take good care of yourself to make sure you’re as relaxed as possible so you can cope with the situation.
You can also ask your child how they feel about the split. Allow them to be open and honest and aim to take their feelings on board- even if they are hard to hear.
Keep communication on a child’s level
It doesn’t have to be ‘mummy cheated on me’, it could just be ‘we’re not getting on’,’ says Nicola.
Continuity and contact
If daddy normally takes his son to football, it would be best if that arrangement continues during the split. Children draw great comfort from a reliable routine.
Sadly, when a parent has left the family home, children can feel that the parent has moved on and doesn’t want them anymore. It’s important, therefore, to be consistent with phone calls and contact to avoid making children feel like you have given up on them.
Focus on the good
However you may feel about your ex, if they are fundamentally a good parent to your child then focus on that and the benefits of it.
Keep communication simple and stress-free
If conversations often lead to blows then stick to text or email. If even that doesn’t work then use a notebook to communicate between you- noting things such as health concerns regarding your child or necessary changes to arrangements. There Our Family Wizard app is also a great tool for organising a child’s life between ex partners.
Free Parenting After Separation Course
We offer a free Parenting After Separation course which offers more helpful advice about co-parenting. Sign up here.