Parenting through divorce and separation
As part of Children’s Mental Health Week, and this year’s theme ‘Express Yourself’, Amelia LeCoyte takes the opportunity to provide our top tips on supporting your children and their mental health through a divorce, separation or even a time of emotional turbulence.
It is important that you to communicate effectively with your children regarding the situation in a child-centred manner. Separation can be an incredibly confusing time, and children can blame themselves. While it may seem easier to disguise the truth of a situation, especially to a younger child, often taking the time to sit down and explain what is occurring and what the next steps will look like will offer a child a semblance of stability and can alleviate those feelings. Be open – talk about the divorce and their feelings around it if the subject comes up. Make time to let them talk and listen to what they have to say also.
Many children will express themselves through acting out and misbehaving due to the stress and anxiety of their parents’ split – be empathetic to the feelings that might drive these behaviours. The best thing you can do for your child right now is to be consistent; the limits you set and enforce provide much-needed structure during this difficult time.
Put your child first
Helping your child to have healthy relationships with both parents is best for everyone in the long run. Children can get caught in the middle when parents put them in the middle. Children should be shielded from any conflict you may have with your partner- the feelings of your child should come first. Whilst you may be feeling angry, upset or even betrayed, take the time to consider how involving your children in the same emotions may affect them – a good rule of thumb is to avoid saying anything negative about your ex to your child. It may for example, affect their future relationship with your partner or parent of your child, negatively affect their performance at school, relationships with friends or even with themselves.
The process of separation can be a very stressful experience for any children of the family. It is well known that children thrive in positions of stability; indeed, the Children’s Commissioner has commented that a stable home, a stable school, and strong, consistent relationships all contribute towards helping children form positive trusting relationships, feel safe, and prepare them for future success. Unfortunately, preserving the status quo can be very difficult during a period of separation.
Where you can, continue with established routines. In a time of instability, it is important that children have some semblance of certainty. For example, continue with extra-curricular activities or play-dates and keep up regular arrangements to see familiar friends and close family members who will also be able to provide valuable support.
Seek external help
Place2be.org.uk reports that 50% of those with lifetime mental health problems first experience symptoms by the age of 14. Similarly, the Guardian reports that minors ages between 7 and 14 at the time of a split exhibit a 16% rise in emotional problems, such as anxiety and depressive symptoms and an 8% increase in conduct disorders. Indeed, in the same age group, boys are more likely to display behavioural problems, such as acting up and being disobedient.
It is not a weakness to seek external help – mental health issues are treated no differently from physical ailments and the first step should be to talk to your GP. Further support and guidance can be found in charities dedicated to child mental health services such as YoungMinds.org.uk and annafreud.org. There is also a raft of useful online resources such as relate.org.uk. or even some schools offer in-house support. Alternatively, as a family, you may wish to seek guidance from a specialist family counsellor. Counselling can be extremely useful in helping family members support one another through the process of a separation; children especially are sensitive to picking up on conflict and so it is important that they have an outlet to express this.
Be a good role model
Finally, regardless of whether you are undergoing a process of separation with a partner or considering taking such steps, in the interests of protecting your child’s mental health, it is crucial that you are a good role model. Tom Madders, a Campaign Director for YoungMinds highlights the importance of building up ‘children’s resilience from a young age, and teaching them about healthy relationships, both with others and themselves.’
If you are considering divorce and would like any further advice, please contact our experienced family team on 020 3988 2020.
This post is intended to be a guide for clients and other interested parties. The information is believed to be correct at the date of publication but should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional advice. No responsibility can be accepted by us for loss occasioned to any person acting or refraining from acting as a result of any material in these publications.