Covid -19 lockdown has put a lot of relationships under pressure and unfortunately, this has led to an increase in parents deciding to separate, but still co-parent. This article relates particularly to young children and provides guidance on how you can make a move towards separation as smoothly and easily as possible for the child. The age I have particularly in mind is 3 to 7. I plan to provide guidance for adolescents and young adults in a future article.
- The good news is that when it comes to separation, the younger the better. The child has had less time with the parents together and therefore has less to miss. In addition, memories will not be lingering in the consciousness, think back to how much you can remember from when you were four?
- The bad news is that the child at that age has only just begun to become aware that they don’t control the world and will tend to feel responsible for everything. There is a real danger of your child thinking that he/she has done something wrong to make this happen.
- Comprehension. Children at that age understand much more than you realise. Their comprehension is much more advanced than their communication. The best thing to understand this is to imagine you can speak a foreign language as well as your four-year-old can speak English. In a conversation with others, you would struggle to say everything you need to, but you would understand a whole lot more. Children also love listening, they are very good at helping you to forget that they are there. I used to hide under the dining room table when that age and listen to the adult conversation. So, choose times and places for difficult conversations.
- Projection. Adults very often keep difficult information or concepts from children to ‘protect them’. I often wonder if it is more about protecting the adults! Anyway, if the information is vague, ambiguous, unclear, the child will project onto that uncertainty their own imagination. With separation, the child may project that something they said caused their parents to split, or that the father has left because they were naughty, or dad has been kidnapped by space aliens, and so on. It is therefore vital to be absolutely clear that this is NOTHING to do with the child or any siblings. That the child is wonderful, you both love the child very much and it is simply that you two do not get on and would be better apart. Sit the child down and explain that mummy and daddy are not getting on well at the moment and would prefer to live apart. It is nothing to do with the child who you both love lots and think is amazing. ‘One of us will be living in another place, but will be coming to see you loads’, or you will be going to see mummy or daddy in their new place (share your parenting plan) to have fun, be safe and be looked after. The beauty of this is that it does allow for reconciliation if that is a possibility. At that point you can tell the child that you’ve decided that you can live together again, or alternatively that the arrangement worked so well that it will continue permanently. I have recommended two great books at the bottom of this article to help explain things and accentuate the positive to your child. They may not completely accurately describe your situation, but as you read them to, or with your child, you can discuss any differences.
- Include any babies or toddlers in the explanation to your child. I don’t mean have the toddler there. In fact, it may be best to do it when that child is having a nap or at nursery (see comprehension above, applies at virtually any age). What I mean is avoid your child thinking that it may be their sibling’s fault, so we love ‘both of you’ is the way to go.
- Don’t self-flagellate and beat yourself up in front of the child. You are human and it hasn’t worked. You want them to feel that their future is changing, not necessarily terrible. Invariably, it is better for the child to experience separation than a loveless relationship, or constant bickering or worst. In therapy children will often talk of their relief at the end of tension in the home and the anxiety that has caused them.
- Do not underestimate routine – it is vital. Children need to know what is happening and when they don’t they start to feel confused and helpless. Agree a plan between yourselves and explain it to your child. I would recommend making a monthly calendar and putting it on the child’s wall. To provide an example, let’s say the children are living with mum, but dad may take the children to school/nursery some days, then that goes on the calendar (‘daddy gets breakfast and takes you to school’) – picture of school bag and cereal. If they are going to dad’s for tea once a week and perhaps be put to bed by him, those days would go on with a picture of sausage and chips and a bed. It should be the same days each week! ‘Thursday is daddy gets tea day’. Rhythm matters. Perhaps you would each have the children every other weekend, that would go on, with a picture of a stick mummy or daddy leaping around with two stick children. Get the picture?
- Agree a bedtime and morning routine that you will both stick too. This can differ at weekends or school holidays.
- When planning, this can seem fraught, that is not always having your children with you, but parenting is hard work, particularly if one or both of you are now single parents and you will very likely find the odd evening or weekend off valuable for your own energy levels and dare I say, sanity.
- Consistency. This is also vital. You should both do all in your power to keep to the schedule. This will help your child to feel safe in the world. Obviously, stuff happens, when it does explain very carefully the reason for the change and make clear this is a ‘one off’.
- Try to avoid the child feeling ‘odd’ or different. Explain that there are lots of families with two homes. If you can, refer to a split family that you know.
- Trust and mutual support. Once a routine sets in any child will try to ‘work the system’ a bit. The more the child senses space between you in parenting, the more they will exploit that, ‘mum lets me have an ice cream before tea’, ‘dad lets me play Mario all morning’ and so on. At the time the best thing to do is just to ‘straight bat ‘it. ‘Does he, well you’re with me at the moment and I don’t.’ Discuss these incidents with each other. ‘Did you really let him/her play Mario all morning?’With the child it is better that you just let him/her know that it’s a waste of time to try, rather than get into an argument about the truth, check the truth with each other. See it as your child being a rascal trying to get the best he/she can out of the situation. Your child is a child, not an adult, the brain is still forming and at least you are being shown that they are not on the autistic spectrum! Always support each other as parents and trust each other to honour each other. Hold firm in this. You will both need to be honest and recognise you are both human and neither is perfect, be kind. ‘Daddy, mummy said you are an idiot!’. ‘Hmm. She must have been tired’. Later: ‘Did you call me an idiot?”. “Oh, I’m so sorry, you had forgotten to wash her uniform so I was not in the best of moods, I’ll be more careful about my language.” If you can pull this one off, you will feel immense pride and satisfaction as parents, quite rightly.
- Do think ‘viva la difference’ about the small things, within reason, children can accept parents doing things differently, or you will both drive yourselves mad. A level of mutual parenting tolerance is important. Choose your battles. The best response is always (if about something not that important): ‘he/she may well allow that, but I don’t’, as the child asks to put jam on her chips. Be prepared to disagree and don’t overreact to the odd difference of approach, try to discuss things calmly and come up with a compromise and save those conversations for things that ‘really matter’. As an example, my jam on chips scenario becomes rather more important if the child is diabetic and will need discussion rather than ‘letting it go’! I have recommended an excellent book by Karen Woodall, once more details at the bottom of this article. I suggest parents read it and discuss it together – that will make such a difference, if you envisage difficulties in advance.
- Very often one parent will have care of the child more than the other. This can mean that one parent becomes the ‘discipline’ parent and the other becomes the ‘fun’ parent. Don’t worry too much about this, in therapy it is amazing how many kids understand that it is the boring parent who is making sure that they are safe and cared for.
- The hugely influential child psychotherapist, Donald Winnecott, came up with this wonderful phrase, ‘good enough parenting’. His point was that ‘bad parenting’ is obviously not good. But, neither is ‘perfect parenting’, because it does not teach the child about human fallibility and the imperfect world they have to survive in. So, the odd mistake is fine, it is how you handle it. Remember, you are trying to be ‘good enough parents’, it really does help. Be kind to yourselves. And remember, you are teaching the child that you can both cope with not being perfect, so the child can cope with not being perfect too. You are modelling that imperfection is okay and survivable!
- I have an ambivalent attitude to ‘family days’. If the parents do not get on that well, the child senses the tension and can become anxious and sad. It is even worse if the parents argue in front of the children. On the other hand, if the parents work at it and provide a lovely family day, the child will see what they have missed and once more be sad! Catch 22. As mentioned before, children will desperately hope that their parents will get back together and such a day can give them false hope. It can be confusing for them. An irony about divorce, is that as children get older they can start to appreciate the two birthdays, two Christmases, two holidays in the summer as almost compensatory. I often hear this from youngsters in therapy. Having said that, if parents want to give their children a lovely family day, who am I to prevent that?! But, do bear all this is mind and position exactly what is happening carefully with the child.
Karen and Nick Woodall: ‘The Guide for Separating Parents; putting your children first’.
Richy K Chandler: ‘You make your parents super happy’.
Vicki Lansky: ‘It’s not your fault koko bear’.
Ó Shaun A Goodwin 18/8/20