Put your children first, but donít forget to look after yourself as well.
In my previous article Parenting And Mental Health, I spoke about my family's current situation, which has led to my partner and I living apart, and me becoming the primary caregiver for our son.
My experience is my own and may not be relatable to others, but here are 6 things I have learned along the way about managing family breakup:
1. Children ALWAYS come first.
Us adults are inclined to think about what we want when there is a separation, and the best interests of children can fall second to what adults want. My situation is nowhere near as complex as some, but I still found that many of the adults involved were so wrapped up in their own wants that they ceased to think about what was best for Little C for a while.
In a situation like this, what adults want is actually not that important. What is important is what the children need. Remember, separation can be very difficult for a child who relies heavily on routine and predictability, and one of the biggest stresses a child experiences in separation is not knowing what to expect, or when to expect it, or who to expect it from.
As a parent, your job is to say ďforget what anybody wants or what I feel; what is best for my child?Ē
If you keep this as your focus, the outcome for your child will be far better. Itís not easy, because doing what is best for your child will sometimes conflict with the wishes of others, but their wellbeing is key.
2. Children are ALWAYS innocent.
No matter what the reason for the separation, children are never EVER to blame. Remind them of this fact regularly, and follow it up with action.
Be careful to never even imply that the child had anything to do with it. Itís so easy to say things like, ďIf Robbie hadnít been crying that night, maybe my partner wouldnít have been so stressed.Ē
As an adult, you will understand that the crying was only a factor and not the cause, but all your child will hear is ďitís Robbieís fault.Ē Think carefully about how your child will perceive your words.
3. Children are not weapons.
When someone has hurt you, your first instinct may be to keep your child away from them. While this is a normal reaction, it is also the cause of many ugly and unnecessary court battles for visitation or custody.
You need to put your own issues aside and understand that your children have a right to see both parents. Refusing to do so means that you are using your child as a pawn to hurt the other, even if this is not your intention.
There is an exception; if you have legitimate concerns about your childís welfare when they are left alone with their other parent, you need to seek legal advice in order to protect them.
4. Children should never feel like they have to choose.
Children are very observant and absorb everything, even if they donít show it. When there is a significant disruption to their life, they are likely to be trying to understand why, and they will be looking for clues.
Itís normal to be angry and want to talk or vent about what has happened, and blame the other parent, but ensure you never do this if there is any chance your child could overhear.
Remember that your child loves both of you. Put your own feelings aside in the presence of your children and reinforce their feeling of security by making positive comments about their other parent, such as, ďDaddy loves you very much and he wants to see you this weekend. Heís going to come to your football match because heís proud of you.Ē No matter how you feel about the other parent, encourage that relationship; it is in your childís best interests.
Make opportunities for the child to spend quality time with both parents, and actively encourage this contact. Always be civil to the other parent while your children are present. Make things as easy as possible for your child; theyíre intuitive and will pick up on hostility and tension.
5. Become a master in the art of negotiation.
Nothing smoothes the adjustment to a two-household family quite like everybody getting along, and the easiest way to make that happen is to quickly learn how to meet other people halfway.
There are several advantages to this, with the main advantage being people are more open to amicable solutions if they feel as though they are being respected. The flow-on effect is that children are less likely to be caught in the middle.
If possible, sit down with relevant parties and ensure that everyone comes to an agreement about what is best for the children. This may mean that you negotiate sleepovers with grandparents or visits with aunts and uncles, or that you take turns being present at special events or teacher interviews, etc.
Negotiate how medical or behavioural issues will be handled, who will be responsible for the day-to-day care and how they will keep the other parent involved. Work out together what the issues are, and work together to find ways to solve them. Aim to provide consistency for your child.
This is easier said than done, but it results in a much better outcome for everybody if the adults can act like adults.
6. Seek impartial support.
Separation is hard on anyone, and carries a lot of hurt and grief. You need help to work your way through that, no matter what the cause of the separation was, and itís always a good idea to seek support from someone outside of the situation. You need to be able to talk about whatís going on with somebody who wonít influence your decisions or take sides.
There are professional and community supports available in most areas, although there may be a waiting list or fee to access them. Itís important that you seek support at this crucial time, because issues that are allowed to fester will always manifest in destructive ways. You may find that resentment grows, or you become depressed, or that stress could build up and result in some kind of mental health breakdown (even if you are not predisposed).
Never underestimate the value of just talking to someone. It might not fix the issues, but it will help you see them with a clear mind. Put your children first, but donít forget to look after yourself as well.