Children tend to “act up”, or “misbehave” when they are feeling insecure, and few things in a childs life cause as much insecurity as the separation of his or her parents. It is critically important for parents to recognize that any behavioural issues at this difficult time are understandable and do not mean the child is “bad” or “disrespectful”. It simply means the child is frightened, because he or she is a normal healthy human being and acting the way any normal, healthy human child acts when he or she is scared.
Unfortunately, parents are often emotionally drained, completely stressed out, and struggling with their own self-esteem and other issues related to the separation. It is challenging to try to be strong for your children, so the idea is to do the best that you can. This isnt a “test” and I hope youll be kind and loving to yourself if you have difficulty doing some of these things.
Having said that, it can be reassuring and empowering to know that there is SO much you can do to protect your child. Do you think your ex-partner is 99% of the problem? That makes it all the more important that you do what you can by concentrating on the 1% you can control. If your former partner is not prioritizing or protecting the children it becomes that much more critical that you do.
Following these steps, while often very difficult and confronting, will go a long way towards protecting your child(ren) from the potentially devastating emotional impact of the separation of his or her parents:
1) Do not expose children to conflict
If there are problems with “change-overs” or phone calls, figure out a better way to handle. Most important, respond to verbal attacks by being unwavering in your commitment to be kind and gentle and respectful.
2) Maintain logistical stability
Keep things as “normal” as possible in the childrens routine. Any continuity in a childs life is a real blessing for him at this time when the world is turning upside down.
3) Prioritize your own emotional stability
Take care of yourself, because your children know if you are struggling and it makes them fearful and insecure. Eat well, sleep well and exercise and dont feel guilty about having fun, going out or having time to yourself. Individual counseling, meditation and yoga can also be a powerful tools at this time.
4) Dont say anything bad about the other parent
We are literally made up of half of each of our parents. When you criticize your childs other parent, you are saying something bad about your child. If you could “convince” your child that her other parent is a terrible person, what sort of victory would that be? Can you imagine how frightening a prospect it would be for a child to know she is part of, and has to visit and depend upon, a parent she now believed was “evil”?
5) Tell the truth
Children always need to trust their parents and this is never more true than when everyone is going through the trauma of separation. This doesnt mean tell them everything but it does mean not to tell them things that arent true. You are much better off saying “I dont want to tell you that” than making something up that is not really the truth.
6) Use the three-part response to difficult statements
We cannot truthfully say “oh, how nice” every time our child repeats anything he or she was told by the other parent. For example, if your son comes home from his father and says “Mommy, Daddy says youre a bad person”, how can you respond by being truthful (see #5 above) but also not saying anything bad (see #4 above). It is NOT easy, but there are three steps:
Ask your child how it made him feel (Prioritize your childs feelings, not your reaction).
Tell your child how much you love her and maybe emphasize it with a big hug or cuddle. If your child still wants to know WHY it was said, tell him you dont know, and encourage him, in a loving way, to ask the other parent.
7) Do not ask questions about the other parent
This puts a child in a very difficult position. Let her choose what and how she wants to tell you about the other parent, and leave it at that.
8) Celebrate and support the other parent as much as you can
This isnt easy, but it can be an amazing gift for your child. If you can send something to the other parent with the child, such as a school photo, it is a huge gift for the child (to see the cooperation). Remember your gift is for your child, not for your ex.