Parenting after separation can be very difficult, as parents have to contend with their own feelings about the relationship breakdown, while also focusing on the children. However, separation should not mean the end of a relationship with the children, for either parent. The family will continue, but in a different form and all children have a right to know both their parents and to grow up with their love and support. Separation is a common event in the community today, but still represents a major life stressor for those involved. Over 50% of all separations involve children under the age of 18, so knowing how to facilitate children’s adjustment is crucial. Of major importance is the maintenance of a secure emotional base for children after their parents separate. Children adjust better to separation when there is effective and constructive resolution of conflict between the parents, nurturing, authoritative parenting from at least one parent, and good inter-parental communication.
After separation, many couples follow one of three different pathways:
No- contact Parenting
The parents are completely estranged and the children may have contact with only one parent or very little contact, with the second one. Statistically, it is most likely that it will be men who will lose contact with their children. Most children fear the loss of a parent at separation and thus, nearly 30% get to experience their worst fear. The parent losing contact may also be traumatised by the experience.
Often the separated parents start off with contact from both but due to continuous and bitter conflict, one may simply give up. No matter how acrimonious the split, for the sake of the children it is essential that every effort is made to allow both parents access to the children, unless there is genuine cause for concern in respect of their safety and wellbeing.
Conflicted or Parallel Parenting
Contact with the children is maintained by both parents but there is little communication between them or else it is usually argumentative. There is often conflict over arrangements such pick ups/ drop offs, child support and flexibility and both parents blame each other for the problems. Sometimes the children will be involved by trying to change their loyalties and having to listen to one parent ‘bad mouthing ‘the other. This leads to children misbehaving, especially after contact visits and they may have to develop separate strategies to relate to the two sets of families. This is a high risk situation for them and may lead to the development of more severe behavioural issues over time
Some parents do successfully maintain this pathway with little contact between them but usually the children are older and in effect, each parent parents alone. With no communication between the households, there is no way of co-ordinating parenting responses when problems arise, especially as the children become teenagers.
This is the ideal style of parenting after separation. The parents continue to work together to nurture and care for their children and try to maintain relationships with all members of the family as possible, including extended family members. Each parent has to respect the other’s right to be a parent, despite the issues which may lay between them and will communicate clearly to their children that the other parent still loves them and will remain in their lives. In effect, the major focus is on the children’s well being and conflict between the parents is set aside as much as possible, in order to do this.
Guidelines for the co-operative parent:
- Support your former partner’s role as a parent
- Settle problems between you, don’t involve the children
- Make decisions on the children’s needs not on equality of time etc
- Do not expose the children to high levels of conflict between you
- Carefully consider their children’s developmental and emotional needs when constructing visiting schedules or parenting plans
- Remember that it is unlikely that you or your former partner will make changes in the way that you behave, especially the behaviours that you disliked in each other while you were together
- Redefine your relationship as more of a business one with clear agreements and arrangements
Many parents move from one pathway to another over the time required to share parenting. As the initial pain of the separation is dealt with and one or both partners enter into new relationships, it is sometimes more possible to move towards a co-operative style if it has initially been conflicted. However, no matter how conflicted the parents are, it is important that open communication is maintained to deal with the changes arising from the development of new family units and the changing needs of the children as they grow up.
Co-operative parenting at its best means that the children will know that they are loved and secure despite their parents’ split and they will not feel obliged to take sides or blame themselves for the breakup.