Kids in the middle: Breaking up when you’re a parent

Kinderling News & Features

Splitting from a partner is difficult at any time of life, but when kids are in the equation, it becomes even more tricky.

Dr Anna Cohen, clinical child psychologist at Kids & Co. She helps families deal with these hard situations and gives seven thoughtful steps on how to manage the kids' wellbeing.

Listen to Anna on Kinderling Conversation:

1. Sort it out before telling the kids

Before telling the kids anything, you need to sort out all the logistics.

“You need to be clear on what’s going to happen,” says Anna. “Because if you’re not clear, how can we support our children to feel safe and secure in that?”

“Kids pick up on the subtle things. They are really good at feeling the vibe around them. I think it’s really important for parents to be clear on how this is going to be working and play out before they’re sharing that with kids.”

 “Every family’s different. What might work for me, might not work for you,” Anna continues. “It’s very much about empowering families to do this in a way that’s right for them, right for their children, but more than that keeping the conflict out of it so that we’re not bringing the children in to too much adult knowledge.”

2. Redefine your relationship

As well as day-to-day logistics and considering what you will share with your kids, you need to nut out how you two will interact with each other.

“I think what’s really important is a couple redefining their relationship,” says Anna. “You are always going to be co-parents here for these children. Help your kids thrive by being clear about what’s happening, treating each other well and respectfully, putting our own adult issues and conflict aside.”

3. Explain how it will work

When telling your children about a separation, there are a few things to remember. First up – don’t lie, Anna advises. “Be honest as you can be within reason. Because if you’re dishonest, you’re going to forget what you’ve shared.”

It’s also really important to pitch the explanation at the developmental level of your child.

“Often, I encourage parents to sit down together, if they can, with the children,” she says. “Make it really clear this is grownup issues, this is not about them, that mummy and daddy love them very much but have decided not to live in the same house anymore, that they’re not in trouble, and they haven’t done the wrong thing.”

Sometimes you might want to bring a counsellor into this conversation too.

“Then we need to explain to kids the structure. How’s it going to work? What’s going to happen?”

Anna believes the best way to manage a separation, where possible, is to change the kids’ lives as little as possible. Consider how would you feel if you had to live outside of a suitcase for the next 10 years; “In an ideal world, I would have it that the children would stay in a family home and us adults move in and out.”

However, she recognises that it doesn’t work for many families, and you have to find what works for you.

4. Limit conflict

While separation always happens as a result of difference, it’s important to put animosity to the side.

“Our kids can thrive in a separated context as long as we are not putting them in the middle, and we’re keeping conflict to a minimum,” Anna says. “And we can really model some amazing things to our children, like how mummy and daddy resolve conflict, that we can disagree but we can treat each other with respect. And that takes such maturity from an adult.”

5. Prepare for emotions

Kids of different ages will express their distress in very different ways, and every child responds differently, too. Listen to and watch your children for signs of emotion.

 “It is so big when caregiving parents choose to separate, and for children, they’re bereft, they’re grieving. And when children grieve, they do it in a really different way to us,” Anna explains. “So, if I’m distressed as an adult, I might be down in the dumps for a few weeks and then gradually pick up and get up on my feet. For children, it’s like being in puddles, it’s like it’s been a wet day, the sun comes out and suddenly they’re in a puddle.”

For kids, these puddles are hard to get out of; “It can take a long time and I think it stays with children through their childhood and even for young women and men as they move into adulthood. For most kids, there’s a desire for their parents to get back together, even if it wasn’t happy.”

6. Build bridges of consistency

Anna provides a really great metaphor for envisaging how your family will be.

“The notion is, we’re going to have a solid bridge where children can cross from mummy to daddy and back again. Or from mum and mum, whatever the family context is, in a way that suits the children well. And that’s what it’s about, it’s building these kids up to feel secure even though their family’s different now.”

Our children can manage when they know where the limits are. “If your routine is the same across both homes, kids feel secure because they know where the boundaries are,” Anna explains.

7. Remember the end goal

We want our kids to feel loved and protected, Anna reminds us; “That’s our goal, we have to support the kids to [feel] safe and secure.”