Family separations bring with them a great deal of emotions, for parents, children and the wider family. As parents adjust to co-parenting finding ways to connect, interact and support children in an optimal way is paramount. Whilst some families glide into co-parenting, others can find that the transition is more difficult and the uncertainty of the best ways to support children can feel difficult to navigate.
So, whilst the list of strategies and approaches is endless, here’s five ways that you can underpin your behaviours and reactions to co-parenting to best support children in the transitions.
- Keep child centred – work at their pace
Co-parenting is an adjustment for parents and children, however, for children, the transition can be fraught with anxiety, worry and uncertainty. Particularly around when they will see their parent again and what will happen next. In many cases, parents may have been planning or been aware that the separation would occur long before children know, and therefore children are behind the curve and can enter a shock state of fight-flight in the immediate months (and sometimes years) after. Each child will have their own reaction, and as adults, we need to meet them where they ARE and not where we are. Take time to observe, listen and process what they are showing and telling you through their words, questions, silences and behaviours and support them from that point. Also, be aware that sometimes, initially they may be coping well, but in some situations children’s responses to the separation may not become clear until after new routines have been established and things feel safe again. Our thoughts, decisions and actions need to take into account your child’s coping system and speed, and therefore, dropping comparisons, even between siblings, is paramount to offering your child the best support.
- Stay in contact creatively
Connection is vital to relationships, but that doesn’t mean it all needs to be by phone or Facetime. Staying in contact with children creatively can be a wonderful way to strengthen relationships, especially when you may not be with your child all the time. This can include, writing letters, sending pictures, a personalised pillow for their bed, creating photo postcards (check out the app Touchnote) or even making fun videos to send to one another. Think how good you feel when you receive personalised post? In those moments when you are not there, a photo postcard or personalised pillow on their bed can be a wonderful comfort that they will see you again soon and a reminder that they are in your thoughts.
- Memory books, boxes and jars
Children can worry that they may be forgotten when they are not with you. They may also be anxious about what is happening next or changes that might occur. Creating a memory book of photos and trips you have made, or fun activities at home, such as drawings or tickets offers an opportunity to document your connections and to be a reminder to children of memories and fun. You may also create a planning jar, where they can document any ideas for trips, visits or activities that they would like to share with you so they have a mind-set that there ‘will be more’ memories in the future.
- Keep conversations constructive
Children need to have child appropriate conversations. Ensure that when they hear you talk about their other parent it is constructive. Sharing your own anger, frustrations or upset at the other parent is not healthy for them, and can do your own relationship with them damage in the future. If children consistently hear negative stories, adult issues and have these projected onto their own relationship it can create heightened anxiety and worries for them. It can cause them to feel that they cannot share their own worries for fear of upsetting you so are unable to process what it in their own thoughts. In turn, this closes communication and means that children are more likely to bottle up their feelings causing them distress. Children need adults to role model positive coping strategies to them, which in turn also aids positive mental well-being. If the relationship with the co-parent has disintegrated, then look at alternative options such as mediation or asking a friend or family member to be an impartial support where required when there needs to be liaison. Parents may also consider attending talk therapies to work through their own feelings about the breakup to better support their children. Children learn about relationships from the relationships around them, and will take these patterns of behaviour into their future, careful consideration needs to be given to what you therefore want to teach them about communication and partnerships.
- Support change and transitions in advance
If there are further transitions occurring, such as house moves, new partners and changes in routines, plan in advance, seek advice and work with your child to help them process them. We know how we feel as adults when huge changes are pushed upon us, so it is vital that children are given time, support and opportunity to ask questions to process these changes too. For instance, if one parent is moving house; taking time for them to view the home, choose the colour of their bedroom and plan where their furniture will go aids their transitions much more than turning up and finding their things in a strange place which they were not expecting. Children’s brain development means that they can react impulsively and if they are unprepared they may react in an unexpected or raw manner simply because they were unprepared and scared.
There is not a one size fits all approach to supporting children in separation. Just the size that fits YOUR child. Taking time to work with the co-parent, with professional support if needed, can best help your child adjust and manage the situation and come out of it with positive coping strategies and well-being.
For therapeutic support for your child please visit www.astepatatime.org.uk
For children’s books about change and transitions visit www.adventuresofbrian.co.uk