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Parenting through separation

Neuroscience educator NATHAN WALLIS and divorce coach KIMBERLEE SWEENEY offer ideas for getting through a breakup and supporting your children as you negotiate the world of co-parenting. By Kate Barber

Separating from a partner is incredibly stressful: the second most stressful life event for a person behind the death of a spouse, according to the Holmes and Rahe Stress Inventory. You may have broken up with your partner, but you both love the children you’ve created and want to support them the best you can through this upheaval.

Remind children you love them and that it’s not their fault.

It is vital that you tell and show your children you love them and that this hasn’t changed. Children have a tendency to blame themselves, Nathan says. So reassure, and keep reassuring, them that this decision has absolutely nothing to do with anything they have done. 

Let them know what to expect.

As Nathan says, kids will register how stressful and traumatic this is from the way you respond to it. As hard as it is, you need to be as calm and reassuring as possible. Explain what is happening – that they will be staying at Dad’s over the weekend and then yours during the week. And that this is a temporary plan until you can work out together what is the best way of making this work. 

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Focus on rituals and routines.

It may feel like your world has cracked open and you don’t know how to hold the pieces together. This is the time, says Nathan, to reinforce the rituals and routines you have in your own home – for your kids’ sense of normalcy and security and your own. For example, if you used to talk about one good thing and one bad thing that happened in your day at dinnertime, then make sure this happens every night you’re with your kids. Stick to whatever evening routines you used to have – dinner, bath, songs, stories, bed. Your children will need the predictability that comes with routines. 

You can’t control what goes on at the other house.

It is common to worry about what happens when the kids are with your ex – that they eat too much junk food or stay up too late. Nathan reminds parents that it’s usually not as bad as they think and that if it’s not something dangerous that you’d report to the police, try to let go of that worry. “Children can have different relationships with each parent and different rules and routines in their homes.”

Aim for polite, respectful communication.

It’s so important to avoid conflict in front of your children. Having parents separate and divorce is not a risk factor for kids, says Nathan. Instead, it’s the conflict that does harm.  

Kimberlee recommends “treating all communications like a business meeting. If things get heated, take some deep breaths and, if necessary, take a 20-minute break before re-engaging in conversations.” If there is ongoing conflict, you could opt to communicate via email or a family parenting app instead, she says. “This allows you to choose a time when you’re in the best frame of mind to read and then respond to messages.”

Don’t engage in conversations about your ex. 

As tempting as it may be, it’s not healthy for your children to hear you criticising their Mum or Dad. Think about the kind of adult relationship you want to have with your child, says Nathan. “Ultimately, you and your kids will get through this, and they’ll look back and know that Mum never said anything horrible about Dad or the other way around.” 

It’s also common for kids to talk about and criticise their Mum/Dad in front of you, which, Nathan says, is about children reaffirming their attachment to you. But, he says it’s important to calmly shut down any talk about the other parent.

Allow for emotions and expect changes in behaviour.

This time is highly emotional for everyone. Your child might be more clingy, more prone to outbursts or more withdrawn. Sometimes their behaviour may seem really unfair to you, and they may say things that are incredibly triggering. As hard as it is, it’s important to be sympathetic and understanding and allow them to experience these feelings and later talk about them. Nathan says you can also expect some regressions, such as a young child’s toileting or sleeping. 

Lean on whānau and friends.

You will need your own support network, and so will your kids. If your child has a special relationship with someone in the family, like a favourite aunty, it’s beneficial for them to spend more time with them, says Nathan. They may be able to share more openly how they are feeling with this trusted person.

Prioritise self-care.

Easy to give this advice, but very difficult to act on it when your stress responses are in overdrive and you’re running on empty. In her role, Kimberlee helps people who are feeling overwhelmed. She says that, as with an oxygen mask on a plane, you need to take care of yourself first so that you can then support your kids. 

Putting daily mindful practices in place helps your mental well-being, she says. For some, it might be walking or running, but for others, yoga or meditation. “Find something that gets you out of your own head for a small part of each day. You can get stuck in your story and become stagnant and toxic. To move forward, you need to take care of yourself first and foremost.”

The ideas in this story apply to circumstances where both parents are determined to do their best for their kids. Where there is physical or psychological abuse, you must get specialist help to manage the challenge of co-parenting in a way that’s safe for everyone.

NATHAN WALLIS is a father of three and foster parent and has worked through the challenge of co-parenting himself. He has a professional background in child counselling, teaching and social service management.

KIMBERLEE SWEENEY has been through a divorce and now successfully co-parents with her former partner. Prompted by her own experience, she retrained as a divorce, separation and relationship coach and founded Degrees of Separation. 

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