Children’s adjustment to a parental separation isn’t a one-off situation: it keeps changing as the child develops, and as the family configuration changes.
Here are some key things to remember. Firstly, a separation is a huge change in a child’s life. They didn’t ask for it and probably don’t want it. But they have no choice in the matter. So are we really asking them to cope with a loss of the family structure and environment that they knew, a probable decline in the amount of fun family time, and new financial constraints, with no reaction? They will probably be unhappy, and being children they will show it. This is a good thing – at least we can see what is troubling them, and offer some help. Withdrawal isn’t helpful at all, and it’s worrying.
Often the main things driving events are the adults’ emotional states. The ex-partners might be caught up in a whirl of upset, anger and retribution. Alongside the changes mentioned above, that’s a lot for a child to manage! Don’t be surprised if they show that they are having problems. Unfortunately it’s the adults’ lot to not only try and hang on through all of their own distress and upheaval, but to keep a close eye on the children’s needs, and help them.
Often children are expected to welcome new partners with a smile and a desire to build a relationship with them. Well that’s optimistic, isn’t it? The child not only didn’t choose for their parents to separate but they certainly didn’t go out and choose the new partner! If they are over the age of 7-ish, they are likely to react primarily with resentment. Why should they accept someone new (who they may think they don’t like) who takes up their parent’s time, may be sleeping in their parent’s bedroom (!) and who might tell them off or do things differently? Building a new configuration that works, takes quite a bit of time. The key thing is to ease in changes gradually, and to take the child’s sensibilities into account. The people who are new to each other need to get to know each other properly and honestly – and then they can decide if they can tolerate each other! Pleading or threats won’t help in this situation – the best way forward is for a real relationship to grow and blossom over time and through shared activities.
The main signs of stress that a child isn’t coping with, will be new reactions, emotions or behaviours that are more than just transient. These may show up as anxiety ( worrying, not sleeping, feeling afraid, refusing to go places) . Or – mood changes. A child may cry often, be moody, grumpy, angry, or down. “Bad” behaviours may surface – or refusal to go on access visits, sometimes accompanied by screaming or hiding. Older children can change their friendships or social habits, become rude, or disengage from their school work. If these signs don’t resolve quickly, it’s likely that the child feels overwhelmed and is “in too deep” to know what to do next.
Access issues are usually quite complicated. Tempers can run high where one parent feels the other isn’t flexible enough or isn’t doing enough, and the other feels that their rights are being trampled on. Children don’t usually want things in a way that completely matches their parents’ sensibilities and different siblings can want different things too. Often one parent feel s that the other is not pulling their weight or fulfilling their duties. There may be a history or verbal, emotional or physical abuse which leads to a great deal of fear or distress in one of the parents; and sometimes one parent feels at a huge disadvantage to the other one – in terms of rights over the children, lifestyle, or finances. They may continue to feel abused and victimised by their ex-partner.
This isn’t exactly fertile ground for a good start to a new life with your children. Make sure that you have adequate support and if you are concerned about the children, get someone to take a supportive look at how they are going.