Cath Hunter explains how young children can be affected by their parents’ divorce or separation, and suggests ways in which practitioners can help them to adjust…
When parents decide to separate it can be both frightening and confusing for young children. The level of upset they will experience can vary enormously depending on their age, understanding of what is happening, the level of hostility between the parents and the support they receive from family and friends. A child may feel a strong sense of loss, even if they still see both parents regularly. When parents separate it can result in other losses too, such as moving house, perhaps away from family and friends, a change of nursery or alterations to childcare arrangements. This may happen if both parents now need to work for financial reasons. All these changes can take a great deal of adjustment for everyone involved but can be particularly difficult for young children, who may not have the language to put their thoughts and feelings into words.
Both emotional and behavioural difficulties may occur when parents are separating. The situation can make a child feel very insecure; they may regress to an earlier stage of development and difficulties like bedwetting and nightmares may occur. The child may become scared of going to bed due to fear that the remaining parent will leave while they are asleep. All of these reactions need to be dealt with calmly and with compassion and understanding. Their behaviour may become more aggressive and controlling, for example, refusing to do things as a way of exerting control where they can. The behaviour may occur after they have visited the parent who is living apart from the family as they try to express their anger, confusion and frustration about the situation. Some children become quiet and withdrawn and they will need plenty of explanations and reassurance to help them understand and express their feelings.
A child may become more clingy and find it hard leaving either parent, as they may worry that if one parent has left then the other one may follow. They may become more angry towards either parent as they try to make sense of what is happening and they may feel responsible for causing the parent to leave. They may have become more fearful and need lots of reassurance that they are still loved by both parents and that the situation is not their fault.
The child may also be very reluctant to leave one parent to spend time with the other, and then have a tantrum when it is time to leave the other parent at the end of a visit. This is natural for the child in the circumstances, and if it can be managed with love and support, it will make it easier for everyone. Most children long for their parents to get back together and will be looking for this to happen and need reminders that things will be different from now on.
The child needs both parents to be open and honest with them and explain exactly what is happening, using language that is appropriate for their age and stage of development. It can be useful to say something like, “Mummy and Daddy are each going to have their own house and you will be spending time at each house, so you will still see us both.” There are relevant storybooks for children of different ages that are useful and can help the child understand the situation more easily. These can also help children to ask questions, which is very important for children if they are to make sense of what is happening.
Provide the child with reassurance that the separation is not their fault, and ensure they have understood what is happening and where they will be living. Involve them in choosing things for the new home such as wallpaper or a new bed so they feel involved and will settle more quickly when they start to stay there.
Parents can help the child by making sure they know that they still have two parents who love them and will continue to care for them. They should ensure that children are protected from adult worries and responsibilities, for example, not discussing financial concerns in front of them. They should try to maintain a good relationship with each other for the child so they do not hear or become involved in arguments between the parents, and refrain from criticising the other parent in front of the child as this can be upsetting and confusing – “Why does everyone think my dad is a bad man?” can be very hard to understand at any age.
As a practitioner it is essential that you respond positively to both parents when they collect the child, and stay detached and professional in order to ensure the child doesn’t pick up on your feelings – for example, “Sarah always looks cross when Daddy collects me, maybe she doesn’t like him”. Support the parents by explaining the impact on their child and working with them to ensure they feel safe and secure. Encourage them to bring in an attachment object from home such as a favourite teddy or toy to provide the child with an additional sense of security and stability. Check with parents on a weekly basis who will be collecting the child each day and make a chart for the child with photos so you can show them and remind them during the day. Check with parents that mother’s/father’s day cards will be passed on to the other parent.
Provide regular opportunities to make choices wherever possible during the day – e.g. choice of fruit, toy, etc. – so the child feels in control and to build confidence. Offer extra support, comfort and reassurance to the child and ensure you make time to spend with them; they may need more individual support. Keep in mind that they may be more clingy and anxious, and may struggle sharing with other children, wanting to keep things for themselves out of fear of further losses occurring. Keep routines as consistent as possible, especially with regard to staff absences, and keep the child informed about times when staff will be away – for example, “Anna will be on holiday next week.” You could produce a chart with staff members’ working days on, showing the child when they will return to the setting.
Whatever has gone wrong and resulted in the breakdown of the relationship, both parents still have a crucial role to play in their child’s life. If all the adults in the child’s life can work together to ensure they fully support the child, then this can lessen the pain and disruption to the child and enable them to manage the situation more easily.
Cath Hunter is a therapeutic consultant, trainer, play therapist and supervisor.