Children are deeply affected by the separation of parents. In Germany, about 200,000 marriages go to pieces every year, involving around 150,000 children. Also, there is a statistically unrecorded number of children of unmarried couples who separate.
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separation of children
The psychologist Claus Koch writes in the “time” that the fact that so many marriages are eventually divorced is, paradoxically, also a positive message for these children. The separation of the parents no longer causes a social blemish today; separation children are no longer stigmatized unlike a few decades ago.
For many children – and certainly not just those affected – the fact of separated parents is now a possible “normal case.” The other side of the coin is that children today have to fear much more than before that their parents will eventually break up. Openly, they express this fear rarely, many children, it is just too familiar – especially in family disputes.
Parenting rules help children cope with separation
When an emergency occurs, a world collapses for children. They experience themselves and their parents as a single entity. The fact that mom and dad were not together at one time or another, that they lived in different places and that they used to have other partners, is inconceivable to them.
The separation of the parents they experience as a tragedy whose reasons they often can not understand yet. However, Claus Koch also writes that this does not mean that this traumatic experience will shape her life in the long term.
Two major US studies on the development of children of divorced parents show that they are inferior to children from “intact families” neither regarding personal success in school and work nor their attachment and relationship skills.
They are especially at risk of social and psychological problems when they feel abandoned or even feel guilty in the process of separation. On the other hand, if mother and father adhere to specific rules of conduct, their children have an excellent chance of surviving the divorce of their parents unscathed.
The critical point is that many children blame themselves for not wanting to live together anymore. For younger children, straightforward questions can come from everyday life: Had I cleaned my room better, my parents might not have had to argue all the time.
Because I was bad at school, my parents part now … Many children are plunged into great uncertainty by the separation of parents and fear that even the parent they live with could eventually leave them.
Psychologists know that, especially for the children, the first two years after separation are susceptible and they need the support of both parents. The very way they say it to their children can set the course for a long time.
The conversation about it – age-appropriate, with both parents, without reproaches and argument
Well, if the decision to separate, the child does not meet completely unprepared. Unfortunately, life is different in many cases – often a parent is completely surprised by the decision of the partner. If at all possible, divorcing parents should vote in advance for what they say to their children – and only if they are sure that they want to go that way.
Likewise, they should prepare the conversation with the child/children in peace. Children are sensitive and get more than you think.
The conversation itself should lead both parents together – with peace and time and an open ear for the fears and needs of their child. It is better if the parents do not explain too much on their own, but wait to see what questions son or daughter have. Negative feelings of the parents – for example, in the form of the statement “your dad / your mom does not love us anymore” – have nothing to do with it.
Mutual accusations, blame and strife, are taboo. The child has a right to a neutral position and also to continue loving both parents.
Children need external and emotional continuity after the separation of their parents
Nevertheless, if the decision to break up is established, it is essential that the child learns about it as soon as possible – children are experiencing atmospheric disturbances in the family with very subtle antennas, and are as much unsettled by this as by the breakup itself.
Very young children, who may not yet be able to speak, need the feeling and the experience that both parents love it regardless of the separation. Larger children may have many questions: where and with whom will it live in the future?
Will it see father – or mother – regularly in the future, too? It is okay if the new situation does not immediately entail a move for the child, and otherwise, continuity and security are now particularly important. A change in the care and the loss of previous contacts – for example, to grandparents and other relatives – are now challenging to cope with children.
The parent who moves out of the flat should still be present in the child’s life – not remotely, but regularly. Maybe the father will continue bringing his child to the nursery in the morning, maybe visit it twice a week, bring it to bed and read him his bedtime story.
If the parents manage to get as many of the usual everyday rituals as possible, they convey as a convenient and emotional experience that both continue to be there together after the breakup for their child/children. In practice, the right of access can prove to be sensitive – you should as far as possible follow the wishes of your child and be reliable in the realization of the meetings and visits.
If the relationship between the parents is very bad, “intermediaries,” such as grandparents, should be turned on. There the child can spend the night, or they can pick it up from the kindergarten. Everyday life should continue as smoothly as possible for the child.
And: Every child reacts differently to the separation of his parents. Some children also retire from a parent at times and need time to reopen. Others need an intense conversation and loving attention from both parents. Remember, children are loyal and usually find it hard to choose a parent. Support your child if it wants to be with the other parent.
Important protection factors after separation
The two US divorce studies mentioned earlier found some critical protective factors for children who were able to handle the separation of parents positively. Claus Koch sums it up like this:
- Parents need to be reliable for their children even after departure, which requires self-discipline, adaptability, and planning skills.
- Parents who are mentally attacked by the separation should seek social support and, if necessary, professional/therapeutic help.
- It is imperative to rebuild stable everyday structures as soon as possible, in which the child can feel safe and secure.
- Excessive harmony between the parents would rather irritate the child and in his eyes question the separation itself. What is essential, however, is a matter-of-fact way of dealing with one another without strife, hostility and insults in his presence.
- The parents’ eyes should be on the future – both regarding their ability to relate and the children’s ability to relate later.
- After separation, parents should not spoil their children too much from their feelings of guilt or regard them as “partner substitutes.” Even in this situation, children are entitled to respond and, above all, child-friendly education.
- The most important protective factor for the child is probably a cooperative relationship of the parents with each other, which is directed towards the child and his emotional safety.
- Even if a separation brings a lot of pain: A respectful treatment is important for both sides
- Children love their parents no matter what happens on the couple level. Try to separate this
- Take help offers
- A big risk to children is the younger they are at separation, the less contact they have with their father