How separation affects children

How separation affects children

Children are affected by separation more than many parents realise, says Timothy McMichael who heads the family dispute resolution service provided by Family Works Northern.

“When parents separate, children suffer, although they might not show it outwardly. Separation is a stressful time for the whole family, and no matter how young they are, children see, hear and sense everything. We want to make sure every child feels valued and safe. Our Family Works Resolution Service encourages parents to consider their children’s needs and helps them create the best environment for their children to thrive,” McMichael says.

In the past year, the Family Works Resolution Service (FWRS) has helped 2500 parents going through separation. The service was launched in April 2014 after being chosen by the Ministry of Justice as one of two family dispute mediation providers in the upper North Island following a review of the Family Court.

The service helps separating parents agree on child care and access arrangements that are in the best interests of their children. Being able to resolve matters without going to court helps reduce the stress for everyone involved, but there are often other issues that create anxiety, McMichael says.

“It’s surprising how many disputes are not about practicalities, but where communication between partners has become the stumbling block. Care arrangements are not that difficult – it’s the anxiety about the contact itself that can sometimes be the problem,” he says.

At such times, McMichael says, it’s easy for children to fall between the cracks.

“It doesn’t take a major fault or high level of abuse for children to be harmed. All it takes is parents who can’t manage the conflicts they already have. The kids feel the effects when they are overlooked or there’s a lack of attention to their needs.”

The mediation process offered by the Family Works Resolution Service includes a highly recommended session for each parent or caregiver to help them prepare for the mediation itself, which takes place over a session. Where violence is an issue, McMichael says the service can provide ways for children’s needs to be heard without compromising anyone’s safety. All mediators are professionally qualified and accredited.

McMichael who is one of four finalist for this years New Zealand Mediator of the Year award, has 30 years’ experience in family relationships, family law and psychology and is about to be awarded a professional award for developing and promoting dispute resolution services. He says it’s important for adults to model healthy ways to resolve conflict, solve problems and express their emotions.

“The way you act and behave at this time of separation and the way you act and behave towards your former partner or spouse will be the way your children behave towards their future partners or spouses. It’s also really important to reassure your children that you love them, and to demonstrate it often by paying attention to their needs.”

What to do when separating

  1. Reassure your children that you love them, and demonstrate it often by paying attention to their needs.
  2. Try to keep life as normal as possible. Routines help create a sense of security, especially for young children.
  3. Reassure your children that it’s not their fault that you are separating.
  4. Agree on when and how you will communicate any changes to your children. Make sure the information you convey is age-appropriate. How you explain to a 6-year-old will be very different from what you discuss with a teenager.
  5. Model healthy ways to resolve conflict, solve problems and express emotions
  6. Plan some fun times with the family – it’s a great way to reduce stress.
  7. Be kind to yourself and your children. Everyone is hurting in this situation.
  8. Come to terms with your own emotional responses to your separation, and don’t take out your pain on the kids. Seek help from other adults if you need support.
  9. Avoid making your child your confidante, or speaking negatively about your partner.
  10. Make sure you know what your children want and give them some choice when it comes to the details of day-to-day care, again within age-appropriate limits. A young child should never have to decide between two people they love.

What not to do when separating

  1. Act in an abusive, manipulative or controlling manner.
  2. Overlook or neglect your children’s needs because you’re preoccupied with your own concerns.
  3. Overcompensate for the separation with gifts or rewards. They want you, not your stuff.
  4. Take out your own emotional pain and anxiety on the children.
  5. Avoid communicating clearly with your former partner/spouse
  6. Speak negatively about your partner or the other household in front of the children.
  7. Force your children to ‘take sides’.
  8. Expect your child to act as a go-between or tell you about life in the other household.
  9. Treat your children like chattels.
  10. Refuse to take time to explain in appropriate ways what’s going on.