Impact of divorce on children and Co-parenting worries

November 22, 2023

Parenting at the best of times is tough but parenting through a divorce can be a lot like learning to ride a bike; difficult at first, but not impossible with a bit of support. For parents who have made the decision to separate, addressing the issue with your children, no matter how young or old, can be a really painful experience. What complicates it further for many people is that in the middle of one of the worst crises of their lives there are children who are also going through a crisis who need their parents' support. Research suggests that how children cope into the future largely depends on how their parents manage their split. This is challenging for you as a parent as not only are you learning to navigate your new life without your partner, you also need to support your child’s new reality and ensure that your child feels secure in spite of the huge change. In circumstances where you are likely feeling anything but secure, this can feel like a monumental undertaking.

It is so important that initially, you take care of yourself. The process of a separation takes a huge emotional toll on a person. Even if you know the separation is the right thing to do and you want it to happen, you may be surprised at how much upset, hurt, grief, anger and guilt might be evoked in you. You should be cognisant of the fact that when a relationship breaks down you go through a grieving process. The difference with the separation grieving process is that the person you are grieving is not dead. Your emotional state ranges from various states of anger, depression, sadness and self-pity. These emotions do not always bring out the best in us. If these emotions take over, they can be damaging. They may cause you to act unreasonably and to tune out of your and your children’s needs. As a result, it is important to be aware of the difficulties associated with a separation, to anticipate how you might feel and to give yourself time and space to process these emotions. It is vital that you seek counselling and personal support as early in the separation process as possible. ​​If you are incapable of filling your own cup, how will you help to fill your children’s cups?

So, when is the best time to address relationship break-ups with children? And what is the best way parents can approach the conversation to result in minimal upset?

As long as your child is safe and cared for by both parents, the child should have access to you both. It is important for children to have a relationship with both parents, when it’s safe to do so. You may be separated from each other, but your children are not and most likely do not want to be separated from either of you. It can sometimes be difficult to put your individual grievances aside and understand that just because someone wasn’t a good partner, it doesn’t mean they aren’t a good parent.

Ideally, you should tell your children that you are separating when you know for definite that you are. Even when parents separate amicably, there can be some major obstacles to tackle.  Conflict tends to surround things such as money, living arrangements and parenting styles, all of which come to the fore during a separation. It is helpful to anticipate these problems and to work hard to resolve them together as much as possible.

The key to addressing the separation with your children is communication. It is so important that you communicate clearly with your children. If possible, the initial conversation should be done together as a family. Your children may need to sit with these feelings for a while and it is important to then follow up one to one with them.  You will likely know how your child is feeling through their behaviour. All behaviour is communication, behind every behaviour is a feeling and behind the feeling there’s a need. Your role, as a parent, whether separated or not, is to help your child figure out what they need in any given situation.  What helps most children after separation is if they can feel safe, and their lives can retain some level of predictable routine. Broadly speaking, young children may not fully understand why they now have two homes. They may fear that if their parents have stopped loving each other, that they may also stop loving them. They may fear that they are the cause of their parents’ separation and may believe that their behaviour was the reason. Older children and teenagers may understand the reasons for the separation but may feel aggrieved about the disruption it is causing them. They may blame one or both parents for this disruption. There are some key messages that you need to communicate to your children. They need to know that the separation is in no way their fault, that you both will always love them and this is not changing and reassure them that you will both be their parents and will continue to work together.

It is also vital that you both as separated co-parents would communicate with each other clearly and regularly. The best way to support a child, in the aftermath of a separation, is for you both to meet outside of the children being there, and check in with each other to find out how each of you are coping with the situation. It is very important to communicate directly with your partner about disputes and to work hard at negotiating agreements and compromises. It is very helpful if your children see you still being respectful and civil towards each other. Simple things like talking politely to each other and sharing news about the children can make a real difference.

It is so important that you would never speak badly by gesture, innuendo or direct comment about the other parent. Grilling your children for information about their mom or dad when they return from a visit is not a good idea.  Sometimes children can become reluctant to spend time with the other parent and it seems like a mystery however, there is no real mystery here. Generally, this means that the children have listened to very negative conversations you may have had or they have received the covert messages contained in facial expressions, gestures and tone of voice.   It is crucial to remember that your children love both of you equally.  Your child’s self-esteem is wrapped up with their love for and their feeling of being loved by both parents. If one parent is badmouthing the other parent, the child may feel like you are effectively badmouthing them.

Another key to addressing the separation with your children is listening. After separation, it is worth having regular “check in” conversations with your children one to one. While it might be tempting to simply reassure your child or teenager that the fears or grievances they are feeling are not warranted, it is more important to be a good listener, showing your child that you can see their perspective without judgement, or without rushing to “fix” the problem. It is important to check how they are feeling about the separation and if they have any questions. Some children readily accept a separation, others experience grief and loss and some feel inappropriately responsible and harbour a fantasy of their parents getting back together. It is therefore so important to give your children space to talk about what is going on for them and to provide support as needed. A priority is to address the support and education needed to limit the potential damage for the children and families who are going through the process of a relationship breakdown. The earlier in the process that families can communicate, listen, receive good advice and support about parenting issues, the better the outcomes. It is vital to ensure that continuing support is provided to both parent and child alike. Good quality listening also opens the door to help children and teenagers to manage the complexity of their thoughts and feelings after divorce. Since you cannot predict how they will feel, the goal remains to help them make sense of any hurt, confusion, worry or frustration. When you understand their feelings, you can help them to understand their feelings. That then allows them to perhaps process those feelings in a more positive and proactive way. This is where effective communication between separated parents can also really help as it means that the children are more likely to get consistent responses in both households.

The key to co-parenting post-separation is to work hard to reach agreement and to keep children out of your conflicts. It is really important that neither parent confides in the children, and doesn’t share any of the adult content or material with them. You should absolutely avoid making negative comments about the other parent and you should not ask your children to relay a message to the other parent. The back and forth can lead to misunderstandings and conflict. It is well documented that it is not separation per se that has adverse effects on children, it is conflict.

Wolfe & Co LLP Solicitors are here to assist and support you throughout your separation. We deal with child psychologists and court applications on a daily basis and are well-equipped to navigate this next phase of your life with you.


By Aislinn Collins Solicitor


This article is for general information purposes/general overview only and does not constitute legal or other professional advice.  We recommend seeking legal advice to interpret and advise on any aspect of the law.


November 2023 Wolfe & Co. LLP Solicitors

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