Parenting After Separation or Divorce

Parents have rights and responsibilities - no matter what happens in their relationship with the child’s other parent and no matter what happens in their relationships with other people. The law requires that the best interests of the child must be the only consideration when decisions about how a child will be cared for after separation or divorce are made. With this in mind, there are things that parents can do to help their child through the separation process and support them as they adjust to a changing family situation.

Raising a happy, healthy child regardless of changes to your family unit is more than just a rewarding experience for you as a parent. It also improves the chances that your child will have the foundation to do the same when they become parents themselves. Although there are laws that can provide some direction and courts that will settle disagreements, there is no one right way for things to be following a separation. Every family is different. And although your family unit is going through all kinds of changes, you will always be connected through your children.

Child's Reaction to Separation or Divorce

Family law professionals recognize that separation and divorce is difficult for even the most secure and well-adjusted child. It is important to note that every family is different and children’s reactions vary. Reactions are influenced by age, developmental stage, maturity level, personality, available support from friends, family and the community, and the particular dynamics of the separation or divorce. Younger children may react differently than older children, boys may react differently than girls, and one child may react with sadness or anger while another might be relieved.

Reactions may also vary over time. Sometimes a child can’t accept that the separation or divorce is real or permanent and believes that their parents will have to get back together. After a while the child may realize that this is not likely to happen and may become angry. They might believe that their parents don’t love them, otherwise they would stay together. The child might be afraid that they did something to cause their parents’ break up or they might blame one parent more than the other. The child might be afraid that one or both parents will stop loving them, just like they stopped loving each other.

This can lead them to think that they might be able to do something to get their parents back together - maybe if they really behaved themselves or did better in school or tried harder in sports or didn’t ask for so much.

As time goes by they might realize that no matter how hard they try, they just can’t make it happen. The child might begin to feel sad or depressed and all alone. The child might believe that these feelings will never go away and that there is nothing that anybody can do about it.

Despite this roller coaster of emotions, research tells us that most children will eventually come to accept their parents’ separation or divorce and adapt to their new family structure. When you begin to think about new parenting arrangements, it will be helpful to have a good understanding of children’s reactions to separation and divorce. You should take special care to address your child’s needs in this regard. It is also important to understand your own reactions to the separation or divorce and deal with your own emotions so that you can be there for your child. This may also help you to honour the connection your child has with both parents.

Parents' Needs

Children are extremely sensitive to the emotions of their parents. It is important for parents to try to avoid overburdening their child with their own unhappiness or anger. It is also important to realize that at a time when children especially need support, warmth and firm, consistent control, many parents are least able to provide it.

Parents should consider drawing on their own adult support systems and professional counselling when needed. It is important for them to get the help and support that they need to get through this difficult time. Children tend to take the lead from their parents - if the parents are coping well, the child is more likely to do well.

Understanding the Impact of Parental Conflict

Although the reactions of adults and children to separation and divorce vary, family law professionals are beginning to view conflict between parents as a critical factor that influences how well a child will adjust to their changing family. Parental conflict includes outright hostility characterized by fighting, yelling, name calling or even physical violence. But it also includes more subtle behaviours or “polite” hostility.

When there is a high level of parental conflict, children may tend to feel “caught in the middle” between their parents. This, in turn, can lead to poor adjustment outcomes.

Children whose parents remain hostile and aggressive, locked in ongoing high conflict are more likely to have behavioural problems, emotional difficulties and social difficulties. They are also more likely to lack self-esteem. The risk of poor outcomes increases when spousal violence is involved and rises even higher when the children are abused.

Voice and Support: Programs for Children Experiencing Parental Separation and Divorce, Department of Justice Canada

Other factors that can impact a child’s adjustment to separation and divorce include the level of agreement on parenting arrangements, whether there is adequate financial support, how well the parents are coping with the separation and divorce, and whether healthy parent-child relationships exist.

It is important for parents to find strategies to improve communication and facilitate both parents spending time with the child. Parents need to be able to take stock of both their own emotions and the feelings and reactions of others who are impacted by the separation or divorce.

What a Child Needs

When you start to think about a suitable parenting arrangement, there is more to think about than where the child will live, who will make decisions and how expenses will be divided. From a child’s point of view, separation and divorce can lead to a number of mixed emotions that need to be addressed. Researchers have noted feelings of uncertainty and powerlessness. The child may experience, or fear, a loss of social status. Depending on how the parents deal with their own emotions and the separation or divorce process, the child may be exposed to poor role models. They may feel that their loyalties are torn between their parents. They may have difficulty adjusting. This in turn may lead to difficulties in school and self-esteem issues.

The news, however, is not all bad. Many studies now suggest that while this is undoubtedly a difficult time, there are many things that separating parents can do to lessen the negative impact that separation and divorce can have on the children. As families face new challenges, they may even find that there is opportunity for growth and development.

The following list sets out many factors that have been identified as crucial to a child’s adjustment following separation or divorce. You can play an active role in ensuring that your child has the information and support they need to adjust to the changes your family is going through.

Critical Factors for Adjustment

  • protection from parental conflict and violence
  • recognition that both parents provide valuable resources for children in terms of emotional support, protection, guidance, supervision, role modelling, and gender identity - children don’t need to “choose” one parent*
  • adequate financial support
  • positive information about changes to the family and open communication in a respectful manner
  • assurance that they are not responsible for the separation
  • respect for cultural and religious heritage

* unless there are violence or abuse issues that may require a modified approach.

Even under the best of circumstances, parenting can be challenging. When parents separate or divorce disagreements over parenting issues can be even more difficult to resolve. Information about the law and your rights and obligations can help reduce parental conflict. Understanding the importance of your child having a continuing relationship with both parents and learning to be aware of your children’s experiences through the process of separation and divorce can also help. Perhaps most importantly, finding ways to deal with your own reactions and emotions surrounding the separation and divorce may allow you to focus on the best interests of your child and give you the edge you need to succeed.

Even if conflict remains, you have options to consider that may lessen or resolve parental conflict. Parenting before, during and after separation or divorce takes time, effort and commitment. Fortunately, there are laws, community resources and government programs and services to provide guidance and support.