Custody & Access

Parenting After Separation and 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. 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.

Child’s Reaction to Separation & 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. Department of Justice Canada Background Paper
Other factors that can impact on 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, facilitate access and 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.
I have often said to parents in my court, if you cannot say to the other parent “Hello, how are you today” in front of the children, go to counselling until you can… The parents owe their children that; the children are entitled to that civility. Ontario Superior Court

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 modeling, 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. For more information see Safety.

Making the Connection

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. See Resources for more information.

Les enfants dont les parents sont hostiles, agressifs et aux prises avec des conflits graves sont plus susceptibles de présenter des problèmes comportementaux, émotionnels et sociaux. Ils sont également plus susceptibles d’avoir peu d’estime de soi. Le risque d’effets négatifs augmente en cas de violence conjugale et encore plus lorsque les enfants sont victimes de mauvais traitements.

Document d’information du ministère de la Justice Canada

D’autres facteurs peuvent influer sur l’adaptation d’un enfant à une séparation et à divorce, par exemple : le niveau d’entente en ce qui concerne les arrangements parentaux; l’apport ou non d’un soutien financier adéquat; la manière dont les parents surmontent les épreuves associées à la séparation et au divorce; et la présence ou non d’une relation saine entre les parents et l’enfant.

Il est important que les parents trouvent des stratégies pour améliorer la communication, faciliter l’accès et être en mesure de faire le point sur leurs propres émotions, ainsi que sur les sentiments et les réactions des autres personnes touchées par la séparation ou le divorce.

[traduction] J’ai souvent dit aux parents qui se présentaient devant moi au tribunal et qui n’étaient pas capables de se dire « Bonjour, comment vas-tu? » de faire appel à des services professionnels de consultation jusqu’à ce qu’ils soient capables de le faire. Les enfants ont droit à cette courtoisie; les parents leur doivent cette politesse.

Cour supérieure de justice de l’Ontario

Besoins de l’enfant

Au moment d’établir l’arrangement parental, vous ne devez pas seulement déterminer où habitera l’enfant, qui prendra les décisions et comment seront divisées les dépenses. Du point de vue de l’enfant, la séparation et le divorce peuvent entraîner toutes sortes de sentiments dont il faut tenir compte. Les chercheurs ont constaté des sentiments d’incertitude et d’impuissance. L’enfant peut perdre, ou avoir peur de perdre, son rang social. Il peut aussi être exposé à de piètres modèles de comportement selon la manière dont les parents gèrent leurs propres émotions et le processus de séparation ou de divorce. Il pourrait vivre un conflit de loyauté à l’égard de ses parents. Il pourrait également avoir de la difficulté à s’adapter. Dans une telle situation, l’enfant pourrait alors avoir de la difficulté à l’école et un problème d’estime de soi.

Le portrait n’est toutefois pas complètement sombre. Aujourd’hui, bon nombre d’études suggèrent que, si les circonstances seront inévitablement difficiles pendant un moment, les parents peuvent utiliser de nombreux moyens pour réduire les conséquences négatives d’une séparation ou d’un divorce sur les enfants. Certaines familles peuvent voir, dans cette période de nouveaux défis, une occasion de croissance et de développement.

La liste qui suit énumère les nombreux facteurs désignés comme étant essentiels à l’adaptation de l’enfant à la suite d’une séparation ou d’un divorce. Vous pouvez vous engager activement à veiller à ce que votre enfant reçoive l’information et le soutien nécessaires pour s’adapter aux changements que vit votre famille en ce moment.

Facteurs essentiels à l’adaptation

  • Les enfants sont à l’abri de la violence et des conflits parentaux.
  • Les enfants savent que les deux parents offrent aux enfants de précieuses ressources en matière de soutien émotionnel, de protection, de conseils, de supervision, de modèle de comportement et d’identité de genre – ils n’ont pas besoin de « choisir » un parent*.
  • Les enfants reçoivent un soutien financier.
  • Les enfants obtiennent de l’information positive au sujet des changements familiaux et ont la possibilité de communiquer ouvertement et de façon respectueuse.
  • Les enfants ont la certitude de ne pas être responsables de la séparation.
  • Les enfants bénéficient d’un respect à l’égard de la culture et de la religion qui lui ont été transmises

* Sauf en cas de problèmes de violence ou de maltraitance, où il serait nécessaire de privilégier une approche différente. Pour en savoir plus, consultez la section Sécurité.

Interagir

Il est parfois difficile d’exercer son rôle de parent, même lorsque la situation est idéale. Après une séparation ou un divorce, les divergences d’opinions liées à la parentalité peuvent être encore plus difficiles à régler. En savoir plus au sujet de la loi, de vos droits et de vos obligations peut vous aider à réduire les conflits parentaux. Il peut également être utile de comprendre pourquoi il est important que votre enfant entretienne une relation avec ses deux parents et d’apprendre à rester attentif à ce que vit l’enfant pendant le processus de séparation et de divorce. Le plus important est peut-être de trouver des façons de gérer ses propres réactions et ses propres émotions liées à la séparation et au divorce. Ainsi, vous pourrez vous concentrer sur l’intérêt supérieur de votre enfant et disposerez de l’atout nécessaire pour réussir.

Même si les conflits parentaux se poursuivent, différentes solutions pour les réduire ou les régler sont à votre disposition. L’exercice du rôle parental avant, pendant et après la séparation ou le divorce nécessite du temps, des efforts et un engagement. Heureusement, il existe des lois, des ressources communautaires et des programmes gouvernementaux qui offrent des conseils et du soutien. Consultez la section Ressources pour en savoir plus.