The Circle Line

The Child in the middle

Divorce or separation where children are involved is one of the hardest things for everyone.
And everyone will be ok. Here we start to explore the issues.

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Separation is one of the hardest, most emotionally complex things we can go through as adults. And 50% of partnerships end in separation. Although it’s often unavoidable and may be in the best interests of the children, it deeply impacts the children ‘in the middle’. We owe it to them to do all we can to understand and develop our selves and our parenting so that we can give them the best possible support and modelling. You deserve support, as do your children.

A child's world

Distance, conflict and separation between parents affects their children in all sorts of ways we may not fully appreciate, despite our best intentions.

A child's perspective

“When I was 5 I was sent away from the person I loved the most. The person I loved second sent for me because he had already left me. There was a long ride in a carriage to a huge grey and massive palace.

I was put in a small metal tube. It was very loud and very smelly and it moved around a lot – up and down and side to side. Big dark men whose words I didn’t understand sat next to me. My eyes stung. The seats itched and I couldn’t move or lie down.

The metal tube delivered me to a freezing grey land. I played on the floor of a huge grey hall for hours. It was much bigger than school. I looked out of a huge grey window at the huge grey land. It was empty and very quiet and there was no one there.

Next the metal tube delivered me to a hot orange land. There were thousands of brown people saying words I didn’t understand and lots of little black flies. The smell in my nose was strange.

Back into the metal tube. By then I was very tired and very thirsty. I didn’t know how long I had been in that metal tube and I didn’t know how much longer I would be in it and I didn’t know where I would come out next. I didn’t know where the person I loved the most was. Or where the second person I loved was. They weren’t in the metal tube.

The metal tube had small metal buckles that were strapped around me and when I wanted to lie down the straps stayed on and the metal dug into me. I was scared of the trays that were put in front of me and what was in them that I might have to eat.

Next the metal tube delivered me to a steamy land. It was very green and very hot. I needed to take off my jumper. Here I found the second person I loved the most. It was very dark and I was in a very big bed in a very big building in a very big city. I cried and cried for the first person I loved the most. She wasn’t there. I was gasping and didn’t know when she would be there again. The second person I loved most stroked my head and I knew that should be ok. But it wasn’t.”

***

You may feel guilt around the fact of your separation but it is nothing to be ashamed of. 50% of all marriages end in divorce. It happens and blame is fruitless. And it may well be in the best interests of your children, especially if there is negativity between the parents.

It is ok.

The reality is it will impact your children. How and how much depends on the two of you.

Ways to help your kids

There are important ways we can help our children understand and cope with the separation of their parents. Their family has changed forever; they no longer have one family – they now have two. This needs airing and processing to help the child not develop conflicts and divisions in themselves.

1. Look after yourself

This may seem odd coming first, but it’s like the emergency leaflet on an airplane – always put on your own oxygen mask first. You are likely to struggle to truly support and understand your children until you truly support and understand yourself.

This may well mean starting therapy. That is not a plug for this service; that is a reality. You deserve it and so do they.

2. Talk to them about their feelings

This may seem obvious. But this does not mean simple saying “Darlings, we have something to tell you… We love you very much and we’re going to be living apart from now on.” It means regularly giving them your time and undivided attention to explore how they are feeling. It means explaining in simple terms and as best you can what is going on. It means holding and hugging them often – this talks to them in unspoken ways.

3. Treat them as children

This may sound obvious. Of course they are children. But what this means is looking after your own emotions so that you are free to really see and mirror theirs.

When they look to you, your children should see their emotions reflected back. This is how they know they are seen and know they exist – this is how they establish their sense of self.

If all they can see is your pain or anger, that is what they internalise. And it’s harder to develop their sense of their own feelings, their own body, their own sense of themselves. This is where therapy really can help you with what you are projecting outwards.

4. Talk to them about the situation

Children need stability and predictability. The world is a very big and unknown place to them. Let them know what they can expect – who they will live with, when they will see their other parent, how often and what it will be like.

Give them tools like a calendar to help them monitor time and a journal and camera to record, share and talk about their time with each parent individually. If your child is very young, use drawing and play to practice the arrangements and help them process their new life and their two families in positive and creative ways.

And reassure them that it may be different but it is all ok and everyone will be ok.

5. Reassure them that none of it is their fault

Children “in the middle” are likely to feel a level of responsibility for events, for your feelings, and for those of your partner. The younger the child the more likely they will internalise their environment and your emotions, taking them on as their own. This is a common psychological occurrence.

They need to know the separation is your active decision, it is nothing to do with them, their thoughts, their feelings or their behaviour – and that you and your ex are ok. They did not cause it and could do nothing to stop it or “fix” it or make anything “better” – and that it is ok because you are all ok.

6. Avoid bad-mouthing your ex 

Children love and need both you and your ex, even if you don’t. Children need to feel both of their parents are valuable because they are part of both of their parents and their parents are part of them. They can easily feel conflicted, divided and confused, and are unlikely to understand the complexity of why you have needed to separate.

So, avoid talking badly about your ex or blaming them for the separation, for how you feel, or for what is happening. Even if you are really really angry. This is how divisions deepen inside your kids. It’s how you damage their self-esteem. This is where therapy comes in. Therapy is your space to vent, not at home and not in front of the children.

7. Help your child feel at home in both homes

And do so without creating any conflict, division or sense of guilt. They are equally welcome and loved in both places and by both parents and you need to tell them this without placing obligations on them.

Involve them in the move, allow them to put their own stamp on their new bedroom, give them advance warning about arrangements and any unavoidable changes.

8. Be aware that children may behave differently

Children watching their parents separate can “act up”, withdraw or regress to an earlier age. They may begin wetting their bed, or shouting and “being difficult” or refusing to take instructions. Be extra patient, supportive, and openly talk to them about their feelings, and perhaps their behaviours without blaming or inducing guilt. They are ok. Over time they will adapt to the changes and their behaviour will change again.

If you are worried or would like some guidance, speak to a professional child therapist as well as your own therapist for insight and support.

9. Start therapy

We finish this article as we started it, for emphasis. You are likely to struggle to truly support and understand your children until you truly support and understand yourself. You deserve it and so do they.

That is not a plug for our counselling service; that is a reality. Start therapy.

***

We must all be alive to the impact we have on our children and there is always support out there.

Help is available – both to manage and work through your own experiences and emotions, and to support those of your children. If you are impacted by this article speak with one of our therapists, or contact one of these resources today.

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