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Relationship breakdowns: 11 tips on helping your children cope

Relationships end and marriages fail, but the collateral damage can be controlled, Karl Melvin writes.

Karl Melvin Psychotherapist

ONE OF MY most vivid memories from my childhood is walking in on my parents having a huge row in the kitchen.

This row, for me, signalled the end of their relationship and the beginning of the most difficult period of my life. As an only child, sadness and grief became my siblings when they separated.

Often during and after a relationship breakdown, parents are so caught up in their own hurt and fears, and the thoughts of being alone again, that they are oblivious of the impact their split has had on their children.

So how should parents deal with the aftermath of separation? Here are some tips:

1. Don’t diminish the impact.

I’ve seen parents convince themselves that their child will be OK, that the separation didn’t affect them and that life goes on.

If only this were true. Whether it’s visible or not, your child could be harbouring many hurtful feelings and unable to understand or process what’s happening.

Don’t minimise what has happened. Accept that damage might have been done and that your child will likely need time to process what has happened.

2. Deal with your guilt.

Feeling guilt over hurting your child is completely natural, but it’s important not to project your own guilt onto your child, be it through anger or overcompensating with excessive love.

All children need parents with healthy self-esteem and the traits associated with this, such as strong boundaries, clear expression and confidence in their ability.

Ask yourself why you are choosing to be so hard on yourself. Do you feel like you deserve love? Have you carried guilt around with you all your life? Could you have inherited it from your parents?

Rebuilding self-esteem involves prioritising your needs, looking after your body and surrounding yourself with healthy people who support your decision to end your relationship, despite having a child.

If the breakup is particularly nasty, you might face resistance from your ex-partner.

Jealously and resentment are commonplace and can be destructive for all parties involved in the split; it is important to detach from the hurt and stay focused on who you want to be.

3. Ensure your children are not carrying the burden.

I felt responsible for my parent’s separation. I felt like it was my fault. I also felt I was responsible for their happiness. I worried about them constantly and I wanted to protect their feelings.

I took responsibility for something which didn’t belong to me. A child CANNOT carry their parents. They CANNOT fix a marriage and it is NOT their job to make their parents feel good about themselves.

Your child needs to feel valued for who they are, not for what they do.

They will need to be reminded, preferably by both parents, that they are not responsible for what has happened – that each person is responsible for their own emotions and that nothing that has happened changes the fact that they are a special little person and deserve all the happiness in the world.

4. Remind them they have not been abandoned. 

Watching my own father leave during the early stages of the separation created a sense of abandonment, a fear that he would never return.

This is something I carried with me right through to adult life. To be abandoned by a parent is an indescribable loss.

The child needs to know that they have not been left behind. That the parent will always be there for them and will never leave no matter what happens.

5. Express your emotions. 

It’s OK to be sad. It’s OK to be angry. It’s OK to be afraid. These are natural reactions to what has happened and your child should be allowed to express this. They should know it’s OK to feel how they do and talk about it.

6. Fill the void. 

It’s important to surround your child with positive role models, be they male or female, who can see your child’s potential, and demonstrate healthy behaviours and self-respect.

7. Park the bias.

One of my college lecturers once told me when working through a separation that a child will always side with the parent who DOESN’T speak badly of the other parent.

My mother never once spoke ill of my father as she knew this would not only be unfair on me but would only serve to deepen the wound further.

A young child is still emotionally bound to both parents, so to speak badly of one parent to a child is as good as saying that the child themselves is bad. They might internalise the words, and believe they are in some way flawed or unworthy.

8. Give them the freedom to choose. 

This will be a time of great confusion and inner conflict for your child. They love both parents, and having to decide where to go and who to be with could cause not only anxiety but trauma and fear over losing someone.

Put zero pressure on your child. Offer options and suggestion as to what they might like to do around visits, but then leave it up to them to decide.

Children know what feels right and wrong, but fear might drive them to make the wrong choice. Take away the fear of any consequences and trust them to know what’s best for them.

9. Don’t tolerate bad behaviour. 

A child still needs to understand boundaries and learn that self-love is not the same as narcissism.

No one person is more important than anyone else. We are all mutually important: child, parents and siblings. If the child is acting out and behaving disrespectfully after the separation, they need to know it’s not OK.

By creating a sense of entitlement in your child through placating bad behaviour or competing for the child’s affection, you are setting them up for a difficult life of disappointment and relationship struggles.

10. Maintain the parental role.

Parenthood doesn’t end just because you only see your child part time. It doesn’t end because you are lonely and have no one to share your own problems.

Parenthood is for life. You can’t park your job because you are having a bad day.

I’ve seen so many parents of broken homes abuse the power they have over their children by changing the relationship to suit their own needs.

Using your child as a shoulder to cry on or to burden with worries is not acceptable and WILL damage your child and their mental health.

11. Work together.

Relationships end. Marriages fail. This will never change. But the collateral damage can be controlled. When it comes to your child, it’s time for parents to grow up.

Irrespective of how you feel about each other, get over it and stick to the job at hand.

If you prioritise your child, you will both benefit greatly as you watch them grow and develop into a happy little person whose love will drive you to be a better version of yourself.

Keep the lines of communication open between you and your ex-partner and do not use your child as a pigeon carrier.

If you have friends or family who are encouraging childish behaviour or using your child as an emotional chess piece, rise above it and choose a mature response to every issue or challenge.

Not everyone is suited to parenthood but if there is a real mutual love for the child there is a good chance everyone will come out unscathed.

Even if you are completely on your own in rearing your child, just focus on being genuinely there for him/her and life will work itself out.

Karl Melvin is a psychotherapist with Aspen Counselling in Lucan, Dublin. He regularly publishes mental health articles on the website Toxic Escape. You can follow his Facebook updates here

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About the author:

Karl Melvin  / Psychotherapist

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