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When Parents Separate…

May 6, 2019

The Separation

In the province of Quebec, 25% of children eight years old or younger witness the separation of their parents.1 Whether the separation was a mutual agreement or one-sided, each mourns the end of the relationship and of the nuclear family2 at their own pace.

Parental Conflict

The reasons why a couple reaches the life-changing decision to end their relationship are numerous and rarely simple. Some couples choose to split up as a result of major, frequent, intense or chronic parental conflict. Studies show that when a couple’s relationship consists of ongoing hostility and tensions, separating is the better choice for the children’s sake. Constant exposure to situations of conflict and confrontation without reconciliation can have harmful effects on children, causing them to feel worried, sad or powerless. Seeing their parents angry, disappointed or unhappy may cause children to feel the desire to comfort them, which is not a child’s role.  

Therefore, if separating ends the conflict, or at least shields the children from exposure to this situation, they will be better off. They will have the chance to see their parents happy again, individually.

Breaking the News to the Kids

The decision is made: the couple is ending their relationship. Now, how to tell the children? First and foremost, they need reassurance: it’s not their fault, mom and dad will always love them no matter what. This might seem obvious to parents, but it’s crucial to explicitly verbalize it to the kids. Ideally, parents should agree on what to say first, and then deliver the news together. They should choose their words based on the child’s age and level of understanding, and stick to the necessary and essential information only; the more intimate details concern the adults only.

Parents should take the time to answer the children’s questions, without going too far or getting off topic. This way, parents respect the time the child needs to understand, without giving information a child might not be ready to receive and deal with. It’s important to choose the right time and place to break the news. For instance, parents with a teenager about to take end-of-year exams might want to wait until this stressful period is over before announcing they’re separating.

The End of the Nuclear Family

This can be hard to accept for many parents who wanted to raise their children in a united family. Parents are also forced to adjust to not seeing their children every day. It’s therefore essential to choose the type of custody that will allow all members of the family to feel at ease. Parents should take into account the wishes of their children in this regard if the situation applies. It’s crucial to avoid competing for the children’s affection; they will be the ones caught in the middle. The same goes for asking the kids which parent they want to live with while both parents are present. Asking them to take sides creates stress and guilt for children, and could lead to a loyalty conflict where they will hide their true thoughts from their parents.      

A Smooth Transition

Parents should try to make the transition toward the new family situation as smooth as possible. Some divorcees get along well enough to decide to keep the family house, where the children live full-time, while parents alternate every week. However, this scenario is not always realistic. The ex-couple can then try to at least live in the same neighbourhood, so the children don’t have to change school, and so they can adjust more easily by keeping their points of reference and being able to go to each parent’s house quickly and easily.

Outside Help

Parents can turn to a family mediator during their separation; in Quebec, the provincial government offers five hours of free consultation. Having a neutral third party can help with custody and financial issues. There are also professionals working in local community service centres who provide support to make the transition easier for everyone. Finally, parents should not hesitate to ask for help and support from their family and friends, whether the need is material or psychological.

Legal Notes

1. Source: Naître et grandir, January 2016. https://naitreetgrandir.com/fr/dossier/famille-en-transformation/famille-quebecoise-en-chiffres/

2. Nuclear family: family consisting of two parents and their children, all living together. This includes adoptive and same-sex parents.