AND WHAT ABOUT THE CHILDREN
have now worked through the key stages of the rebuilding process
but for parents who have children I have created a stage model
to explore how their needs can be met by you during this all
important rebuilding process for them.
again you can either read this section related to children here
on line or you
can easily download or open as a portable document (PDF)
for those who prefer to listen you can access as an audio recording
by following this link:
for Children 27 minutes
STAGES 1 TO 15 - RE-BUILDING
PROCESS OF CHILDREN
we begin one thought that occurs to me as we examine the impact
and response of children is a question. 'Were you a child whose
parents separated?' I was and now, nearing sixty years of age,
a major part of my journey has been to release myself from the
parentified child position. Let me outline what the parentified
Children enter the world with countless needs. Until they are
old enough to take care of themselves, children are supposed
to be relatively free from the demands and concerns of the adult
world. Ideally, a child's parents place their children's emotional,
physical, and developmental needs before their own.
But when a parent has not been parented well themselves, the
combination of unaddressed needs and parental power often lead
to an unfortunate consequence for their own child - a type of
role-reversal called parentification. Parentification is responsible
for causing many mental health issues such as depression, anxiety,
low self-esteem and workaholism in the adults who experienced
it as children.
are two kinds of parentification:
child is expected to take care of and fulfill the emotional
needs of the adult. Some examples of emotional parentification
are: reassuring the parent that they will be all right when
upset, shielding the parent from the emotional consequences
of their actions and adjusting behaviour to suit the parent's
child is expected to take care of physical needs, such as housework,
care of younger siblings and management of parental affairs.
effects and consequences of parentification are profound. Parentified
children must continually struggle to meet needs they are not
able to fulfill, and consequently, they develop deep-seated
feelings of inadequacy. The pressure of having to constantly
meet unrealistic demands instills a sense of hopelessness in
the child that they will ever be able to handle the challenges
life presents to them.
parentified as children experience the following things:
- Fear that they cannot adequately meet their own expectations
A feeling of disconnection from their real self
Feelings of incompetence
Underestimation of their own intelligence
Overestimation of the importance of others
Shame, guilt, anxiety and depression
Feeling like they're still children, who can't cope with being
Taking on the role of caretaker
Co-dependency/Acceptance of too much responsibility
ONE - RECOVERY AND CHILDREN ADJUSTMENT
This Could Never Happen to Me !
are three areas relating to children of separated parents that
cause problems for children. Number one is that children will
continue to maintain some sort of fantasy images of their parents
getting back together again, with much emotional investment in
They have difficulty accepting the reality that their parent's
relationship is over and it may be a surprise to learn how strong
this fantasy is with your children. You continually need to present
them with the reality that the relationship is over so they do
not continue to invest in the fantasy.
Children may use all kinds of manipulative behaviour to try and
get the two of you back together again, trying to have you spend
time together, or trying to get you talking to each other. Be
aware of the large emotional investment your children have in
NOT accepting the ending of your relationship and in hoping that
their parents will get back together again. Respond firmly but
gently and persistently with your own decision - that the relationship
Another second aspect with children in self-acceptance is their
belief that they did something wrong to cause your relationship
break up. The last time that they disobeyed - when they did not
go to bed or clear up their food at mealtime or do their household
tasks - they think that this led to their parents fighting and
relationship ending. Try hard to help your children see that it
is not their fault and that the relationship breakdown is a grown
A third aspect has to do with the fear that now they have lost
one parent, will they lose the other parent? They tend to be very
clinging and dependent upon the parents, and they need a lot of
reassurance that you will not leave them. Parents do leave each
other but they do not leave their children.
we explore in our one to one sessions it is natural to feel extreme
loneliness when your relationship ends but healing can come from
the pain, if you listen to it. You can learn how to grow through
loneliness to the stage of aloneness - where you feel comfortable
being by yourself.
Children suffer loneliness too after their parents separate. They
have the same kind of empty feelings inside them that their parents
are feeling. They have the same need to be with others to fill
up that loneliness, but they also fear being close to others.
Children may feel that they are the only child in the school whose
parents have separated. The parents of other children may also
judge your child by what you have done.
Daily living habits are altered just as those of the parents are.
Instead of coming home and having two parents to spend time with
them, to play, to put them to bed, there is only one parent and
the children feel the loneliness of the new house when one or
both parents move. At the home of the noncustodial parent there
may not be familiar toys or books to play with. Often the other
parent's home is not set up for children and may be located in
a new neighbourhood away from familiar friends and faces.
The children need to work through their loneliness just as the
parents have to in order to develop their own healthy feelings
of aloneness. Children need to learn that they have the resources
within themselves to spend time alone without having to have another
Many children may have been lonely before the ending of their
parent's relationship because the interaction within the family
did not help them to feel that they belonged.
When the relationship ends it tends to increase this feeling of
not belonging or not being okay. However, perhaps the crisis itself
can be used to help to deal directly with such a problem and it
is a special time for parents to help the children feel that they
belong, that they are loved, and that they are an important part
of this new family whether it be a single parent family or a two
parent family with the parents living apart.
However, as with all of the rebuilding stages, when the parents
are dealing with their own loneliness, it is very difficult for
them to have enough emotional time and energy left to devote to
their children's needs. It may be necessary, as I mentioned in
our work together, for parents to work through their own rebuilding
stages first and then they will be better able to help their children.
we have explored in our one to one sessions in the ending of
your relationship dumpers end the relationship while dumpees
have it ended for them. The adjustment process differs since
dumpers feel more guilt and dumpees feel more rejection. Dumpers
start their adjustment whilst still in the relationship, but
dumpees start adjusting later. For the mutuals, people who decide
jointly to end the relationship, the adjustment process is somewhat
Often the children are very angry at the parent who decided
to leave and they have a great deal of difficulty maintaining
a relationship with that person. They blame the break up on
the dumper, so they take out their pain and frustration on that
person because they probably fail to see that there is not that
much difference between the dumper and the dumpee since both
of them contributed to the ending of the relationship but in
Almost always the children could be looked upon as dumpees in
that they had little to do with the decision and therefore feel
the same frustration and anger that dumpees do. Children however
are not like dumpees in the sense that they often recognise
that the relationship is ending before the parents do.
Children have a definite problem with rejection and guilt in
that they may feel responsible for their parent's relationship
not working out and so they are going to need help is seeing
that it is not their fault and it is an issue between the two
Children need to realise that they are not guilty for their
parent's separation and they are not being rejected as well.
If the parents can maintain a quality relationship with the
children after their separation the children will be able to
deal with these feelings themselves.
BOYS & GIRLS DO CRY
must grieve an important loss, although sometimes it is difficult
for parents to let them do the grieving they need to do. We
see them start to cry because they miss their noncustodial parent
and we want to take away that pain and reassure them, 'Now don't
cry, its okay. They will be back and you will get to see them
in the future.' However reassurance isn't necessarily what children
need because what they need is some sort of acceptance: 'You
are feeling very sad your father is missing, You feel very sad
living away from your father who you love so much.'
It is easy for us to get our own emotions and guilt involved
instead of allowing the child to express his or her feelings
and emotions. Children tend to cry and grieve more naturally
than adults until we take away the permission for them to do
this and start interfering in the process because we are fearful
that if they cry then so will we.
The same may be true with the anger part of grief. The child
may be very angry about being separated from a parent and having
to go through the associated life style changes. When children
start expressing their anger adults often try to take that anger
away by saying, 'well you just need to grow up and understand
and someday you'll see that what we did was normal, natural
Allow the children to just be angry and so a
good response to enable this is to say 'You feel very angry
toward your father for no longer being here with us.'
Children will go through the five stages of grief we have been
working through in our sessions. They will start out by denying
that their parents are separated and believing the parents will
get back together again. As they proceed through the stages
of anger, bargaining and so on children need to be allowed to
work through all five stages of grief. The exercises we talked
through as well as the checklist I provided before our session
on grieving may also be helpful for older children to explore.
Obviously there is a difference in the children's loss because
parents do not separate from the children and the relationship
between parent and child will persist even though, as in many
cases, the child does not see the noncustodial parent in the
early stages of the relationship ending.
As with all other feelings, a parent who shows the child how
to grieve is far more influential than the parent who tells
children about grieving. Children will emulate a grieving parent,
and will gain much more from experiencing that healthy and much
How Could You Do This To ME?
remember the daughter of one parent who had ended their relationship
become uncontrollably angry at her father in the swimming pool
one day. The anger was far stronger than the situation warranted
and was apparently a direct result of a feeling of abandonment
for which she blamed her father.
It is very easy for separated parents not to allow their children
to be angry. The custodian of the child will many times try to
establish a good relationship between their children and their
former partner even though the partner has not kept appointments
and appears to be involved in something other than the children.
They may try to help the children accept the situation without
being angry but it is appropriate for children to be angry at
the parent who has let them down.
It is also easy for us to withdraw love when our children express
anger because we may be so emotionally upset ourselves that when
children get angry we immediately become unaccepting by saying
'Go to your room until you can learn to behave properly!' where
we really need to invest that extra energy to listen and to accept
our children's anger. But we also need to see that they express
their anger appropriately and do not become aggressive, have temper
tantrums or break things.
Allow children to express their anger in the same positive, constructive
ways we have been exploring in our sessions. When they say that
they are very angry at their parent for not coming to see them
just accept this and say 'I think it's right for you to feel angry
in the situation.'
Many people learn their emotional blocks for expressing anger
through some interaction with their parents. Many being punished
for being angry or not allowed to even be angry or were sent to
their rooms or had feelings of rejection and loss of love. It
is far better for children to learn that anger is a part of being
human and that it is okay to express anger in a positive way.
GO and Moving On
have to deal with letting go of the old concept of the two parent
family. Suddenly it is a one parent family with a custodial
and noncustodial parent. Even if there is joint custody, the
children have to deal with different lifestyles and it is hoped
that children will not have to let go of a quality relationship
with both parents.
The child may have difficulty, however, in dealing with the
parents ability to let go or not to let go and this may become
an important rebuilding block for children if they continually
hear from one parent about all the good or bad things the other
parent is doing. If the parents have not let go of the relationship
the children tend to get caught in either the positive or the
negative feelings between the parent and this will prolong the
adjustment process for the children.
TWO - ADJUSTMENT
CONCEPT From Feeling Bad to Knowing I am Worthy
ending of their parent's relationship can be very damaging
to children's self-concept. Suddenly life has been uprooted
and they can feel rejected, lonely, alienated and perhaps
guilty by questioning what they did wrong to contribute to
their parents separation.
Here the children's adjustment process may be complicated
if they are also going through certain growth stages which
are, of themselves, threatening to self-concept. As a prime
example there is evidence from developmental psychology that
the teenage years are the most difficult years in growth and
development. Puberty means dramatic changes in the body; height;
weight; sexual characteristics; body hair and voice. Suddenly
identity or who they thought they were is also changing.
They are experiencing new attitudes and feelings such as sexual
attraction and relationships with peers have become much more
important than their parental relationships. This rapid period
of change is a real strain on a teenager's self-concept. So
if youngsters are going through extreme changes in themselves
at the time of their parent's separation the children's self-concepts
are more likely to be affected.
Going through exercises we went through in our sessions related
to this part of the rebuilding process may be useful to share
with your children. In fact doing the exercises together is
a good way of increasing family communication.
: Where Has Everybody Gone?
may have a problem with friendships often feeling isolated
and 'different' as if they were the only children to have
parents who are separated. They may not know anybody else
whose parents are separated partly because children do not
often talk about their parent's separation as it is still
a stigma in many communities.
Just as the parents tend to become friends with only others
who have separated then so do children begin to seek out
friends with families with single parents. And again children
may withdraw just as parents withdraw and shut out all friendships.
Children who are going through the pain of their parents
separating really need friends to talk to but they find
it difficult to seek them out or to discuss personal concerns.
Parents can help their children to find somebody to talk
to and maybe it is the time for the relatives to get involved
(however relatives who are highly emotional and who may
have unresolved concerns themselves are not good people
for the children to talk to).
We need to be ware and supportive of the needs of children
as they are going through this process. We can encourage
them to become involved in after school activities and community
programmes and having friends to talk with who accept and
understand has been shown to shorten the adjustment period.
HAVE TO BE CLEARED
will have some difficulty with the leftovers in similar way
to their parents.
The child's style of interaction with others is based on only
a few years of life experience and a limited repertoire of
behaviours. A strong influence right now is the feeling of
internal pain. So until the child changes he or she will continue
to interact with adults as before. If a new step-parent comes
into the picture, for example, the child will tend to have
the same problems with that stepparent as he/she had with
his/her natural parent.
This will not change until the child works through those old
emotions and learns new ways of relating to adults.
everyone is concerned about what love is children may feel
somewhat unlovable because one parent has left. Many suffer
from the fear of losing their remaining parent as well. At
the very time when children need a great deal of parental
love, parents are undergoing their own trauma and often are
incapable of giving as much love to their children as they
Awareness of this problem and special efforts to overcome
it is the key - especially through as much honest conversation
with youngsters about what it going on, and reassurance that
they are much loved by both parents are much needed at this
THREE - THE FUTURE
: The Foundation of Healthy Relationships
problem of trust is especially difficult for those children
who did not know what was going on with their parents' divorce,
so the children are now adjusting to a parent's absence
with little or no direct communication with the parent who
has left the family home.
If the father, for example, suddenly leaves the family,
and does not communicate why he is leaving or the problems
that the parents are having the child may feel deserted
and have trouble trusting that absent noncustodial parent.
Children really are tougher than we think and can handle
an awful lot of direct communication and reality if parents
just take the time to communicate with them. Parents who
hide their heads and feel that they cannot share the reality
of their situation with their children often create a great
deal of mistrust in the children and lose a potentially
valuable source of love and support for themselves! It is
a very unusual for an older child who does not know the
parents are going to end their relationship before the parents
tell them. The more you can communicate and be honest with
your children, the more they will trust what you have to
say both now and in the future.
their parent's relationship ends where do children find
role models for relationships and becoming an adult? It
is often confusing for children to see their parents getting
involved in another relationship.
Somehow children sense that it may include sex and if
the parents are in the high sex drive phase and sending
out all of the sexual vibrations which accompany that
stage what do the children do with that? How do they handle
this new behaviour in their parents?
Communication may sound like an old answer, but it is
critically important at this point. When parents talk
with their children frankly and openly about sexuality
it is very helpful for the children and the parents. Although
there is much anxiety and insecurity in the children's
lives that very turmoil can be the beginning of learning
Children may well gain a far deeper understanding of sexuality,
including their own as their parents go through this stage
Children can find role models in relatives, grandparents
and their parent's friends and as one teenager stated
'It seems I've got more models around now that I have
- Relating as Adult to Adult
our work we have discussed over and under responsible
behaviour and how it was learned in childhood.
What kind of behaviour are you teaching your children?
If you are children have not had first-hand exposure
to adult relationships in the family interaction as
they grow up it will be difficult for them to do it
in their own future relationship. One of the greatest
things we can do for our children is to develop an increasingly
adult relationship with them as they grow through life.
is an important rebuilding block for children too.
They need to learn to be single, individual, and independent
from parent's before they enter a committed relationship
with another person. For children who can see and
understand the importance of singleness, it will give
them a much better chance to develop successful relationships
in their future.
And the New Relationship With ME
need to work their way through the rebuilding stages,
and to learn the freedom to be themselves, free from
all the unhealthy needs that control so many people.
They need to be free to choose a committed relationship
and quite frequently children whose parents parted say
that they will not get involved with a future partner
because they saw how devastating the ending of their
parent's relationship was for them. Children need freedom
of choice in what they will do with their lives rather
than to follow their parent's pattern.
All children are not the same nor do they have the same
needs. The rebuilding stages are general outlines and
so remember that each human being is unique and that
it is as important for them as it is for adults that
they are respected and treated as such.
Therefore their differing needs depend on age, sex,
cultural background, number of children in the family,
health, availability of extended family and friends
and neighbours, physical environment, conditions at
school and the nature of their parents breakup as well
as the individual personal characteristic of each child.
Children are much stronger than most adults believe
and can grow through the rebuilding process along with