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AS SEPARATION AND DIVORCE is a process that can go on for several years, the period following a formal separation involves many life changes and decisions - and all of them have an impact on younger and older children. Fortunately, there are many good books and resources for parents and young people on topics such as dating after divorce and remarriage, blended families and step-parenting. The following section highlights some of the key issues involved with parenting after separation and divorce. For those parents who would like to explore these issues in greater depth, please refer to the "Resources" section for some suggested books and pamphlets.
Children of any age do not like to have their security threatened. Their security comes from a sense of predictability and a stable family environment. Children's sense of security is often built around the familiarity of where they live, eat, sleep and keep their possessions. This sense of "home" takes time to rebuild when they begin moving between residences.
"I do miss my Dad because he lives far away and I only see him five times a year. I wish that I could live in the same city as him - that way I could see him and my family..."
When children begin the process of travelling between two homes, they experience feelings of loss, confusion, anxiety and insecurity as they adjust to the reality of being with one parent at a time. As a coping mechanism for trying to handle these emotions, they may over-react and become very difficult to handle for a few hours or even days. One parent may blame the other for this behaviour, assuming that the other parent is not disciplining the child, or is even encouraging the child to behave badly. But it's important for you not to jump to conclusions - your child's behaviour may be nothing more than a reaction to his or her own feelings of grief and loss.
When children move between homes, they are constantly reminded that the family is no longer together. Children may also experience separation anxiety from one or both parents, or they may worry about the well-being of the parent they are leaving behind. In addition to all that, children have to deal with some unwelcome changes in their schedule and environment. Give children time to adjust to the changes, and make sure they feel safe and secure in both places. For example, you can work together to ensure that your children have familiar belongings and favourite games with them at each residence. You can also help children maintain visits with friends and extended family members.
If one parent moves a great distance away, a child's feelings of loss and anxiety may be understandably heightened. In the case where one parent sees the children during holidays and summer vacations, it's important to help maintain continuity as much as possible by keeping the residence "homey" and filled with some familiar possessions. Parents also need to prepare their children for the inevitable changes and how they will maintain contact with both parents. For example, regular phone calls can help children maintain a continuous relationship with a parent who lives at a distance.
When You Live Apart from Your Children
IF YOU DON'T LIVE with your children, it's sometimes easy to believe that you are not needed any more. But children need and want both of their parents in their lives. Children who have lost touch with one parent often feel a longing for that parent that never goes away. Just knowing that his parent loves him, and is still acting as a parent, has a profound effect on a child's wellbeing and sense of self-esteem. You cannot be replaced.
In some families, a new adult relationship may have started before the separation, or may begin in the early stages of separation and divorce. In others, a new person may not enter the picture for months or years. Many single parents are trying to keep up with the extra demands of parenting on their own, and have little time or energy to spend on developing a new relationship. Some parents don't want to start going out with someone new - they may feel insecure about where to meet others and how to approach them, uncertain about their attractiveness, and concerned that they might fail in another relationship. For others, dating helps them adjust to divorce. It reaffirms their self-worth, reduces feelings of loneliness, and helps them get on with their lives.
"... And sometimes we could bond, like two men together. We could go camping in the wilderness, we could play pool, he could teach me how to shave, how to drive a car, and we could talk about girl problems." TERRY, 13
Whatever the circumstances, dating may trigger emotions that are similar for both parents and children. They may be fearful of being hurt again, worry that they may not be loved by the new person, and have concerns about how the new person will fit into their lives. Parents can use this new situation as an opportunity to talk about how adults -just like children - need peer interaction with people their own age, and supportive relationships.
If the marriage ends after one parent leaves the relationship for another partner, children may feel particularly betrayed and angry. Children in these families will need plenty of opportunities to express their confusion and feelings - a difficult task for a parent who may be experiencing similar emotions.
Children have mixed emotions about their parents' new relationships. Depending upon their age, they may feel betrayal, jealousy, anger, confusion and even guilt. For example, they may feel:
Sexual Orientation and Divorce
WHEN ONE OF THE DIVORCING PARENTS is gay or lesbian, it adds additional dimensions to the situation. If both parents are comfortable discussing issues related to sexual orientation - if both are able to answer their children's questions simply, without going beyond what the child is asking for - children usually will be more comfortable with the knowledge that one of their parents is gay. The important thing is that children are reassured that both parents will continue to love them, despite the situation they are living in.
However, children of a gay or lesbian parent may be teased and deeply hurt by their schoolmates. Homosexual parents may also face discrimination from families, co-workers and the community which can be difficult to deal with. This can be especially true once new parenting arrangements are made.
Children, particularly teenagers, may feel confused about their own sexuality and personal identity. They need an open atmosphere at home in which to ask questions and share their concerns or fears. If children or parents find the topic difficult to discuss, a knowledgeable counsellor may be able to help.
Changes will be easiest for children if parents can work out the issues in their own relationship without involving the children. Self-help groups may also be available in the community to provide support to parents dealing with issues of sexual orientation and parenting. Groups for children of gay or lesbian parents may also be available.
Remarriage is one of the most common challenges facing children whose parents divorce. Children who have not adjusted to parental dating will have even more intense problems as they try to adjust to their newly blended family. Remarriage leaves no hope of the parents getting back together, although some children continue to fantasize about everybody living in one home again.
Children may also have to deal with step-brothers and step-sisters, new grandparents, aunts and uncles. They may find it hard to accept changes in discipline and the authority of the step-parent. They may be jealous of the time and attention given to the new partner, step-brothers and sisters. They may feel that they are treated unfairly compared to their new siblings. A new baby may also spark feelings of anger and insecurity. Parents may find that being aware of these issues can be useful as they help their children adjust to new situations.
Step-family relationships or "blended families" differ from original family relationships in many ways. When families are reorganized, children often experience having more than one "mother" or "father." Most children adapt to this. Parents who have formed new relationships should make a special effort to spend time alone with their children. They need to know that they are part of the new life you are building.
The step-parent enters a new family group that already has a shared history, strong bonds and an established way of operating. Acknowledge that you will never replace their mother or father, and work on developing a unique relationship with the children. Encourage your step-children to honour and respect both of their parents and not to take sides. A step-parent can be a special friend to the children. Try not to compete with, replace or be critical of the other parent. When step-parents criticize the children's parent, children feel worse about themselves and less loving toward the step-parent.
In many cases, step-parent and step-children are suddenly thrown together, without the chance to develop a relationship gradually. The clashing of different rules, goals, definitions of behaviour and methods of child rearing can cause many problems, and a satisfying relationship between step-parents and children usually develops slowly. This is not surprising, since closeness, affection, friendship and trust usually need time to develop.
Step-parents can help children deal with changing roles and circumstances by being patient and giving them lots of time to adapt to their personality and lifestyle.
Many good books and articles have been written about remarriage, step-parenting and blended families. See page 74 for some authors and titles.
The challenge of being a parent during separation and divorce may sometimes seem overwhelming. When times are hard, it is important for parents to remember that all children face challenges as they grow up. Some move from school to school, from community to community. Some experience the death of a family member - a grandparent or older relative, and sometimes a parent or sibling. Some face serious illness. And through it all, they cope and learn and mature. Children have a tremendous capacity to meet the challenges life throws them. They have a remarkable ability to bounce back from difficult experiences -and this ability grows out of being loved and cared for.
Use your good judgement and common sense, try some of the suggestions outlined in this booklet, and reach out for the support and assistance you need from friends, family, professionals and community resources.
Despite the difficulties and pain, separation and divorce - like other challenges in life - can provide opportunities for growth, for both parents and children. Just as you may gain confidence, acquire new strengths and develop new abilities at this time in your life, so will your children. By helping them deal with divorce, you are giving them the skills to manage other challenges in life.
Because life goes on...
Because we are called to respond to its challenges... Because we best see the light with our eyes wide open.