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Co-Parenting – What Children Typically Experience

When adult relationships change and a co-parenting situation is going to occur children often experience fear, confusion, anger, sadness, rejection and guilt.

In some cases children experience a sense of relief because it means the end of fighting and arguing but this is generally followed by a sense of guilt over feeling relieved and then fear over what the changes will mean for them.

Children often process the end of the their parent’s relationship through stages similar to those we see with grief and loss.

  • Stage 1 - Denial
    They often think mom and dad will get back together.

  • Stage 2 - Anger
    This often stems from the sense of rejection children feel when one parent leaves the household.

  • Stage 3 - Bargaining
    Children often think if they behave well or do better in school their parents will get back together.

  • Stage 4 - Depression
    Children often feel helpless, left out and further rejected because the parents have not resumed the relationship as before.

  • Stage 5 - Acceptance
    As time goes on, children recognize their parents are not going to get back together and they begin to settle into the new arrangement.

Not all children go through all these stages, or in this order but these stages can be a good indicator of how your child is adjusting.

Telling Your Child

Telling your children can be the hardest part of the separation process. If at all possible parents should speak to their children together but sometimes this is not an option.

If you do have to tell your child on your own, choose a calm time when your child is not engrossed in another task, and ensure you have enough time to answer any questions or concerns they might have.

If you are rushing to explain and they are rushing to understand, it will probably not go smoothly for either of you. Regardless of how and when you tell your children keep the following in mind:

  • Let your child know you will continue to take care of them, provide for them and keep them safe.
  • Let them know that while feelings between adults can change, they never change between parents and children.
  • Let them know you will never ask them to choose sides.
  • Remind your child they are not the reason for the changes.
  • Remind them often that you love them.
  • Don’t blame the other parent.
  • Don’t give your children details of why the relationship has ended. Children don’t need to know about adult issues like affairs or financial problems.

    It is not recommended to say you don’t love each other anymore. Children interpret that to mean that if a parent can stop loving their other parent, you could stop loving them. You may have very negative feelings towards your ex-partner but your child shouldn’t hear about it.

Managing Reaction Behaviours in Children

For some co-parenting situations, there are two changes that may occur in the relationship between a child and their parents:

  • Distancing away from one or both co-parents.
  • Reversing of roles from child to parent.
  • Regression to behaviours or tasks they have already mastered.

1 – Distancing

There are several factors that can influence the relationship of the child to a co-parent. In the early part of a separation, one parent may be spending much less time with their child or perhaps custody issues are resulting in one parent not seeing their child regularly.

Regardless of the reasons, if one parent is not spending much time with their child, it can result in an unequal preference for one parent. Your child may also blame either you or both of their parents for the split and the changes that resulted from it.

It can also be because of embarrassment or pressure from your child’s peers that resulted in your child disassociating themselves from you. Whatever the cause, you must be able to identify and address the problem as soon as possible.

For example, if you notice that your child refuses to spend time with their other parent and prefers to stay with you, this is a sign of an unequal preference.

First and foremost, resist the temptation of taking advantage of your child’s emotions. Assuming there is no safety concerns, whatever issue you have with the other parent must remain between the two of you.

If your child expresses that they love you more than their other parent, gently correct them and remind them how much the other parent loves them.

There is absolutely no benefit for your child preferring you over their other parent. It may seem easy today but down the road it may be the source of regret, ill feelings and cause more problems.

Ask your child the reason for their change of heart. Feelings of rejection, grief or confusion often manifest as anger. Share your findings with the other parent and together make a plan to solve it.

This is not the time for blaming and accusations but an opportunity towards teamwork in raising your child. At the end of the day, your goal must be equal love from your child for both you and their other parent.

2 – Reversing

There are also cases, when parents who express their depression or grief about the end of their relationship in front of the children, cause a role reversal for the child.

Your child, out of their love for you, may attempt to comfort and take care of you during your vulnerable episodes. They may even offer to talk on your behalf to their other parent.

You may think that it is a sign of maturity for your child and believe it is a good way for your child to express themselves but this is not beneficial for your child. If your child is becoming “parentified” by assuming more adult roles, you want to nip that in the bud.

Children, especially ones with so many changes happening for them, need every opportunity to be a child and involved in age appropriate tasks and activities.

When you anticipate breaking into tears or showing negative emotions make sure that your child is not there to see it. Your role as a parent or now, as co-parent, needs to be as a source of strength and stability.

Showing these excessive emotions reflects the opposite, it may impress upon your child that the situation is not safe and not secure. When emotions do become overwhelming and your child is around, it is fine to be honest and say you are feeling sad or lonely or frustrated or whatever.

Then show your child how you will cope with those feelings in a healthy manner. Turn it into a teachable moment. Modelling for your child how to manage emotions healthfully is one of best things can you teach them.

Maybe you will decide to call a friend, or go for a walk or play a game with your child to take your mind off of your feelings.

Regardless, it demonstrates for children that it is okay to have emotions. Emotions can be processed and moved on from in a way that still allows them to feel safe, secure, loved and appreciated.

3 – Regression

Younger children may display a regression of previously accomplished milestones.

For example, a previously toilet-trained child may start to have “accidents”, a child who had previously taken steps may now only crawl or a child who previously played independently may become quite clingy. You may also notice your child’s emotions seem out of proportion.

For example, a child who previously enjoyed an activity, like a bath, suddenly becomes quite distressed. You may also notice your child becomes more easily frustrated or angry than before.

These are signs your child isn’t coping well and you may need to consider a professional play therapy group or counsellor.

What Children Typically Need

Creating stability, especially after a split can be a huge challenge and by definition the break up and rearrangement of families has an unstable period and whatever is happening for the adults will be magnified for the children.

Look for any opportunities you can find to maintain some stable aspects of your child’s life. Ideally, you are able to keep your child’s social community intact.

This means keeping your child in the school they are in, helping them maintain friendships and engaging them in activities that give them something else to focus on rather than what’s happening with the adults in their life.

Grieving the loss of a relationship is entirely natural, as is having anxiety and stress around the changes happening for your family.

You will probably have some work to do around being emotionally available to your child and being able to focus on their needs without your issues seeping in.

1 – Stability

Your child will need this stability in order to feel safe and secure as the adults sort out the issues.

Rarely, does a split between parents and family happen out of the blue. Your child has likely noticed that something is happening with the adults in their life, and most children will have some anxiety around changes.

It is wonderful if parents are able to sit down with their child and explain that although things are changing in the family the child is very much loved and there can be agreement in front of the child that the adults will work together.

Unfortunately, that isn’t always the case. In those situations your child needs one of the adults to become “the rock”. Children often blame themselves or think they are somehow at fault for the changes that are happening.

The often try to compensate for this by gaining acceptance and wanting to be included in trying to “fix” things. You may notice your child testing boundaries more.

This is really a time when children are testing you to make sure that they are still safe. This is why being stable and consistent is so important.

Children need to know that while everything seems to be changing and uncertain, your love for them, your ability to continue to maintain safe boundaries and their ability to just be a child are still the same.

2 – “Little Man Syndrome”

This caution is for mothers and caregivers of sons specifically. When the father figure leaves the relationship I often hear mothers, grandparents and family friends say things like, “Well, Johnny’s the man of the house now”, or refer to the son as “little man”.

Although your son might be more than willing to take on that role (because it feeds his need for love and acceptance from you) it can put too much pressure and added stress on a child.

When children, boys specifically, are told they are “the man of the house” or called “little man” too often they begin to internalize that role.

They stop being children and try to take on adult responsibilities. It is not a child’s job to be the adult, take on adult roles or responsibilities and fulfill any vacated adult male role in the household.

You are the adult so be the adult. If you are realizing this is happening for you, and it often happens when we want our sons to feel valued and important, it is entirely possible to change how much “parentifying” is happening.

Ensure they are involved in activities that are age appropriate and help them build skills. When sons (especially if there are younger siblings) are turned into little parents they often become controlling and aggressive.

This is because they are trying to achieve a sense of safety and security that they aren’t getting from the adults.

3 – Financial Balance

Most co-parenting relationships are plagued by financial instability. One parent may have left the situation and refuses to help pay for the child’s expenses and rarely sees or spends any time with your child.

If this is your situation, you are not co-parenting, you are single parenting and that has a whole other set of complications tied into it.

If the other parent (or their family) is still involved there will likely be a conversation on who is paying for what and when.

There are some financial changes that you cannot avoid. Moving to another home, changing schools or communities can be really stressful for everyone involved.

Remember, keeping your child involved in activities that allow them to focus on being a kid, rather than on what is going on for the adults is really a parenting “best practice”.  If finances are tight, check into community centre programs that might have funding available for children’s programs.

Everyone can relate to a situation where a relationship ends and children are involved and every community centre I have ever worked with is more than willing to help parents find some programming where fees are lowered or covered completely for families experiencing crisis.

Settling into a new schedule and consistent routine can take time so persevere and be patient with yourself and your child. Things will get better.

Regardless of the level of personal involvement from the other parent, both parents are required to pay into a child’s care.

If the other parent is refusing to make support payments or refuses to have a conversation regarding who pays for what, you will need to seek legal representation.

In most areas there are programs available to people who could not afford an attorney. Check with local political offices and agencies that work with families for programs in you area.

4 – Solid Relationships

Your relationship with the other parent may have changed but your relationship to your child and their relationship to their other parent should not. That of course is the “ideal”.

In the real world when relationships between adults end and children are involved there are always hurt feelings and difficult emotions.

If the other parent is a jerk it is going to be really hard to find nice things to say about them to your child or defend their actions when they are not involved enough in your child’s life.

If you have other family supports now is the time to lean on them.

Having other supportive and involved adults helps support your child.