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How will my children be affected by our separation? Solutions for children acting out, or siding with one parent
If you are on the verge of separation or have already separated, one of your greatest concerns may be this: How will this affect our children? In fact, you may feel as though you are already noticing a change in your children’s behaviour – anything from acting out, to playing you and your partner (or ex-partner) off against one another. In times like this, you may feel as though you are losing a connection with your child, or that you may be causing permanent psychological harm to your child. This information will address some of these core issues and concerns, and by the end, you should feel that these are only stumbling blocks, and if handled properly, may even offer an opportunity to improve your relationship with your partner (or ex-partner) and with your child. In short, there is a good reason to be optimistic, and it is only normal that, during this time, there will be changes in your family dynamic and thus behaviour. But you may begin with asking yourself this: Does my child even notice that there is a problem?
"One of your greatest concerns may be this: How will separation affect our children?"
How aware is my child of the issues?
Children, even from a very young age, are very sensitive to both verbal, and non-verbal behaviour. They are able to pick up on changes in adults’ behaviour, even if they are not fully aware of the reason behind that change in behaviour. Although young children are ego-centric, by as young as four years of age they become aware of the how parents may have a life outside of their existence. As such, children can become highly distressed when things at home become strained or deviate from normal. This understanding of children has led to them being increasingly relevant in family therapy, as they can provide a glimpse into some of the problems in the family system, often unconstrained by social stigma, which may affect adults in the family. Put simply, children often tell it how it is, if not directly, then metaphorically (such as in drawing the family), meaning that any change in children’s behaviour can help identify what dynamics in the family are causing problems. In this way, their behavioural changes can be seen as a way for families to learn, grow and develop. Typically, individuals going through separation, and therefore are under a lot of strain, find that children can play favourite.
"Children often tell it how it is, meaning that any change in children’s behaviour can help identify what dynamics in the family are causing problems."
Why is my child siding with one of us?
Children are very adept at noticing behavioural changes. In a family dynamic, where power-play may be shifting, your child may be trying to exploit these changes by seeking favourable outcomes (such as more toys, McDonald’s after school, and so on) or by getting more attention. You may find that, in these circumstances, your child is manipulating both of you by playing on your guilt, but actually this can reveal underlying concerns that the child may be having, or problems in the family dynamic. For example, Max and Andrea come to therapy suggesting that their son Jacob’s anti-social behaviour at school is causing them to fight about how to handle the situation. Under closer scrutiny, the therapist uncovers that Jacob feels as though his parents only talk to each other when he acts out at school; they have a family meal out, and Jacob gets a toy if he behaves well. It may not always be the case, but in this example Jacob is reacting to what he perceives as problems in the marital relationship, not the other way around.
Further investigation reveals that Andrea and Max are having difficulty controlling Jacob at home. For some reason, he is being rude to Max, but loving to his mother Andrea. Max fears he is being too strict, but without his firm hand, Jacob would become harder to control as he gets older. Exploring this further, the therapist finds out that Andrea is spending more time with Jacob, confiding in him about the problems that “mummy has with daddy”. In bringing Jacob into the relationship issues, Jacob is being influenced to side with one parent over the other.
Finally, Andrea and Max are finding that their conflicting parenting styles are making fights between Jacob and Max increasingly common. The therapist urges the parents to consider what parenting techniques they do have in common, and to show a united front to Jacob, so that he does not attempt to get what he wants from one parent when the other has said no. A therapist may suggest keeping discussion about parenting style private, and any negotiation between the parents to be done away from the child.
"In a family dynamic, where power-play may be shifting, your child may be trying to exploit these changes by seeking favourable outcomes or by getting more attention."
A strong family does not have to mean being a couple
One of the biggest fears of most families is that they will lose the strong family cohesion and bond that defines them. However, being separated, or the introduction of a new partner, does not have to mean a weakening of the family unit. If the family openly discuss these changes and their concerns, and if the roles are defined and structured, children and adults can begin to accept these changes. Indeed, during separation or time apart, the family dynamic will change. However, bearing in mind that sadness and distress is a normal part of the separation process, these changes, if expected, can be managed, and the wellbeing of all can be maintained.
Summary: Why is my child misbehaving?
Bringing all this information together, it can be seen that when parents begin the separation process, they often attempt to pre-empt the effects on the child by over-compensating with affection, so that the child feels loved. However, sometimes this can mean going against what you have agreed upon with your ex-partner, by buckling under guilt and treating the child even when they act out, and finally being softer than usual, which can confuse the child. When this happens, children can change their behaviour by acting aggressively, becoming withdrawn, or throwing tantrums. However, by following some of the guidelines listed above, and seeking professional help during this transition, families can remain strong as a unit, allowing children to grow, develop and flourish, even if separation is unavoidable.
More Information on Counselling & Therapy Relating to Separation & Divorce
- Why have we grown apart? My partner just does not seem to understand what I need from them
- How will my children be affected by our separation? Solutions for children acting out or siding with one parent
- Is your extended family driving a wedge between you and your partner?
- Why do we always fight? Are you sure that you do?
- Separation and communication: Are you growing apart, but afraid to speak out?
- Adapting to children entering and leaving the family
- Can counselling help us move forward post-separation?
- Why does separation hurt so much? Why do I feel differently towards my partner?
- Domestic violence: What is it, what can we do about it, and how to get through it
- Infidelity: Why did my partner cheat? Can our relationship be saved?
- Contemplating separation? Will a trial separation help or hinder?
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DISCLAIMER: The information contained on this website is for general guidance only. No person should act or refrain from acting on the basis of this information. Professional counselling or therapy or psychology advice should be sought based upon your particular circumstances.