Information on tips on how to support families through separation
3 December 2015
When parents separate, it’s common for family members to experience a normal period of adjustment; a new normal needs to be established. Many decisions and plans need to be made around living arrangements, how much time children spend with each parent, financial arrangements, or new housing arrangements. Parents and children are also dealing with changes to their experience of their family, the loss of ‘the known’ and the emotional adjustments that come with these changes and shifting relationships.
Parents may adjust to their separation in different ways. Some may experience anger, sadness, or be less able to manage day-to-day life, while other parents may have diminished parenting skills for a period of time.
How children react to their parent’s separation may differ too, even between siblings. Children may express their responses through a range of behaviours, including withdrawing, performing less well or better than usual at school, behavioural problems or feelings of sickness such as headaches or stomach aches. The level of conflict to which children are exposed also has a impact on their capacity to be resilient. These experiences and associated feelings however are likely to change over time, and with support, most children adjust well.
It can be difficult to know how to support these families and how you can assist depends on your role, however everyone can do something to help parents and children adjust to separation. Firstly, you can listen and try to understand what the family members are experiencing. What are the issues? Which issues need to be resolved first? Who can help to work these out?
Many people find it helpful to know that what they’re experiencing is normal, particularly difficulties they encounter in the early months of separation. When issues continue for extended periods of time however, additional support may be helpful. A range of services exist such as counselling, support groups, Family Dispute Resolution (mediation) or parenting programs to help children, parents and families in difficult times. Determining which service is appropriate involves exploring the issues being experienced with the person, and the type of support family members need. It’s particularly important to consider needs of children, as sometimes their voices get lost when parents are focused on the loss of their intimate relationship.
By asking open questions and listening carefully to the answers through active listening you can ensure that you understand the issues and make appropriate referrals.