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Chapter 2 – Child psychology – Ronina Stevens and Priyanka Utama

Priyanka Utama & Dr Ronina Stevens
Thrive Family


  1. Preparing children for the imminent change of separation
  2. Communicating the decision to separate to children of different ages
  3. Co-parenting across two households
  4. Co-parenting under one roof
  5. Co-parenting from different countries
  6. Image reference list

Preparing Children for the Imminent Change of Separation

While it will be uncomfortable to tell your children that you are separating, it is a necessary step. It is important that you inform them of this change after both you and your ex-spouse have calmed down, setting aside any hurt, anger or resentment you feel towards one another. It is vital that you present a united front. Ensure that you are on the same page about what is being said and do tell the children together if possible.

You should talk to your children about the separation before it occurs so that they have time to get used to the idea. Acknowledge that the decision to separate was not easy to make and will be a difficult adjustment for everyone in the family; however, while you may no longer live together as a couple, you will always be their parents and will always love them.

When explaining the reason for separation, keep it simple and provide constant reassurance. Do not blame the other parent and make sure your children know that the separation is not their fault, as children are never responsible for what takes place in an adult relationship. You should also make it clear that there is nothing they can do to stop the change. Be gentle but firm when you say this.

Some phrases you could use are:

  • We have tried our best to live together, but we cannot do so anymore. We love you very much and will still be your parents even when we live apart.”
  • “You did nothing wrong. Remember that this is a problem between your parents. There is nothing you could have done to prevent this from happening.”
  • “We know this is upsetting for you, but we will work through it together. We will do everything we can to help you get used to the change.”
  • “We understand if you are angry with us. Do not be afraid to tell us how you feel.”

Encourage your children to ask questions and discuss their worries. Be prepared to answer questions regarding future living arrangements. If a parent moves away, emphasise that the children will still be able to see them and that maintaining contact will not be an issue.

Questions which may arise include:

• “Do we have to move?”
• “Who will I live with?”
• “Do I have to change schools?”
• “Where will I celebrate Christmas?”
• “Will you both be there for my birthday?”

Be mindful that you do not accuse the other parent of any wrongdoing, as this would only further upset and confuse the children. How you and your ex-spouse behave will greatly affect the way your children react to the separation and deal with it long-term.

Communicating the decision to separate to children of different ages
When preparing your children for the separation, you will need to decide how much information you want to tell them. Carefully consider how the revelation of certain details might affect them.

In general, younger children require less information and do better with basic explanation. Older children may require more than this. Regardless of how much or how little you choose to disclose, the information should always remain truthful.

If the separation has occurred due to infidelity, the conversation must be approached with even greater sensitivity. Remember that the children do not need to know every single detail. If other parties are involved, it may be better not to include them in the discussion at all. However, if you do choose to introduce your children to a third party, do not rush the process and ensure you have a plan in place before you do so. You do not want your children to feel ambushed by your other relationship. The separation by itself is already an enormous change.

Across all ages, you should be positive about the other parent and avoid putting them down. Reassure your children that the separation has nothing to do with them or their actions, and that both parents love them and will continue to love and take care of them.

Provide a space for the children to discuss their feelings; offer opportunities for them to talk about what is happening, the fears and concerns they might have, and any loneliness or anger they may feel.

Here are some ways children may react negatively to the separation and how you can support them:

AgeReactionMeans of Support
  • Behaving younger than their age
  • Complaining about unexplained pains and showing distress
  • Showing aggressive, disobedient and attention-seeking behaviours
  • Acting clingy and possessive
  • Poor sleep quality
  • Showing anxiety about being abandoned or sent away
  • Maintain routines to help your child feel safe and secure, particularly at bedtime
  • If you are the primary caregiver, avoid being away for extended periods of time as this may cause them to feel insecure
  • Tell your children what is happening and when beforehand
  • Inform their nursery or school about the situation and any changes being made
  • Do not get angry if they wet the bed or show other signs of behavioural regression, e.g., by using baby talk
  • Behaving younger than their age
  • Feeling lost, forgotten or abandoned
  • Feeling blameworthy
  • Feeling traitorous toward the parent they do not live with
  • Expressing longing and worry for the parent they do not live with
  • Feeling traitorous toward the parent they do live when they spend time with the other parent
  • Explain why any changes in their lives are taking place
  • Reassure them of your love and that the separation is not their fault
  • Reassure them that they do not have to take sides
  • Remind them that it is okay to feel upset
  • Inform their school about the situation and any changes being made
  • Avoid getting angry or losing your temper
  • Choosing to support one parent over the other
  • Trying to grow up too fast
  • Behaving like an adult rather than a child
  • Behaving like your guardian or a substitute partner
  • Do not argue with your ex-spouse in front of them
  • Do not ask them who they would like to live with
  • Make it clear that they are not responsible for you or your wellbeing
  • Encourage them to hang out with their friends and mix with children of a similar age
  • Inform their school about the situation and any changes being made
  • Try to schedule parenting arrangements around their social and sporting engagements
  • Any of the reactions mentioned above
  • Avoiding or repressing how they feel
  • Distancing themselves from you
  • Showing resentment towards one or both parents
  • Trying to be more independent than they need to
  • Struggling with discipline at home or school
  • Showing arrogance or anger
  • Experiencing fatigue or other physical problems
  • Do not confide in them or use them for emotional support
  • Allow them to react to and figure out their feelings about the separation in their own time
  • Be patient with them
  • Try to schedule parenting arrangements around their social and sporting engagement

Co-parenting across two households

Co-parenting amicably with your ex-spouse will give your children a stronger sense of stability and increase their chances of having a close relationship with both parents. While setting aside your differences will not be easy, it is essential to creating and sustaining a successful co-parenting relationship

Here are some things you can do to help you co-parent productively:

  • Focus on what your children need; show understanding, reassure them of your love, their safety and your presence in their lives
  • Agree on rules about behaviour and discipline
  • Agree on the children’s schedules and activities
  • Give the children a regular and reliable routine
  • Communicate with your ex-spouse to give your children a realistic yet balanced relationship with both parents
  • Make a parenting plan to divide responsibilities between you and your ex-spouse so that neither party feels overly burdened with finances, arranging medical appointments, school runs etc.
  • Avoid arguing in front of the children; settle your disputes and disagreements when they are not present
  • Activate your surrounding network: keep the children’s teachers, sports coaches, family friends and extended family members informed about the situation, so that they know how to support them

Co-parenting under one roof

Some couples choose to live together after separating, typically for financial reasons or as a way to co-parent their children.

Remaining under the same roof means that your children do not have to be uprooted or shuffled between houses. They can also stay in close contact with both parents and do not need to worry about the physical absence of either. In this regard, your children will have fewer changes to adapt to during the separation. Cohabitating may also inspire you and your ex-spouse to get along. By navigating your new relationship around the children, you may be encouraged to overcome, or at least minimise, your ill feelings toward one another.

Nevertheless, before deciding to share a home, you must consider the potential obstacles that may arise and the impact they would have on your children’s development and wellbeing. For example, the children will be aware that the conflict between their parents was significant enough to result in separation or divorce. They may be sensitive to or anxious about matters involving both parents, such as having meals together as a family or inviting both parents to the same event. If you are unable to remain amiable at home, the children may also feel burdened with the responsibility of mediating between you and your ex-spouse, which would be tiring and stressful.

It is also important to remember that your ex-spouse may begin a relationship with someone else. This would likely make the situation at home even more uncomfortable and complicated than it already is. As life often gets in the way, it is not realistic to think that a separated couple would be able to successfully co-parent under one roof, with minimal conflict, on a long-term or permanent basis.

Before deciding to cohabit with your ex-spouse, it is strongly recommended that you figure out the practical aspects of living together and make a clear plan for these arrangements. These may include, but are not limited to, utility bills; maintenance fees and house repairs; the division of common areas around the home; and, crucially, the day-to-day caretaking of your children.

Once these details have been worked out, you should inform your children of the living situation moving forward. You should explain the rationale behind your decision to cohabit post-separation or post-divorce and the effect this will have on your children. Reassure them that they will not have to pick sides between parents and invite them to express any worries or wishes they might have in order to retain a sense of agency over their new way of life

Co-parenting from different countries

After finalising your divorce, you or your ex-spouse may choose to relocate to a different country. This makes co-parenting more difficult than if you were to live in close proximity to one another, as parenting duties cannot be shared equally. The parent living overseas will not be available for regular overnight visits, medical appointments, school runs or after-school activities. They will not be able to fill in for you if you fall sick or want to make other plans, and may not be present at school performances, birthdays or other special occasions.

When living in different countries, one parent inevitably undertakes all the daily responsibilities of raising a child. This does not mean, however, that the non-resident parent should disappear from their everyday lives. Regardless of location, each parent is obligated to play an active part their child’s development. Thanks to modern technology, this has become significantly easier.

For example, by helping with homework over video call, the non-resident parent may continue to participate in their education. Not only will this help the children flourish at school, it will also serve as a reminder of the non-resident parent’s love and affection: that despite their physical absence, they still care about what and how the children are doing.

The resident parent may also forward the children’s school reports to the non-resident parent so as to keep them up to date with the progress they are making in class.

In the event that the resident parent struggles to communicate with a child, the non-resident parent should step in. Though they may be unable to provide in-person support, they can still talk to your children and offer guidance. In this case, the distance might even prove advantageous in facilitating calmer conversation and helping the child see things from a different point of view

Common problem behaviours and how to address them

For your children to feel secure, it is imperative that you uphold clear boundaries around what is and is not acceptable behaviour. While you should be patient with your children and avoid losing your temper, you should not tolerate or ignore behaviour that would be prohibited under normal circumstances. For example, if your child suddenly develops a habit of lying or stealing, you should continue to discipline them as your normally would. It is essential that the children are disciplined appropriately and consistently throughout the separation process and after.

With regards to problematic parental behaviour, it is crucial that the children are not used as an intermediary between you and your ex-spouse. If you are feeling angry or frustrated, confide in other adults. Do not rely on your children for emotional support; do not ask them to deliver messages on your behalf; and do not ask them invasive questions about the other parent.

Otherwise, your children may end up feeling trapped and distressed. Do, however, encourage them to be open with their emotions so that they do not feel the need to keep secrets or hide how they feel about one parent from the other.

If you believe your child requires clinical attention for their behaviour, make sure both parents are on board before arranging any consultations. It may be helpful for you to attend parent sessions as well as sessions with your child.
Problem behaviours often seen in children of divorce include:

  • Sudden changes in physical appearance; weight gain and weight loss are both common side effects of stress
  • Insomnia or other sleeping problems
  • Not eating or eating irregularly
  • Rebelling against routines and responsibilities with which they usually comply
  • Behaving secretively, such as locking their bedroom door when they do not have a history of doing so
  • Extreme mood swings; this could be positive or negative emotion
  • Excessive crying
  • Behaving younger than their age
  • Refusing to see or communicate with the other parent
  • Behaving differently around one parent compared with the other
  • Remaining hopeful for a romantic reconciliation between you and your ex-spouse
  • Sudden and frequent “illnesses”, such as headaches or stomach aches; making excuses to avoid going to school

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