How children will cope with their parent’s relationship breaking down is predicated to a very large extent on how the conflict is handled by the parents.  A destructive conflict which continues for a number of years will have highly detrimental long term effects on children. On the other hand, a constructive conflict (not a contradiction in terms) i.e.,a conflict resolved in a mature and reflective manner will minimise the effects on the children and can also be highly instructive for the children in helping their understanding of how conflicts can be resolved in an effective manner.

Children should never be involved in the conflict between their parents either as inappropriate confidantes, messengers between one parent and another, direct witness to arguments and fights, and/or being asked to decide a parental matter.  Children need to think well of their parents where possible and parents should not bad mouth one another to the children directly or indirectly with either direct remarks or sarcastic asides.  Children may not understand the content but they will understand the tone and body language very well.  Each child has the right to form their own views of their parents and to evolve their own relationship with that parent regardless, and with very few exceptions, of what happened between the parents. The self esteem of children will depend to a large extent on their relationship with both parents where they have had both parents from the beginning.  In the whole of our parental health, few of us would approve of such behaviour, yet in parental conflicts much of this behaviour is the norm and it continues sometimes for many years. It is very important, and all too common, that children do not become conduits for information travelling between conflictual parents.  There is no doubt and all the research confirms that using children as messenger carriers or feeding them negative information during a relationship breakdown has a strong negative impact and is particularly harmful to them.   In this context it is also important to remember that our children are not our confidantes.  This can be particularly difficult for recently isolated and upset parents.

Introducing children into new relationships that have been formed as a result of the parental relationship breakdown is something that needs to be handled with great sensitivity and care.   The younger the child the more capable he or she is likely to be of adapting to a new situation.  It is important to try and take things slowly and carefully with the children allowing the time to process each new situation.  Even in a destabilising situation it is possible to create stability for children particularly if great thought and attention is given to this.  If children are catapulted into a new relationship situation evolving quickly into a new marriage and half siblings, the risks to them are very great, however, the majority of children are able to adjust to a changing situation given sufficient time and consideration.

The single greatest factor in ensuring children’s recovery from parental breakdown is the quality of parenting that they receive before during and after.  Helping parents to maintain high quality parenting during their separation may well be the greatest long term gift that we can give both them and their children. The input from collaborative coaches and child specialists can help to bring this about as can the support of extended family and friends.  Just being available to give a single parent a break now and again or some time out is a huge help.  Close personal friends and family can also assist with the parenting in a non-judgemental way.    A parent’s ability to maintain quality parenting during a breakup will certainly not be enhanced by a destructively conflictual breakdown as all focus will tend to be on the conflict either directly or indirectly. Friends and family can contribute enormously to the mature resolution of conflict by encouraging the parents towards alternative resolution methods and the arrival in this country of alternative methods of dispute resolution such as collaboration and mediation is of huge significance in this regard.  Recognising that children are suffering their own trauma is also very important and this is so regardless of whether or not they are doing well in school.  Quite often parents will take too much comfort from the fact that the child or children are doing well at school.  This is not always a reliable indication of whether or not a child is suffering.  Sometimes children can over-compensate in traumatic situations by being on their very best behaviour.  This can be because the child is blaming his or herself  in some way and so trying to make up by behaving too well.  Keeping other significant adults informed of the children’s situation such as teachers is very useful .  Offering children an opportunity to express themselves during this time to people that they are not afraid of distressing such as counsellors and child specialists could afford them a much needed release of stress.  Maintaining the boundaries of the parental relationship is very important as it gives children security and a sense of continuity even in a changing situation.   Minimising consequential changes to their lives in the face of such a major change can also be very important.  Pacing how they are informed of new circumstances and arrangements is also something requiring thought and careful planning.

Reading this article may well be the first step!!!