Whether you and your partner have recently split up, separated long ago, or even if you were never really in the same home to begin with, raising children in a separated home is always a challenge. Kids can respond to parental separation in a variety of ways depending on factors like their ages, personalities and the severity of the stress caused by the split. As a mom, the best you can do is try to understand what your child is going through and provide as much stability as possible, ideally with the help of your ex.
Infants can't cognitively grasp what's going on when their parents separate, but they can sense emotional turmoil and reflect it in their behavior. "However the caregivers are responding to the situation is how the baby is going to respond to the situation" in children under age 2, according to Dakesa Piña, PhD, a licensed marriage and family therapist. "If it's a really difficult time for the caregiver, then there may be more crying, irritability and that type of thing." If you have an infant or young toddler, do your best to take care of yourself and avoid taking out your emotions on her.
Understanding Toddlers and Preschoolers
Children approximately ages 2 to 5 tend to take the blame for their parents' separation. "They think that maybe because they didn't eat their spaghetti correctly, or they didn't go to the potty when they were supposed to...for some reason they've caused the separation," says Piña. Behaviorally, they can exhibit regression when under stress from the separation -- like wetting the bed or using more baby talk. This stage may take a lot of patience and understanding on your end.
Kids from about the ages of 5 to 12 have the ability to understand what's going on when their parents live in separate households. However, "they don't necessarily know how to manage their emotions," says Piña. How they respond commonly depends on gender. "Girls internalize those emotions; they might isolate themselves from other people, be tearful." Boys, on the other hand, "usually externalize their emotions, so they might become more aggressive." How to effectively respond to this behavior depends on your child's personality, but it's essential that you begin teaching him to communicate and handle his emotions in a healthy way.
Kids are complex once they hit puberty; so is the way they might respond to parental separation. According to Piña, their emotions and behaviors "look more like what an adult exhibit. They might isolate themselves; they might start doing poorly in school [...] Sometimes they'll 'parentify' themselves; they'll feel like they need to start taking some responsibility for the family. They will possibly mature quickly." Two-way communication with your teen and respect for her complex emotions and behaviors are keys to her development at this stage.
Communicating with Your Ex
Whether you like it or not, if Dad is willing to be, and capable of being, involved, you're on a team when it comes to raising your kids. "I encourage caregivers to communicate with their ex-partners as if it's a business relationship," says Piña. "Usually when you're having a business conversation, you don't involve emotion." If you approach each other with a professional tone, you'll be more productive when making joint parenting decisions.
As you're working with your ex, remember that children need structure and consistency to thrive, especially after going through the trauma of a separation. "Change equals stress," says Piña. Stress is the underlying cause of many emotional and behavioral difficulties in children of separation. "Hopefully as things become more structured, kids learn the rules of the separation and how they play a role in that," she notes. After time has passed following the separation and life is more consistent, "usually the behaviors become more normal." As much as possible, keep routine. Don't move to a new residence if you can avoid it in the wake of the separation. Maintain consistent schedules, rules and behavioral expectations in both households.
Negotiating When Necessary
You are bound to encounter parenting situations that you and your ex disagree about. Navigating these waters can be one of the most difficult aspects of raising kids in separate households -- for both you and the kids. "Think about the well-being of the child," stresses Piña. This isn't the outlet for power plays: "Negotiate how you're going to keep the rules in your home consistent," she advises. In the end, even if the agreed-upon rules aren't your first choice, negotiation is better for your kids and will likely result in better behavior.