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By Dr Susie Burke MAPS and Heather Gridley FAPS, APS National Office

The recently released APS Position Statement on Parenting after separation will enable psychologists to provide practical advice on parenting children of all ages that can be given to parents going through separation. The research indicates that the reactions of children and adolescents to their parents’ separation differ qualitatively with age (Chase-Landsdale et al, 1995). This difference is thought to be due in large part to cognitive maturity, as older children and adolescents may be more capable of understanding the reasons behind a marital separation than are younger children. Younger children are more dependent on, and more needy of, their parents.

The advice provided in the Position Statement aims to help parents build a secure base for their children after separation, and to give parents information about the type of parental support that is helpful for children of different ages. The advice is sorted into different age categories based on knowledge about typical age-related reactions to parental separation, developmental factors, and predictable signs of distress in children at certain ages, but may also be applicable to children at other ages and stages.

The following information is adapted from the APS Position Statement and a booklet called Because it's for the kids, produced by one of the co-authors of the APS Position Statement, Dr Jennifer McIntosh (McIntosh, 2003). More detailed information can be found in the Position Statement and accompanying literature review (www.psychology.org.au/publications/statements/parenting_separation).

 

Children’s needs after parental separation

All children need:

  • Protection from parental conflict
  • A secure emotional base
  • Help to solve their problems
  • Firm and reasonable limits to be safely independent
  • A trusted parent when they need to be dependent
  • Encouragement to learn
  • Routines that help them feel in control
  • Protection from trauma
  • Protection from parental stress about ongoing unresolved issues with ex-partners.

Infants need:

  • Parents who are tuned into their needs
  • Predictability
  • A lot of time with a parent or parents who nurture them
  • Parents who play with them, listen carefully to their efforts to communicate, and keep their world small and safe
  • Visiting schedules that don’t cause too much change.

Older primary school-aged children need:

  • Reminders that it is not their responsibility to look after their parents’ wellbeing
  • Routines that are predictable, and consistent rules and expectations
  • Parents who can make room for thinking about their children’s needs apart from their own needs
  • Permission to love the other parent
  • Parents who listen carefully to how they feel about things.

Preschoolers need:

  • Plenty of time with their parents to know that they’re still there for them
  • Reassurance that they will see the absent parent again
  • Familiar rituals to help make the transition between parents.

Young primary school-aged children need:

  • Help to see that they’re not to blame for the separation
  • Parents who stay interested and in touch with their school, activities and friends
  • Encouragement to talk about their feelings
  • Reassurance that the absent parent still loves them
  • Clear boundaries to help them manage behaviour that may be a reaction to the separation
  • Help during transitions between parents.

Adolescents need:

  • Daily stress in their life kept as low as possible
  • Parents to be available on a daily basis to listen and give support
  • Predictable routines, and consistent rules and expectations
  • Parents who are able to supervise them, and take a real interest in their lives
  • Time and space to work out their own reactions to their parents’ separation
  • Flexibility in arrangements to allow them to participate in normal adolescent social activities and school events.

 

References 

Chase-Lansdale, P.L., Cherlin, A.J., & Kiernan, K.E. (1995). The long-term
effects of parental divorce on the mental health of young adults:
A developmental perspective. Child Development, 66, 1614–1634.

McIntosh, J. (2003). Because it’s for the kids. Building a secure parenting base
after separation
. Melbourne: Children in Focus.