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FAQ For Separating Parents

"My interest is in the future because I'm going to be spending the rest of my life there."

Charles Kettering

Separation is a time when both parents and children feel overwhelmed by the losses and changes they are experiencing. Separation and divorce end the husband-wife relationship, but not the parent-child relationship and parental responsibilities. If their parents cooperate and communicate your children may not end up feeling divorced, too.

Try to remember that there are at least three "stories" or views of separation; your's, your spouse's and the childrens'. Generally, the children's story is, if not ignored, not really listened to.

This outline suggests some answers to frequent questions about separation. It is not intended to answer legal questions or provide legal advice. The current trend is to encourage parents to develop their own parenting plan; however, you should consult a lawyer to find out your rights and obligations and if your plan is consistent with federal and provincial laws.

Working together as parents means cooperating with the other parent about raising your children, no matter how you feel about each other. It means working out a parenting plan that gives your children enough time to be cared for by you both. Working together as parents also means sharing responsibility for your children's care, respecting the other parent's rights and privacy, and developing a method of communication for discussing serious problems about your children.

Because it will give your children a better chance for a secure and satisfying life. Cooperation is important not just for the sake of the children, but for your benefit as well and leads to:

• better parent-child relationships; 
• fewer problems for your children; 
• more personal satisfaction for the parents and less frustration; 
• less visitation problems; 
• less child support problems; 
• less going back to court; 
• sharing of responsibility;
• more freedom from conflict;
• fewer health, emotional, school, and social problems.

Some of the common emotions children and parents experience about separation and divorce are disbelief, anger, anxiety, confusion, guilt, helplessness, loneliness, and depression. Your children can best deal with these feelings when you cooperate with each other. What is damaging to children is the loss of ongoing relationships with each parent or witnessing continual conflict. Serious problems can usually be prevented when parents are willing to put their children's interests before their own. Try to avoid arguing and fighting in front of your children.

Reassure your children that the separation is not their fault; encourage them to express their feelings such as fear and anger; give them permission to continue to love both parents and not take sides; confirm that they will be taken care of; and prepare your children for the changes. Remember that no matter how kind and sensitive you and your spouse are to their needs, your children will be hurt by your separation. This is natural.

Telling your children requires a great deal of preparation and if you and your spouse handle this difficult task well, it may be a possible sign of your ability to handle parenting issues after the separation. If possible call a family meeting to prepare the children for the separation or divorce. Give your children a simple explanation that they can understand about the separation, without blaming anyone. Tell them that they will be cared for by both parents even though the parents will not be living together any more.

Children need to be reassured from time to time that they will continue to be cared for and loved by both parents as well as grandparents and other relatives. Listen to what your children have to say about their needs and wants. They will want to know where they are going to live; which parent they will be living with; will they have to change school; and what will happen to their toys and pets.

Tell your children that both of you love them and that this love will not change. They will need some time to really understand this, so tell them as often as needed.

Just as adults react to grief, so do children and there are several stages of grief which your child may go through. Although there is no order to the grief process generally children experience:

Your children may deny that the separation is happening. They may continue to hope that the other parent will come through the door and the family will be "whole" again. Discussions with your children during this stage may be met with silence and a closed mind. It is important not to push your children into acceptance, but rather just be there for them and continue to try to communicate with them.

Your children may become angry with you, the other parent, siblings, themselves, and may, be angry at the whole world. It is very important to reassure your child and direct this anger in an appropriate way. Hitting a pillow is acceptable, hitting a sibling is not. Children often try to assign blame and may try to place the blame on the "missing" parent. It is extremely important, even if very tempting, that you do not allow your children to do this. Remind your children that both of you love them. This will help them through this part of the grief process.

Another part of the grief process is bargaining. "If you come back home, Daddy, I swear I will be good." "I will keep my room clean, Mommy, if you just come back home." Please try to understand that your children may feel incredibly helpless in the face of all these changes. These feelings coupled with the feelings that they did something to bring about the divorce often cause children to try to bargain their lives back to the way they were. It is especially important during this stage to continue to reassure your children that they had nothing to do with the separation and to gently remind them that things have changed and that you are there to help them get through it.


Of all the emotions during the grief process, this is the one that is the most healing. It is important for your children to be able to grieve while letting go of their "old" lives and accepting that things will never be the same. While there is no time-table for how long this stage lasts, it is important to be aware that this stage can also lead into depression. Be aware of your children's behaviour during this stage. Sadness can be overcome for a while with some "fun time" while depression will usually result in not wanting to play. If believe your children might be experiencing emotions beyond sadness, let your family doctor know what is going on. If everything checks out physically, your doctor may be able to refer you to a child therapist to help your children learn to deal all the emotions they are feeling. Early intervention is the key to dealing with any issues, especially when it comes to your children.

What can be especially damaging to our children?

Children can be damaged when:

• they do not get to spend enough nurturing time with both parents;
• they do not have time for their friends and play because of rigid visiting schedules;
• parents threaten to send them away or to leave children if they do not behave;
• they are used to carry angry messages back and forth;
• they are told or made to believe that one parent is good and the other is bad;
• they do not feel free to love both parents and also stepparents;
• parents do not prepare children for changes that will occur;
• parents burden children with adult problems like finances, legal matters, new relationships etc.;
• parents expect children to comfort them instead of seeking adult relationships;
• parents neglect their own needs and/or needs of the children by overwhelming themselves with the entire responsibility of raising the children, instead of encouraging the other to share in the responsibility.

What kinds of parenting plans are there?

There are as many parenting plans as there are families. Any plan should be crafted to your unique situation. There are plans in which one parent has most of the responsibility for the care of the children There are plans in which both share time and responsibility for the children more equally, such as in joint custody plans. The most beneficial plans are those that are discussed and accepted by both parents and meet the ever changing needs of the children.

What kind of parenting plan is best for our children?

As parents, you know what your children need. The best plans are those based upon the changing needs of the children. These plans encourage a close, separate and ongoing relationship with each parent. Ideally, plans should also encourage your children to maintain contact with their relatives, especially with their grandparents.

This is a legal matter and should be discussed with your lawyer as the form of custody agreed to may have significant legal and practical impact on you and your children.

Sole custody usually means that one parent has the legal right to make major decisions about their children's health, education, and welfare.

Joint legal custody means that both parents are legally authorized to participate in making major decisions about their children's health, education, and welfare.

Joint physical custody means that the children spend frequent and significant amounts of time with each parent. This is not that common because of practical considerations. There are numerous joint physical custody options not just 50-50. The specific time sharing plan should be determined by the special needs of the children.

Pre-School-Age:    Very young children need frequent contact with both parents. Even short periods can be reassuring for young children. They need to be held, fed, bathed, read to, cuddled, played with and spoken to. Changes should be made as gradually as possible. Young children are very dependent and they need caring people to look after them.

School-Age:    School-age children need longer periods of time with each parent. Sleeping over in each parent's home helps them adjust to the loss of the original family unit and helps them to feel at home with both parents. Six-to-eight-year-olds may need special reassurance that they did not cause the separation. They need to be free to love both parents and all the people in their lives who are good to them. School-age children benefit when both parents are interested and involved in their education and when both parents participate in teacher conferences and special school activities.

Adolescents'; Adolescents are striving toward independence. They need: privacy; activities with other adolescents; some flexibility so they can reschedule plans with parents; freedom from overwhelming responsibility for major family decisions; continued guidance from parents about rules and standards for their behaviour; parents who act like parents, not pals; parents who do not constantly lean on them for moral support; cooperative parents who encourage them not to take sides; ongoing contact with both parents so that they can experience each parent's strengths and weaknesses.

Children of all ages need to know that neither parent will abandon them and that family life with each will continue.

If children lose contact with one parent following separation, they experience great pain and a sense of rejection, even if they do not express this outwardly. Many children find it difficult to trust and forgive a parent who left them. The hurt brought about by the loss of a parent can remain with the children throughout their lives and may keep them from being willing to love and trust others. Some children imagine the missing parent to be "perfect," instead of a normal person with strengths and weaknesses. The more they are kept from seeing a parent, the more they want to be with that parent.

Whether rightly or wrongly, increasingly, courts are now favouring the parent who encourages access with the other parent, the so called "friendly parent" rule. Research confirms that children tend to do best when they have ongoing positive contact with both parents.

Children are often hurt more by infrequent contact with one parent then by the inconvenience of going back and forth. They usually get used to living in two homes when parents cooperate and there are not continual conflicts between parents.

No matter what plan parents agree on, it is important that the plan be in writing and each parent has a copy. One copy should also be submitted to the attorneys. It may take several weeks or months to determine whether or not a particular plan is workable. Special attention should be given to the children's reaction and parents should be willing to make changes to suit the children's and parent's needs. From time to time changes will be necessary. Plans should not be thought of as "cast in concrete."

It often helps if the parent gives the child a chance to express their feelings. After listening, it is important for the child to be reassured of that parent's love. Children need to be given permission to love and enjoy both parents. When a child refuses contact with one parent, family counselling is often recommended. If this problem is neglected or ignored, the child may carry the anger and hurt into adulthood and lessen his or her chances for happiness.

Sometimes a parent stops seeing the children because of constant hassle with the other parent. A parent may stop seeing the children for a while because each separation is very painful. The unintended result may be that the children feel abandoned. Sometimes a parent stops seeing the children because he or she finds it is too confusing for the children to have to go back and forth.

Parents often do not realise a child's lasting pain in losing contact with a parent. Separation is such a painful and disorganising experience that many parents are temporarily blinded to the needs of their children at a time when they need them most.

Paying child support is an important parental responsibility and should be settled between parents. When this is not possible, legal assistance should be sought. Court enforced remedies are available.

It is natural to experience feelings of rejection, jealously and rage when a former spouse has a new relationship. There may even be a desire to try to stop that relationship, but such attempts can only lead to more problems.

In addition to the pain of losing a spouse, parents may also be afraid of losing their important place in their child's life. It is often comforting to know that parents generally can never be replaced, even when the child enjoys a good relationship with the new person.

Children should be given permission to love all the people in their lives. They need all the love they can get.

Stepparents should encourage the children to honour and respect both their parents and not take sides. Stepparents can be a special friend to the children. They should not try and compete, replace, or be critical of the legal or biological parents. When stepparents put down the child's parent, the child feels worse about himself and less loving toward the stepparent.

Your children will be reassured when they realize that their parents are not divorcing them, that each parent will continue taking care of them, and that it is ok for them to love both their parents.

Parents can reassure children by being honest about their feelings and letting them know it is natural to be upset at a time like this. In some way parents should help children understand that although this is a painful period, it is temporary and will pass. It takes time for everyone in the family to heal.

The following problems suggest the need for professional help:

• difficulty communicating;
• violence between any family members; 
• lack of involvement with the child by either parent;
• delinquent or self-destructive behaviour; 
• frequent daydreaming or withdrawal from relationships;
• school problems; 
• depression or anxiety that doesn't go away;
• alcohol or drug abuse; 
• inability to talk about feelings; 
• children siding with one parent against the other.

Seeking help early can often prevent serious, lasting problems.

Be good observers. Try not to rush in with answers. It is often more helpful to ask exploring questions than to give quick answers.

• When describing separation or divorce, use simple and direct language.
• Be honest. Express your feelings in a careful and compassionate way so that your children have a model for expressing theirs.
• Allow your children to express a full range of feelings. Anger, guilt, despair and protest are natural reactions.
• Listen to your children, do not just talk to them.
• Give your children extra affection.
• Do not expect your children's reactions to be obvious and immediate at the time of separation. 
• Remember, children are unique so there is no "one size fits all" solution or reaction.
• Be patient, flexible and most of all, be available.

Children are resilient and with love and guidance from you both, they will be able to deal with your separation.