The more a woman can protect her children from the negative emotions she may be feeling towards and about her former partner, the better for them.
Negative feelings towards her former partner
Her fear of her former partner may be justified but, unless she has fears for the children’s safety when they are with him, she needs to be able to support them to feel positive about the time they spend with their father.
There are lots of legitimate reasons for a woman to be angry with her former partner:
- He is not filing properly completed court documents
- He is not providing her with accurate financial information
- He is not paying child support
- He is drawing out the case by asking for repeated adjournments
- He is not following the custody and access order
- He keeps taking her back to court over petty things
- He is harassing or stalking her
- He may be parenting the children in a way that she is uncomfortable with
Children will do better when their mother keeps her anger about adult issues away from them. You can encourage a woman who is angry with her ex-partner’s behaviour to find a safe person with whom she can blow off steam when something has happened that makes her angry and to continue working with you or a counsellor to develop strategies for responding to her ex when he behaves in an unacceptable way.
Remind women that, tempting as it may be, they should not use their children to spy on their former partner. A mother should avoid creating the impression that she wants her children to tell on their father to her (or vice versa) or that they have to keep secrets from either parent.
With respect to parenting, encourage the women you support to be honest with themselves about any criticisms they may have. Is this something important (for example, a child not being given medication or being kept from extra-curricular activities that are important to the child) or is it about something less important (he is not as conscientious as she is about bedtimes on weekends or about well-planned meals)?
Many women who have been the primary parent struggle with having to give up some of the control they are used to having. This is very understandable, especially if the ex-partner deliberately does things with the kids that he knows will annoy their mother. However, it is best to keep these frustrations away from the children.
It is reasonable for a mother to want to know what happens when the kids spend time with their dad, but she should avoid cross-examining them the minute they come back from an access visit. She can ask them general, positive questions rather than pointed questions that insinuate that she is expecting a negative answer.
At the same time, she needs to be alert to answers that may indicate she needs to probe deeper or that there may be a concern for the children’s safety or well-being.
Generally, a mother should give the children positive feedback about what they share: “I am glad you had so much fun with your dad.” “It sounds like your dad’s new girlfriend is really nice – that’s great.” “I know you feel uncomfortable at your dad’s apartment right now, but it won’t be long till it starts to feel like home, too.”
She can also let them know that, while she missed them and is happy they are back, she had her own activities to keep her busy while they were gone: “While you were gone, I finally got all the pictures from our March Break trip organized. Would you like to see them?” “I got a lot of work done while you were at your dad’s, so now I don’t have to work on the P. A. Day this week. What would you like to do together?” “I painted your bedroom while you were away. I am so excited for you to see it.”
(Obviously, what a mother says to her kids will vary depending on the child’s age and personality, but these suggestions can serve as examples to share with women.)
Help children manage feelings
It is the adult’s job to help children manage their emotions. This is a difficult time for them, too. They may have a mixture of feelings, including grief at the loss of the family that used to be, anger with either or both parents for what has happened, frustration that there is not as much money as there used to be or unhappiness at having to move to a new home or neighbourhood.
They may be experiencing torn loyalties: “How can I tell mum that I had a good time at dad’s without making her sad?” “I want dad to be happy, too, but I don’t want to answer all his questions about mum.”
They may blame themselves for the family breakup or be worried that either parent won’t love them as much in the future.
On the other hand, they may also feel relief not to be living in a home where abuse is happening.
Encourage women to limit what they share with their kids so they don’t feel like they have to become involved in the adult issues. At the same time, mothers need to listen to their children to keep on top of what they are worried about, what they want for their future in the newly configured family, what kind of support they might want and how they feel about decisions that will have an impact on them.
It is really important, no matter how old the kids are, for them to hear consistently from their mother that she loves them, that the family breakup is not their fault, that they are not to worry about money and that it is okay for them to keep loving their father, too.
Dealing with change
To the extent possible, women should make changes slowly and try to stick to familiar structures and routines. For example, even if the children are going to have to change schools, can it wait until the end of the school year or at least the end of the term?
If it is safe, women can develop similar (or at least not contradicting) strategies with the other parent so the children learn there will be consistency between their two homes about things like homework, chores, bedtimes and so on.
Children will be affected socially, physically, emotionally and academically if they are exposed to ongoing conflict between their parents. A woman cannot control the behaviour of her ex-partner and should never put herself in an unsafe situation just to avoid conflict, but you can encourage women to do the best job possible to behave in a non-emotional and respectful way towards their ex, pointing out that this will reduce the tension that the children will be exposed to.
The early weeks and months after separation are a good time to involve extended family if children are already close to them. A child may be able to share with a grandparent some of the anxieties that they don’t want to burden a parent with.
Depending on how severe the children’s emotional reactions to the new structure of the family are, their mother may need to consider finding professional support for them. In your role as a FCSW, you may be able to provide your clients with referral information about such resources in your community.