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It's an extremely difficult time for children when their parents split up. There are many ways of giving them support and keeping them connected with their wider whānau.

It is never easy when a relationship breaks down, especially when there are tamariki involved. Trying to agree on things can be difficult, especially if communication between the partners is not positive.

A good starting point is helping couples to put aside their own emotions and put the interests of their tamariki first. The children’s reactions to their parents’ breakup will differ, depending on their ages.

Pātai atu ki te whānau:

  • What did you say to the kids about the relationship split?
  • What were their reactions?
  • What have you said about your ex-partner to them?

Kids will all react differently

Younger children may not fully understand what’s happened, but they will notice changes. Changes may happen in certain areas such as toileting and sleep, and children may want more comforts like dummies, bottles and cuddles.

Older tamariki can feel extremely helpless when their parents’ relationship breaks down, and their responses might be seen through other types of behaviour. They may be less talkative, more anxious, have nightmares, take more risks or get in more trouble at school.

Responding with empathy and understanding is vital, but it can be hard dealing with emotional kids and their difficult behaviours when parents themselves aren’t coping well.

Pātai atu ki te whānau:

  • What have you noticed about how the kids are responding to the break-up?
  • How have you been managing that?
  • Have you found some extra support?
  • Would you like some help with that?

A new face in the whānau

A new partner entering the mix can also put kids in a difficult position, especially if the other parent expresses how unhappy they feel about it. This response can make tamariki feel guilty for wanting to spend time with one parent, knowing the other is unhappy. It is unfair to put children in this position.

Parents need to prioritise their kids’ emotional health over their own. Children will need time with each parent, unless there are valid and proven reasons for not doing this (such as the children’s safety). If they don’t have time with both parents, it can have ongoing negative effects on tamariki for a long time.

Pātai atu ki te whānau:

  • What did you feel when you heard that your ex-partner has a new friend?
  • What did you say to the children about it?
  • What could help you feel more comfortable with this new person being with the kids?

Keeping connected

Ensuring that children remain connected with their wider whānau is important. Not only for the tamariki, but for the grandparents and other extended family members too. These relationships can help tamariki to see that although their immediate family structure has changed, they still belong to a bigger whānau unit.

The security that this sense of belonging brings can be helpful when they may feel like they’re being torn between arguing parents.

Pātai atu ki te whānau:

  • What communication have you had with your ex-partner about time with the kids?
  • What have the older children said about it?
  • How have grandparents connected with their mokopuna?

Finding help

It can be upsetting and tiring when working through the many issues and changes that a split requires. It could require legal or financial advice and the services of professionals. It could be about childcare or arranging access or support for the kids. Or it might be looking for the right kind of counselling or therapy to help each family member to work through the break-up.

Some parents might feel like gathering up their kids and shutting out the rest of the world. Understanding how they might be feeling is important, as well as helping them to find ways to cope with their ‘new normal’.

Have details of services that might be helpful available to the family, and have correct and up-to-date information about separation or divorce on-hand for parents. Helping parents to find what they need from online sources or local services can help to ease some of the stress, which willl also help to create a brighter outlook for tamariki.

Support and encourage whānau to see a new future for themselves, even if it is different from what they thought it would be. Some prompting questions might be helpful. For example:

  • What have you learned about yourself since becoming single?
  • This time next year, what would you like to be enjoying as a parent?
  • In the future, how would you like your tamariki to describe their parents’ breakup?