Relationship breakdowns affect a child's need for predictability and security in their lives. Parents should keep connected and put the child's needs first.

When a couple decide to end their relationship, the impact reaches wider than just the two of them. The ripple effect touches their friends and their whānau, and none more so than their kids.

Relationships can be hard work

The demands of work, parenting, whānau responsibilities, and outside commitments to community, sport or church can all put extra stress on a couple’s relationship and the time they have together.

It’s not always easy to make a relationship work satisfactorily for both partners. Add in extra challenges like unemployment, inadequate housing, mental instability, family violence, and gambling or addiction problems, and the relationship scales can tip too far.

Family breakdown

In New Zealand in 2019 there were 3,468 divorces involving 6,201 children. This data from Stats NZ is calculated just from marriage and civil union records, so doesn’t include the thousands of kids being raised by parents in de facto relationships whose partnerships break down.

It can mean that there’s less parental support for tamariki, as many will be raised by one parent after a breakup. Sole parenting can bring additional challenges, sometimes emotionally and economically, but also practically and socially.

Over time, the added pressures of being a single parent can increase stress levels and threaten self-confidence and a sense of security, which in turn can have an impact on the wellbeing of the kids.

A sense of grief

Some parents are surprised at the sense of loss they feel when their relationship ends, even though intellectually they’ve made the decision to separate. They have identified all the reasons the partnership was unsustainable and may have even tried counselling. But they haven’t prepared themselves for the influence of their limbic brain, the emotional part, that grieves the loss of what was.

Tamariki may experience a similar sense of loss as the picture they have of their whānau has altered. They will need lots of support to adjust to the changes, and that can be difficult for parents to give if they’re struggling with their own grief. This may require some outside support for the kids and their parents, as each need help coming to terms with their ‘new normal’.

Finding help

Seeking out the right type of help for each family member is important. Professional help or legal advice will be needed for issues around custody, money, property or protection orders.

Emotional support might be through a counsellor or attending courses run by Presbyterian Support Services. Maybe finding a trusted friend who’s been through a breakup could offer some practical advice.

Understanding everyone’s emotions, such as anger, resentment, loss and fear, is all part of the acceptance process. Sharing those feelings and struggles with someone trusted will help whānau to work through some of the emotional challenges.

Keeping emotions under control

Speaking calmly about the ‘ex’ can be hard, especially if the breakup has been difficult. But trying to keep emotions under control, especially in front of the kids, is so important for tamariki wellbeing. They will have different feelings about the breakup than the adults and should never feel like they have to take sides.

When parents are at an emotional low themselves, they can sometimes unconsciously use their children as comforts or lean on them more than is acceptable. Parents learning to manage their own strong feelings is an important step in the process of moving on from the breakup.

Agreements about care of or access to the kids should be carefully thought through and agreed upon, with the support of an intermediary if necessary. Unless there are valid and proven reasons why one parent should not have access to tamariki, any agreements require 100 percent commitment from both parents.

Open and honest communication, cooperation and sometimes flexibility is how the arrangements will work, and it’s the adults’ responsibility to make them happen. Withholding access to the kids, not taking responsibility for their care at agreed times, or using them as ammunition against each other is not putting tamariki and their best interests first.

Keeping connected

Research confirms that a parent keeping in touch regularly is the key to kids feeling okay. Phone or video calls for the younger kids and text messages or conversations via social media for the older ones really helps. This contact affirms for the tamariki that the parent who is away from them still cares, still thinks about them and wants to see and hear from them often.

If this type of communication is unfamiliar to a parent, they may need to find some help to upskill so they can show their kids how important they are to them.

Tamariki need help to keep in touch with their wider whānau too. Parents separating shouldn’t keep them from grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, and again, it’s up to parents to work together to help make that happen. Kids should never feel that they’re disconnected from or not welcome within their extended family.

Communicating any upcoming changes to the other parent helps kids so much. Openly sharing information reminds them that they’re still a whānau who talk to each other and care about each other’s lives.

Whether it’s moving house, changing jobs or introducing a new partner, anything that might cause stress or disruption for the children needs to be shared. Tamariki thrive on predictability and feel safe and secure when they know what’s happening in their lives.

Don’t give up

Devastated parents who are not coping with the split have been known to just disappear out of their children’s lives. This response to their loss can be heartbreaking for tamariki and detrimental to their emotional health. It’s almost as if the parent has died, but without ever having the grieving process that a funeral provides.

No matter how difficult or overwhelming it might feel, it’s a parent’s duty to help their children to understand what’s happened. Parents who are struggling may need to ask for help from others. Parents, friends and extended whānau can be happy to support and may just need to be approached.

It is possible to end a relationship with a partner but still remain closely connected with the children. It is so worthwhile for everyone in the long term, but especially for tamariki.