Lessons on how to protect your mental health and your children when contact fails after separation
For some parents it might be hard to imagine a world where you can’t see your kids at all. Surprisingly, did you know that as many as 20% of children do not see their dad’s after their parents separate.
After my ex-wife and I separated our lives and children, my ex-partner decided that I should no longer have contact with my children because I was in a new romantic relationship. That day it felt like my world came crashing down. I couldn’t eat or sleep. I felt like I became half the man I previously was. From all the stress I stopped eating and suddenly started to lose weight, I went from 14 to 7 stone in a matter of weeks.
When you lose contact with a child that you previously saw everyday the first effect it has is grief. You begin to grieve for your child (even though your child is alive and well), without seeing them you hurt constantly.
After this, you may start to lack motivation for your normal life. In my case, because I had undergone a massive life change, I felt lost and like there was no way of finding myself again. But, in hindsight, I know that this feeling doesn't last forever.
My top tips to help dads with separation
Acknowledge how you feel
This means allowing yourself to feel emotions such as loss, guilt, injustice, anger and even loneliness are all part of the healing process.
So, during this time, it’s important to be kind to yourself and don’t judge yourself for the way you’re feeling. Treat yourself the way you would treat a friend with their struggles.
Give yourself time to adjust and come to terms with this new situation you are now facing.
Take positive actions - ‘Focus on what you can do rather than what you can’t!’
Make plans for when you start seeing your children again. Go on a course that will help you reinstate the great relationship with your children you once had. Practice self-care and keep a clear head, remember that a healthy mind and a healthy body, will help you be the best version of yourself.
But what about your children? Just like you, it is going to have a major effect on a child or children, because they are going through the separation and life changes, too.
Ways to support your children with separation
Help them to feel secure
Like you, your children will feel loss and grieve for the parent that leaves the family home. They will lose their sense of security as they don’t have a conventional family unit anymore and often will have to adjust to being part of a smaller family.
Look out for changes in their behaviour
After the separation, children may begin to wet the bed during the night, struggle with sleeping, or even become very clingy towards you. This is due to the fear that they will be left alone, because in their mind they may feel, ‘if one parent leaves, then what stops the other one leaving as well?’
Support your children with their emotions
Children can become angry or emotional towards both parents (not just the one that they see leave). They may even feel guilt and shame that they have done something to cause this disruption in the family. If they seem confused then you can’t blame them as they will feel they have to choose between the two of you. Make sure they understand that it is 100% not their fault.
For instance, encourage your children to know they still have two parents who love them and will always continue to care for them. Protect them from considering adult worries and responsibilities. Remember children are very switched on and take everything in, if you are worried they pick up on this.
Be careful how you talk about their other parent and be respectful
Never have difficult or highly charged adult conversations while they are in earshot. As much as you may not like your ex- partner (or they act in ways that you find inconsiderate or difficult), they are still the child’s parent so please never bad mouth them or speak negatively about them when the children are around. Obviously, you may need to process a difficult situation when they are not around.
Try and keep life as normal as possible
Always be open and talk to your children with respect but remember they are children, not adults. Make time to spend time with your children on activities that they enjoy, this could be time at the park or even storytime at home. Try and keep as much of the old routine as possible. Children will respond better to fewer changes and disruptions as possible.
Many parents in this situation try the family court system, this can work for some but can fail for others and both parties may not like the result. One challenge is that a court order may set out the basic parenting times but may not be comprehensive enough to actually deal with the busy and ever-changing lives of two families.
Establish a detailed parenting agreement
Having a detailed parenting agreement covering areas such as pick-ups/drop offs, sports days, parents evening, medical appointments, holidays, father’s day/mother’s day, communication methods, hobbies (and even fine details, such as who holds your child’s passport is really important). As anyone who has been through separation will tell you, conflict can begin or contact can break down between separated parents often breaks down over practical things, such as who picks up the children, taking the children on holiday, special days and finances. By using a detailed parenting plan both parents know where they stand and what the agreements are.
Nathan Wilson is co-founder of Dads Advocates.
Dads Advocates C.I.C is a Not For Profit Organisation challenging attitudes, barriers and gender inequalities for Dads. Dads advocates help separated dads and dads that have been the victims of domestic abuse.
If you would like a full comprehensive parenting plan which prevents high conflict confrontations then visit Nathan's website www.dadsadvocates.com