Written by Jo McCarthy

Education Support Worker at Stoke Hill School

Jo's job is to help children get the best from their learning environment, and supporting parents and teachers in helping to make that happen. She works closely with the mental health teams, educational psychologists and social workers.

One of the hardest life changing events children may have to face is hearing the news that mummy and daddy are not going to be living together anymore. Taking away routine, familiarity, loved ones and prized possessions from a child is a bereavement, a loss.

Parenting is a partnership, regardless of living arrangements. That has to be in your mindset from the start.

In the schools where I work, we do all we can to ensure both parents take an extra interest in their child’s education, of course alongside Parents Evening and Parent/Teacher discussions. It’s not unusual for us to arrange for mum or dad to come into school for lunch with their child, a tour of the school, some special non-rushed private time for the child to show their work to their parent. This is so effective if a contact plan is not as reliable as it should be, or possibly not as consistent. Or just even that your child is having a blip about missing mum or dad because they haven’t seen them in a few weeks. This happens. Some of the most enlightening and emotional moments I have experienced in my role, is hearing a child thank their parent for taking some time out from life or work, sharing school lunch, often just a plain old cheese jacket potato with beans. “I never realised how much you cared about my school work because you are not at home to ask about it anymore’.

We are very quick to identify and step in when a contact weekend hasn’t gone well or had to be cancelled at the last minute due to an unforeseen circumstance. School staff know your children very well, and the likelihood is they will see and sense if something isn’t quite right after a weekend. Talk to school staff. Let them know if your child has said something about a contact time. A worry, a fear or an anxiety can lead to a child not wanting to come to school, but only because they need their safety needs topped up so want to stay home with a parent. That is very common, and the most successes we have had in helping children feel good about themselves, to improve their feelings of self-worth, is when parents communicate to us when things aren’t quite right or appear to be going wrong.

I always regard our children in school as being like little bowls of ready-made pastry with the ingredients prepared at home. Sometimes, the ingredients are a little unbalanced, for a variety of reasons. No matter what we do to try to fill those pastry cases, we are never going to end up with a perfect pie. As parents, you provide the foundations (the ingredients) to your child’s learning and to their future.

Without that vital groundwork preparation done by you, everything we as a school do to build on those foundations could cause an overload and your child could topple under the added education and social skills teaching that we in school put on your child every day. Home and school, when they work together and communicate with each other, can form and produce the perfect ingredients and filling, the end result being a pie we can all be proud of.

8 pieces of advice we give parents who are going through separation

  1. When announcing your separation, be as open and honest as you can. There is no need to share the intimate details, especially if other people are involved in a parental separation. Your children don’t need to know that.
  2. If you haven’t got as far as arranging a contact plan, then tell them that. Ask them what they would like, how they would like it to work. Your child is putting their faith in you and your ability to manage their safety and happiness. Giving them an aspect of control in their parent’s separation will help enormously and will allow them to voice their own needs, if old enough to identify them.
  3. If you have discussed contact arrangements, be very clear with when and how your children will see each of you. Discuss this together prior to talking to your children. They will need to know they will see you, and you must stick to what has been agreed. Never use contact time as a punishment or a flexible arrangement to meet your own needs and social lifestyle. It has to be set in stone, at least until your children are confident and satisfied that you are prioritising spending time with them. You have told your children that you will always love them and you will always be there for them. Now it’s up to you as parents to prove that to them.
  4. Think quality, not quantity. Make contact time special, but don’t make allowances for what you know is not normally acceptable when your child is with the other parent. A one off late night is fine. But school nights are early to bed, homework is a must with whichever parent they are seeing, untidy rooms are still not ok and treating others as we want to be treated ourselves is still a family expectation. Right? Parenting is a partnership, regardless of living arrangements. That has to be in your mindset from the start.
  5. When children suffer a trauma, their primary need is to feel safe. Boundaries are more important than ever and relaxing those boundaries will allow your child to step out and over into the ‘unknown’ – this will no doubt make your child feel insecure and vulnerable.
  6. .Be nice about your ex-partner when discussing them with your child. Many of the parents I have worked with find that hard. No matter how much heartache you are going through, or have gone through during your separation, you must not allow that sense of betrayal to be passed to your children, no matter how subtly you try and make those under the breath comments. Your child will love his/her other parent, may even be worried about them and will most definitely miss them. They don’t want to hear bad things said about them – that will only lead to resentment and anger directed at you, if not now, when they are old enough to remember and understand.
  7. .Support each other as parents. You may not like each other as lovers, but when you created a child together, you gave yourselves a life-long job commitment – you became parents. Whatever it takes, grit your teeth, clench your fists, bite your tongue. When you are a parent, you are part of a duo. Be united in your expectations of behaviour – by creating a divide between you and your expectations will allow your child to escape right down the middle of you both, again, into unknown and unsafe territory.
  8. Try and be as strong as you can, even though you may be breaking inside. If they see you frequently crumbling, falling apart and losing control, the chances are they will too.

Final thought

Separating parents doesn’t have to mean the end of a family as many first fear. Just a changed one. With both parents pulling together, working together, communicating with each other, (or engaging with alternative communication methods), there is absolutely no reason why your children can’t develop and mature into the grounded and confident young people you want them to be.

Additional Reading/Resources

The Handover Book by Ashley Palmer is a unique and simple communication book for separated families. It will allow them both to always be aware of what is happening in their children’s busy lives as they go from one household to another. It’s a way of communicating the important things they both need to know about their children, while keeping your relationship as parents friendly and calm.

You may also find our page on How To Tell Your Children You Are Divorcing – Recommended Books useful.

We also have a list of recommended books and resources on Co-Parenting.

Charlotte Friedman has written Breaking Upwards – How To Manage The Emotional Impact Of Separation. Charlotte offers calm, therapeutic advice on everything from how to manage loneliness to letting go of grievance, and draws on illuminating case studies to answer questions such as:  How long before I get over this divorce? How do I tell the children?  How do I cope with the new partner in my ex’s life?


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    Head Teacher Roy Souter has written an article on what you need to tell the school when you are separating. You can read it here......

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