I don't know which was worse, the day I told the children that mummy and daddy wouldn't be living together any more, or the day daddy left. Both are indelibly carved into my memory. I would go to hell and back before deliberately hurting my children, yet that's precisely what was happening.
Like most parents, I wanted to do whatever I could to minimise the impact my divorce was going to have on my children. I'd been working as a Relate counsellor for more than 10 years at the time, so I knew precisely how hard it can sometimes be for rational, loving parents to ensure that they put their children's needs first. I knew that my children needed me to be the strongest and best parent in the world at precisely the time when I felt I had the fewest resources. So I scoured the bookshelves for some guidance but found that nothing existed, which was when I decided to draw on my professional and personal experiences to write a book myself – and Help Your Children Cope With Your Divorce was born.
My own experience undoubtedly taught me more about parenting through a divorce and separation than any book could have, and I'm still not sure if writing the book was cathartic. I don't have any other experience to compare it with. But I do know that reading it today, nearly a decade on, transports me painfully back to those difficult times.
An estimated one in three UK families is affected by separation, with last Friday known as "Divorce Day" because of the number of couples deciding to separate after the holiday break. In January 2013, Relate saw an 80 per cent rise in calls to its national phone line compared with December 2012, and we are expecting it to be very busy again this year. Many couples and families face a tough time over Christmas because that's often when people spend concentrated time together – which can bring to light any underlying issues that might exist. That's why Relate is launching a new campaign tomorrow called "Being Parents Apart". We want to help children and young people cope with the heartache and changes that separation brings by guiding parents through the critical moments of the process – one of which is the day that one parent leaves the family home.
Regrettably for many children, leaving day comes unannounced. Amid screams, shouts, tears and dramatic verbal outbursts that would rival any soap storyline, many children watch the fantasy of their parents' loving marriage crumble before their eyes. In a Relate counselling session, Alice, who was then aged 14, recalled: "I remember the day mum left like it was yesterday. Dad was screaming at her and she was crying. I'll never forget it." She was speaking six years after her parents had split up.
How children cope with leaving day is largely dependent on how they found out that their parents' marriage had broken down. If children have been living with angry conflict for many months or even years, then separation may come as a relief. But even in those cases, most say they were looking forward to the day when mum and dad would resolve their differences, not the day they split up.
For most children, separation comes as a shock and breaking the news is one of the most painful experiences any parent will go through. My ex and I had planned the time in advance, ensuring we had all the information we needed to answer their questions and plenty of time for them to ask them. But no amount of preparation readies any parent for the look of distress and disbelief on their faces.
When children hear the news for the first time, they need to be told what is going to happen and when – not necessarily why. Or, at least, not the full story. Any information that is shared about the reasons for the separation needs to be appropriate for their age. It should be as honest and open as possible while ensuring that children are not put in the position of feeling that they have to take sides.
I remember the painful words of Lucy, 11, in a counselling session as she spoke of how her life was being ripped in two by her parents' competing needs. "I pretend I'm happy so I don't make Mum cry," she said. "When I see Dad, I pretend I'm sad so he knows I miss him. I'm sort of happy and sad. Happy it's quiet at home and sad that Mum's sad. I try to cheer her up but it doesn't work. It's like I'm shrinking. They don't really see how I feel."
No matter how heartbreaking it is and whose choice it was, parents also need to manage their own emotions for the sake of the children. That doesn't mean pretending that everything is fine. On the contrary, being too positive can also be damaging because it leaves children feeling alone with their painful emotions and unable to express them. But they do need to know that the grown-ups are in control and that they can cope. That even though this hurts like hell right now, the family is going to get through this together. Samantha, aged nine, told me: "Daddy was really upset when they told us, but he handled it really well and I know it's going to be OK."
The reactions of children vary enormously, depending on the age and the temperament of the child. Some will be quiet and withdrawn, some angry and rebellious, others will become little angels trying to do everything they can to make the world right again. Underneath those reactions, all will be afraid and fearful about the future. I remember being amazed at how often and in how many different ways my children asked for reassurance. And in the early weeks and months, I worried that I couldn't give them enough as I fought with my own feelings of insecurity and doubt. Most children also worry about their parents, especially the non-resident parent. But some adolescents can be cruel with their anger – attacking a parent where they know it will hurt. A 15-year-old I worked with said: "I knew Mum wasn't happy – but aren't mums meant to put their children first? She shouldn't have left Dad till we'd left home."
No matter how many weeks or months there are leading up to leaving day, it will still hit everyone like a steam train when it arrives. It is the day when the separation becomes a reality. On the day, some children would rather not be there. For them, the pain of emptying their home or watching their mother or father's car leave for the final time is just too much. Conversely, some desperately want to be involved, perhaps clinging on to the last moment when their family remains intact. As always, planning is important – external structure can be a powerful antidote for internal turmoil, so think ahead about things such as whether it will take up the whole day, where the kids will spend that evening and what will be for tea.
The time after leaving day is perhaps the toughest of all. Tensions can run high as preparations are made to split the assets in the family home, and it can be especially difficult if the financial situation means putting the house up for sale. I remember well the pain of showing potential buyers round the home where I had assumed I would live "happily ever after".
Whether it's the child's mother or father moving out or the home being sold, parents should think hard about who gets what and what goes where. I have heard many children and young people over the years talking about the anguish of watching their secure base being dismantled piece by piece. The familiarity of home is a comfort that is valued by young and old so, if possible, there should be domestic reminders at both the mother's and father's new places. It's important to think about the things that might matter to the children – furniture, cushions, photos and pictures. Involve them in the decisions about their new home, such as what colour to paint the walls and shopping for their new duvet cover. Talk optimistically about new homes and focus on advantages, such as being closer to school or the park or grandparents or friends. But remember to be sensitive, too. The more children are involved, the more they'll be able to see that this is a new phase in family life, rather than the end of it.
Planning for the new phase is important, too, to establish new routines so that both parents and children can seamlessly start a new style of family life. Confirm what the contact arrangements will be and how the non-resident parent will stay in touch on a regular basis. The great thing about technology is that daily visual contact doesn't need to stop. Research shows that children cope best when they have regular communication with both parents, unless of course it would be unsafe to do so. And even more important than frequency is the quality of contact. The non-resident parent should think about how best to spend the time together to really make it count.
Children also need to know that it's OK to enjoy spending time with both parents. I remember a 14-year-old girl being referred by social services because she was refusing to see her father on his contact days but wouldn't explain why. She told me that it was just too painful for her mother. She knew that her mother tried to hide it, but the constant texts while she was at her father's and the tear-stained face and empty wine bottles when she returned said it all.
As Stephen, 10, wisely said to me: "It's all about change." Life is full of changes; some predictable and welcomed, others painful and unwanted. Our task as parents is to adjust to those changes and optimistically look forward to the future so our children can, too.
I'm delighted to say that my ex and I are both happily remarried and we have a good co-parenting relationship. It's still true that every Christmas I'm reminded of how challenging it is for our children as they juggle the desires of two separate families. But what I've learnt is that, as a parent, I have the profound, awesome and somewhat terrifying privilege of teaching my children about how relationships can be. Everything I say is a lesson – one that can teach love, respect and tolerance, or cynicism and distrust. No matter what's gone before or what the future holds, my relationship with my kids is for life and nothing will change that.
Five things to help parent-child relationships weather the separation storm
1. Help children to accept the pain: it’s important for parents to be optimistic and hopeful when talking to their children about separation, but just telling them that everything will be fine could leave them unable to share the painful emotions they’re feeling. Encourage them to talk about their feelings to either or both parents, another family member or a friend.
2. Be prepared for practical and emotional changes: it’s more than likely that there will be two households to support now, so money won’t go as far any more. And if one of the parents is starting a new relationship, then things could be particularly tense. Parents need to work on communicating with each other from the outset so that their children aren’t stuck in the middle of these issues.
3. How leaving day is managed can make a difference: the day that one parent leaves home will be one that the whole family will remember for a long time. Try and lessen the practical and emotional impact by preparing everyone in advance and being clear about what’s going to happen.
4. Establish new routines: children cope best with divorce when they have regular contact with both parents. This includes phone, email and text, as well as face-to-face time. Developing a routine is important, but try to be flexible, too, as the new arrangements take shape.
5. Let them know it’s OK for them to enjoy seeing your ex: even if you’re seething inside when it’s time to hand over the children, keep a smile on your face as your ex comes to the door and give them all a cheery wave goodbye. Children need to know that it’s fine for them to leave you and enjoy their time with their other parent.
Parents who are dealing with separation can visit relate.org.uk/separation for guidance on managing the practical and emotional realities of separation.
Paula Hall is a sexual and relationship psychotherapist who works with Relate and author of 'Help Your Children Cope With Your Divorce' (Vermilion, £9.99)Reuse content