Assured Psychology | Calgary, Alberta


Parenting through separation and divorce

Few things can be as devastating as a separation or divorce for a family, especially when children are involved. The couple may struggle with disbelief that they cannot work things out, feelings of guilt, sadness, anger; and the strong belief that they have failed. The truth is that relationships are extremely hard and despite our culturally held beliefs that marriage should last forever; that is simply not aligned with reality. Although working to save a relationship, especially when children are involved is recommended; efforts don’t always yield the results people hope for.  There are many valid reasons for ending relationships, no matter how long the couple has been together or how many children are involved.

Despite the fact that children do usually suffer when there is a separation, they also suffer when their parents’ relationship is filled with conflict, negativity or emotional detachment. People often become emotionally unwell and unavailable for their children when trying to navigate a chronically difficult relationship. That perceived loss of a parent (when parents are unable to be emotionally or physically present for their children), is also very detrimental to the well being of each child, sometimes more so than a separation.  

What can parents then do to protect their children through a separation? Although there may be some variation depending on the age of the child, these basic concepts apply to most cases.

  • Children need to know that they are loved and cherished by each parent and that the separation is not their fault. Children naturally have an ego-centric perspective of the world and when they cannot understand something they may automatically assume it is their fault.
  • Children do best when they see that both parents are able to stay well, and when they do not have to feel responsible to meet the parents’ needs (whether emotional or practical).
  • Children should only be expected to assume responsibilities that are developmentally appropriate for their age. Becoming a parent’s confidant or sole emotional support is too much for a child of any age to take on.
  • Parents interactions in front of the children should be peaceful and respectful towards each other, and towards them.
  • Negative comments about the other parent should always be avoided. Children love both parents. That love should be respected and honored.
  • If children ask questions about what happened, the best option is to not share too many details, and to help them understand that both parents tried their best and could not make it work despite their efforts.
  • Ideally for children, it is best when the breakup is by mutual agreement. If this is not the case, being honest (and sharing in a kind and developmentally appropriate way) is recommended.
  • Ideally, children should not feel they have to align with; or protect, one parent or the other. Any of these dynamics may become detrimental to their well being down the road.
  • Children should continue to see both parents regularly. Living and visiting arrangements should be made with the children’s best interest in mind.
  • It is usually best for children if other aspects of their lives can remain stable for as long as possible (school, community, activities etc.), while the separation/divorce process takes place. This will allow children to continue to feel “normal” in other areas of their lives.
  • Other positive social supports the child may have, should be maintained. Children should also be encouraged and supported in talking to other significant adults and/or accessing counselling services as needed.
  • If one parent presents a safety risk to a child, whether emotional or physical, the appropriate authorities, or a mental health professional should be contacted. There may be cases where contact with a parent needs to be stopped for some time, or in which supervised visits may be the best course of action. 

For additional information or other questions please connect with a mental health
professional of your choice, or in Alberta you may contact Health Link (811) to
be connected to mental health support. 

Virginia Sherban MSW RSW