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How to co-parent after a split: Don’t tell children your woes

When a relationship breaks down, there can be a lot to navigate but your children should come first

If you are splitting up with a partner, there can be a lot to navigate, especially if you’ve got kids.

Emotions may be running high, but try not to draw your children into any issues you may have with your former partner, says Mary Johnston, a specialist in counselling with Catholic marriage care service Accord.

“Your intimate relationship may have ended, but neither of you has ended being a parent to your children,” says Johnston. “Your children love you both, and it’s not fair to them.”

“Be as polite and courteous and facilitative as you can with each other about co-parenting for your children’s sake.”


Do not alienate

As long as a child is safe and cared for with a parent, the child should have access to them, says Johnston.

“It’s important for children to have a relationship with both parents, when it’s safe to do so. You may be divorced and separated from each other, but your children are not divorced or separated from either of you.”

Let children be children

‘Adultification’ – this is something you want to avoid. It can happen whether parents are together or not.

“It’s when a child is prematurely and often inappropriately exposed to adult knowledge and they assume roles and responsibilities within their family,” says Johnston. “Adultification is potentially damaging for children developmentally, emotionally and psychologically,” says Johnston.

Telling your children your woes, including your relationship woes is inappropriate. They are not your confidante. Phrases such as “Daddy makes Mammy sad”, or “Mammy makes Daddy sad”, are only going to make your child sad.

Bad alliance

A parent-child alliance, fuelled by anger at the other parent, isn’t good either. This is called ‘parentification’. “It’s where an alliance with one parent exists at the cost of a distant or conflictual relationship with the other parent,” says Johnston. “That relationship is serving a function for the parent rather than providing for the developmental needs of the child,” she says.

Ask no questions

So Daddy has a new “special friend”, or Mum likes to talk to “Dave” a lot – do not let your curiosity about your ex’s love life get the better of you.

“Who does Mammy talk to on the phone?”, “Does anyone visit the house when you are with your Dad?” Grilling your children for information about your ex when they return from a visit is not a good idea, says Johnston. Your child shouldn’t be treated like your mole.

Step up

If your split leads to the formation of a stepfamily, it’s important for everyone to take things slow.

“Stepfamilies are almost always born out of grief – a death or divorce may have taken place. Children may be grieving, they may be lagging behind adults in the grief process. Be patient,” says Johnston.

“Becoming a stepfamily is a process, not an event,” she says. “Be conscious that children can struggle with losses and loyalties and too much change when stepfamilies emerge.”

Blend in

If you are the stepparent, do not treat your partner’s ex as the enemy. “Children need to continue to have a positive relationship with the parent,” says Johnston. “Ex-partners are part of the family now and will continue to be. You must accept and work with this.”

Where families blend and there are step-siblings, work hard to make sure all the children feel loved and valued equally, says Johnston. “Don’t lay down the law for stepchildren, parent sensitively. A new family culture must be created in the stepfamily.”

Joanne Hunt

Joanne Hunt

Joanne Hunt, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about homes and property, lifestyle, and personal finance