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How to help children cope when mum and dad no longer love each other

As rates of divorce and separation continue to increase, Jenny Lee finds out how parents can help their children deal with a relationship break-up

Putting your children's need first and acknowledging their concerns are key in protecting them from the effects of parental separation

AS rates of divorce and separation continue to escalate, the impact of separation on children and young people can be devastating. Throughout this year, local parenting charity Parenting NI is highlighting the need for parenting support to help mums and dads manage separation effectively to reduce the impact on children and young people.

In 2016 Northern Ireland had 2,572 divorces which involved 1,935 children and young people aged 0-15. This is an increase on statistics from 2015 and does not account for a large number of parental separation where the parents never married.

The effects of a relationship breakdown upon a couple's children is a major concern for parents here, with concerns about separation and contact issues accounting for 22 per cent of all calls to the Parenting NI helpline.

In 2018 the charity will publish three research papers on parental separation and divorce and Charlene Brooks, Parenting NI chief executive, is stressing an urgent need for policy makers to keep pace with the realities of this issue to ensure better outcomes for children and their families in Northern Ireland.

"Parenting NI understand that parents separate for many reasons and that it is one of the most high-stress and difficult situations families experience," she says. "Despite the large number of children and young people affected, and the considerable impact on families and the state, there is a clear lack of policy to help support parents in order for them to be able to put their children and young people’s needs first."

In the consultation for the as-yet unpublished Children and Young People Strategy 2017-2027, family breakdown and parental separation is mentioned as an issue, but there is minimal indication as to how to support parents to minimise its impact.

"The child’s voice is often lost among legal proceedings and while The Review of Family Justice by Lord Justice Gillen last year was heartening, it is disappointing that we are still in political deadlock hindering its implementation for the benefit of families across Northern Ireland," Charlene says.

While every situation and every child is different, there are ways parents can manage separation to help minimise the impact and to support children’s ability to adjust. Shirley Millar, education manager at Parenting NI, provides her top tips to families undergoing separation:

:: What to say

It’s important to talk to your child about what is happening. Children are part of the family and it will help them to know why you are separating or divorcing but they do not need to know all the details. Avoid placing any blame; instead, keep it simple, honest and age appropriate, such as, "We don’t get along any more".

:: Acknowledge

Your child will have questions about what this means for them. Try not to overwhelm them with details but plan what you need to talk to them about in practical terms, such as living arrangements, school or activities. If they are feeling upset, scared or worried it is important to listen and acknowledge that this is difficult for them.

:: Reassure

Children can often feel that the break-up is their fault. Reassure them that it isn't and that despite there being changes to the family they still have parents who love them. Let them know that it is OK to love both parents and they don’t have to choose one over the other.

:: Put your child first

Set aside differences with your ex-partner when it comes to parental arrangements, as it is in the best interest of the child to have a close, stable and ongoing relationship with both parents whenever possible.

:: Maintain boundaries and routines

Where possible, keep routines the same as they have been. Try and agree how to co- parent; maintaining the same discipline, boundaries and routines.

:: Get support

If you are struggling with managing separation or divorce get help.

:: Parenting NI will be delivering a free Parenting Apart workshop for parents in Belfast on Wednesday March 7 from 6 to 8pm. The workshop will explore the challenges of parental separation, consider the factors that affect a child’s ability to adjust to the circumstances and offers tips to help parents manage their separation and adapt to their changing role as a parent. Parents can register online on our website or call on the freephone number 0808 8010 722.

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