Because it’s for the Kids – Building a secure parenting base after separation

Learning to co-parent is a new path that requires adapting what you used to do, to what you now need to do. This article by Jennifer McIntosh, Ph.D offers wisdom to help keep the kids in mind.

Building a secure parenting base after separation

Many people say being a parent is the best but hardest job in the world, and we don’t get proper training for it.

Separation between parents is also hard – to put it mildly – and there’s no training for that either.

There’s no doubt that being a separated parent can be hard, emotional work.

It can be difficult to know what you need and want, and what your children need and want.

A secure base

With the right support, most parents can find a way to build a secure base for their children after separation. That’s good for parents, and vital for their kids.

We hope this booklet helps you do that.

Is separation harmful for kids?

If it is managed well by the adults, separation doesn’t have to be harmful for children in the long run.

Is conflict between parents harmful for kids?

Sometimes. What hurts children and their development the most, short and long term, is ongoing adult conflict that doesn’t get sorted out.

The good news: kids can cope with conflict between parents so long as:

  • the conflict is not violent
  • the conflict is not frequent
  • parents work at sorting it out
  • kids understand they are not to blame
  • kids are not caught in the middle of it.

In fact, children of all ages can learn good coping skills, provided they are not too stressed by what is happening in the family.

What happens when separating doesn’t stop the conflict?

Some parents can sort out their differences with a separation. For many, conflict grows around the time of separating and continues long after divorce. This is very stressful for parents… and for children.

It’s doubly important to think about what children need in these situations.

What does high conflict look like?

Conflict comes in different shapes and sizes.

Parents in high conflict typically do these sorts of things with each other:

  • remain very angry
  • distrust each other
  • become verbally abusive
  • avoid each other unnecessarily
  • argue or interfere
  • go to court a lot
  • threaten, intimidate or try to control their ex-partner
  • are aggressive or violent
  • have trouble communicating about the children
  • criticize each other’s parenting.

That’s hard for anyone to live with, and important to change, because…

Parents’ ongoing conflict costs kids too much

Research shows the sad truth that conflict between parents that goes on and doesn’t get resolved is very hard on children and teenagers, and can affect the way they develop:

  • they lose their ability to trust
  • they make poor attachments to their parents
  • they don’t believe in themselves
  • they get overwhelmed by their feelings
  • they show their distress in bad behaviour
  • they have trouble making and keeping friends
  • they aren’t confident
  • they don’t perform as well at school
  • they have trouble making healthy adult relationships.

Something to think about

One in four children from separated families suffers from poor mental health. That’s a lot more than “normal”.

Separation doesn’t cause this. Long, bitter, unresolved conflict does.

Children’s energy gets drained by high or frequent conflict between parents, when mums and dads can’t ‘be there’ for them, because their minds are full of tension and anger.

Babies and young children are especially vulnerable to both family conflict and being looked after by overwhelmed parents.

Conflict costs parents a lot too, such as:

  • Worry and anger that goes on and on.
  • Depression.
  • Losing perspective: forgetting what’s important.
  • Not feeling like a good parent.
  • Money for mediators, counsellors.
  • Nerve-racking and expensive legal processes.
  • Time lost from work.
  • Forgetting there are solutions, not just problems.

You can protect your children from your conflict.

Parents in conflict with their ex-partner need support to sort it out. In the meantime, children can be protected from adults’ tensions when both parents:

  • keep the child out of the middle of their arguments
  • never ask the child to carry messages to the other parent
  • don’t ask the child personal questions about the other parent
  • make arrangements that suit the child
  • know their child may have different feelings from the ones they have
  • try to notice what it’s really like for the child
  • give permission for the child to enjoy their other parent
  • help the child to have a healthy relationship with their other parent
  • notice when the tension is being soaked up by their child
  • remember that children can twist themselves into strange shapes inside, in order to cope with conflict between the people they love most.

What’s time got to do with it?

Some parents focus on how much time they will each get with the children.

From your children’s point of view, it’s much more important to work out what kind of support they need from each of you.

Read on…

What children need when Mum and Dad separate

What children need after their parents separate is exactly what they needed before: a secure emotional base.

What all children need when Mum and Dad separate

Children need a secure base with parents they trust and feel comforted by.

Above all they need:

  • a secure base for exploring, growing and developing
  • help to solve their problems
  • encouragement to learn
  • routines that help them feel in control
  • firm and loving limits to be safely independent
  • a trusted parent when they need to be dependent
  • protection from trauma.

Good parents don’t get it right all of the time, but they do try to repair mistakes when they happen.

What babies need when Mum and Dad separate

Babies need all of that, plus a bit extra. Babies need more help to manage their feelings.

They need predictability, and a lot of time with parents who nurture them. They need parents who play with them, listen carefully to their efforts to communicate, and who keep their world small and safe.

If they’ve had a safe and nurturing relationship with both parents, they need to continue to have that. They need visiting schedules that don’t overwhelm them with too much change, or with conflict between their parents. Babies need parents who are tuned into their needs, rather than having to be tuned in to Mum’s or Dad’s feelings.

What teenagers need when Mum and Dad separate

They may be on their way to adulthood, but teenagers still need a secure base with their parents, in order to reach their potential.

It’s the little, day-to-day things that matter. Research shows that the best parenting for teenagers after separation is done by keeping the daily stress in the teenager’s life as low as possible.

This happens when:

  • Mum and Dad are ‘there’ on a daily basis to listen and give support. That can be in person or by making sure that your teenager knows how to reach you by phone or email, and knows that you will make every effort to be available when they need you. Those check-in calls are so important: “Just calling to see how things are today”.
  • Each house has a daily routine that is predictable, and has consistent rules and expectations. Parents arrive home when they say they will, provide meals on time, and give a good structure to the teenager’s day, that helps them manage their load. This really reduces the daily stress that teenagers can feel.
  • Parents are able to keep tabs on their teenager and take a real interest in their life. Without intruding too much, these parents share in their teenager’s interests, know what they need to get on with their activities, know where they are, and how they are spending their time.
  • Each parent remembers special days in their teenager’s life, and takes part in them as best they can. That includes the big days like birthdays, and the other moments that are important. The “of course I’ll be there” message or the “good luck” calls before the big match are worth their weight in gold.
  • Parents don’t rely on the teenager to give messages to the other parent. This really stresses adolescents, especially when they become the target of Mum’s or Dad’s frustration when a message goes astray, or when they don’t get the answer they wanted. Teenagers who feel caught between their parents are at the highest risk for problems. Parents need to speak directly to each other whenever possible, because even an apparently harmless message can cause stress for the teenager.
  • Teenagers feel close to their parents.
  • Step-parents have a good relationship with the teenager.

What about teenagers and conflict?

Adolescents are very aware of conflict between Mum and Dad, and, like younger children, they do best when their parents manage that conflict and keep it low. They aren’t as likely to blame themselves for trouble between their parents as little kids are. However, teenagers from high conflict families often leave home earlier than their friends who live in low conflict homes. So the message for parents of teenagers is the same as with all kids: keep your conflict low and keep your teenager out of communication between you and your ex-partner.

This picture tells the story of the circle of security

Always be bigger, stronger,
wiser, and kind.
Whenever possible follow
my child’s needs.
Whenever necessary take charge.

Nurturing Children through Separation and Divorce

There are many aspects of separation and divorce. While it’s natural that parents need to resolve disputes to their satisfaction, it’s important that the children don’t become lost in that process. 

Parents who are in dispute present to mediators, or their lawyers, with issues that revolve around their needs and what they want to walk away with after their divorce. For children, this means parents are focused on themselves and what they see as ‘fair’ but this does not necessarily mean being ‘child-focused’.

When there is a high level of conflict between parents, the children are aware, even if those arguments are not in front of them. They are very in tune with you and they get a sense of when you’re stressed or are feeling unhappy. Your conflict then becomes their conflict and it’s common to see children have significant changes in behaviour during this time. They may regress on previous milestones (such as bedwetting); have changes in attitude; poor emotional regulation; poor decision making; and a variety of other negative behavioural shifts. 

Parents sometimes get confused about the meaning of child-focused and what’s in the children’s ‘best interests’. The focus becomes muddied on what they (the parents) think about time and division, and not what children are missing, which is having both of you, all the time. 

Here are some tips on taking a more nurturing approach on some of the key issues presented by parents. 

Memories are not defined in time

While some parents argue about time, children do not want to feel as if they are another ‘thing’ to be shared in your divorce. What’s important to them is that they have a meaningful relationship with each of you and that their time with you brings value to their lives. They want to feel loved, supported, heard and cared for, no matter what amount of time that is for. They also want to know that you are happy and okay when they are not with you. 

Moving between homes 

This can be a big hurdle for children to adjust to moving between homes, particularly when conflict is present. Support your children during this transition time by greeting each other politely. Allow the other parent to hug or kiss them goodbye and/or embrace the receiving parent with love and affection. Sometimes they forget their special items, even when you’ve reminded them, so if they need something in order to feel settled, it would be best if you can communicate that freely between the parents and accommodate the child’s needs. 

Inclusive co-parenting

The children don’t like to be apart from either of you. Positively including the other parent into your conversations during the week helps them to know that they are a part of each of you. There are many ways you can ‘include’ them, without needing to spend time together. For example “Would you like to share a pic of this with Mum / Dad?”  Or “Don’t forget Dad / Mum would like to see your certificate”  Or, “Would you like to make a batch of biscuits to take to Mum’s / Dad’s?” 

Speak positively 

Children of all ages love to hear stories of when they were younger. Share incidental stories of times you remember and positively include the other parent, For example, “I remember when you were two and Dad / Mum and I took you to Queensland for a holiday” – then, of course, tell them about the experiences as a positive memory of that time. I am sure if you think about it, there are many ways you can incorporate these stories.

It is not practical to suggest that all separating parents can be friends. However, you can nurture your children in a way that tells them that their needs matter. What children want most is to know they are not caught in the middle of your disputes. Nurture them as you learn to parent together while living apart.


You can find more information and helpful guidance in the Parenting After Separation Course. Or contact Parenting Coordinator, Jasmin Newman via the contact tab.

The Leaver and The Left

There is a concept in separation and divorce in which there is often a disparity between where each party are emotionally in relation to the separation.

While some couples come to the decision together, in many cases one party has already made the decision to leave long before they’ve told the other. They are referred to as ‘the leaver’. This can cause a great deal of frustration for the person who is being left.

As you will see from the inserted graphic, the leaver is ahead at every stage. By the time they are making new plans and coming to terms with their life ahead, the left is only just finding out. This in itself can cause a great deal of conflict.

What happens then is the grief cycle for the left, which the leaver has already had time to come to terms with, is only just beginning. For the leaver, there are heightened emotions, often denial and sometimes still trying to save the relationship. This is discussed in full in the parenting after separation course.

The message I encourage separating parents to understand is to have an understanding that you are each on the same path but at different stages. You will ultimately both come to a place of acceptance, however, if you can respect that each of you is at different stages, this will go smoother.

Consider the graphic and where you are now.

Were you the leaver or the left?

Where is your co-parent at on this scale?

What do you think life looks for them now?

What do you think they experienced at various stages?

This is just some food for thought. You may not come up with all the answers you need right away. Processing relationship grief and loss is an individual journey and can take time. You will come through this in the end.

5 Good Reasons To Be Quiet In Conflict

Being quiet in conflict is a challenge but if you master this art in the communication you may learn a very valuable tool.

Getting involved in an argument is rarely beneficial. However, sometimes there are matters which need to be discussed in which emotions become elevated. The natural position for most people is to push back against those they are opposed to. I certainly get the sentiment, however here’s an alternative that you might like to employ.

The following is an adaptation from a blog I wrote several years ago. It still rings true today.

#1  — You can’t listen while you’re talking

Listening is so much more than hearing words. It’s an observation of intent, mannerisms, inflection and emotion that are all being bought into the conversation. Learning through observation is a far better tool that having to prove your point of view.

#2 — You may not be right

Unimaginable, I know but both of you can’t be right. Perhaps you can leave room for the fact that maybe it’s not you this time.  And if you are right, then it will prove itself in time so be patient. A point about avoiding conflict that I would like to make here is that even if you are right, so what? Apart from ego, does it really help you to prove you are right? 

#3 — You can learn a lot from listening

Giving someone space to speak can be really powerful for both of you to avoid conflict.  You can both learn from this experience and I often find that people can resolve their own issues, just by being heard. And there is a gift here for you if you watch for it, but you may get a sense of what it is that is frustrating them if you give them space.  It’s better to understand than need to be understood.

#4 — You will create space for compassion

This one is a favorite of mine.  If you can be silent enough to hear someone else’s story and to view the world through their eyes you will start to see that their path and their experiences were different to yours. You don’t have to agree with their version but compassion opens the door to understanding.

#5 — It gives you time to think instead of reacting

Really, if you can start to handle this one your communication problems will be a thing of the past, and all because you were quiet for a while.  Often we will retort with a comment that we might later regret or realise not to be based on anything other than our own hurt. So we project our own pain instead of hearing someone else’s.  If we allow time to absorb what the other has said and then come up with a rational response it will make things way smoother for both of you.

The art of being quiet in conflict is communication skills, but it’s rooted in a willingness to resolve the issue in front of you. Always keep the children in focus. Their love for you both is greater than any argument.

Need help? Try our Parenting After Separation courses here