Page 3: Because life goes on … helping children and youth live with separation and divorce

Section 1 – Introduction

How Because Life Goes On … Can Help You and Your Children

For separating parents, a big question on their minds is often “how will this affect the kids?”

Separation is a time of significant changes for children. (See box A Word About the Language of Separation and Divorce.) At any age, children may feel upset or angry at the prospect of their parents splitting up and anxious about the changes that will affect their daily lives.

Whether you are the father or the mother, it’s normal to feel uncertain about how to give your children the right support to help them adjust to the changes and grow up strong and resilient. It may seem like uncharted territory, but proven strategies have helped parents successfully navigate through this unsettling time.

Because Life Goes On … was first published by Health Canada in 1994, followed by a second edition in 2000. In the two decades since the first edition was published, a wealth of research has shed new light on what parents can do to help their children successfully adapt to the separation. For example, in general children do best when:

  • their parents work to control and reduce their conflict
  • they receive nurturing and consistent parenting from at least one parent
  • their parents take care of their own mental health and well-being
  • they continue to have meaningful relationships with both parents

This third Edition of Because Life Goes On … has been designed to complement the resources and services that are available in your province or territory and Justice Canada publications about separation and divorce. (See Section 11 – Resources for more information on how to access these excellent resources.)

Contained in these pages are sections that address:

  • what your children need, based on their age and stage of development
  • how you can better manage your own challenges and needs
  • practical things that you can do to support your children’s growth and resilience. (See box What Is Resilience? in Section 5.)

As adults, parents have the ability to govern their actions and choices. Granted, some things are not in your control. But using some of the tools and tips described in these pages can go a long way in helping you manage your own emotions and strengthen your children’s resilience.

One of the best things that you can do for your children is sometimes one of the most difficult – reducing conflict with your former partner. A high degree of conflict between parents nearly always results in difficulties for children, and these difficulties may last a lifetime. The good news for parents is that there are now tools and methods available that can help you minimize conflict and maximize your positive involvement with your children – no matter what the situation.

Every Situation Is Unique

Just as every family is unique, so too are the particulars surrounding each separation. For example, some separations involve parents with young children, while others occur when the children are older. Some separations are amicable, while others are full of strife or may have safety issues. (See box If You’re Worried About Safety.) Some separations are between common-law partners, while others involve married partners. Some separations involve same-sex partners while others involve heterosexual partners. But whatever the circumstance, children have similar needs, depending on their age and stage of development.

The information in Because Life Goes On … will not cover every situation or address every aspect of Canada’s diverse cultures. But almost all parents are likely to find some useful information contained in these pages. After all, we all share a common humanity.

If You’re Worried About Safety

If you or your children have been abused or feel unsafe around the other parent, you need to put safety first. If you are concerned about your safety or your children’s safety, see “When There Is Violence in the Home” in Section 8 for information on family violence and where to find immediate and longer-term assistance. You should also keep in mind that some of the information contained in this resource may not be appropriate to your situation. Help is available; reach out now.

How to Use This Resource

Use the Table of Contents to help guide you. For example, if you find a section that appears relevant and helpful, read on. If other sections or topics seem less relevant to your situation, pass over them and move on. Use your judgment based on your family’s unique situation and your specific needs or concerns. You know your children best.

If you want more detailed information on a specific topic covered in this resource or information on topics not covered within (such as family law and child support payments), check out Section 11 – Resources. Among other things, it contains information on how to access resources and services available from your province or territory and Justice Canada.

Separation: The Cascading Changes for Children

It’s common for people to think of separation as an event – the decision is announced and one parent moves out. But separation is not a single event; it is a series of changes, each of which has an impact on children. It may be helpful to think of separation as a process involving three stages:

  • Before. The parental conflict or underlying issues that lead to the separation
  • During. Children are told about their parents’ decision to separate and one parent moves out, or both parents move to new homes
  • After. Adjustment to different living situations, schedules, parenting roles and new parental partners

Separation is a process that can go on for several years involving many life changes and decisions – and all of them have an impact on children. Just knowing that things are going to be different after the separation can cause fears for most children.

It’s helpful to think about the number of changes that may occur for children when their parents separate. First, they must come to terms with the loss of both parents living together. Next, children need to adjust to being with their parents in two separate homes. Perhaps there is a geographic move or change in schools. With one or the other parent starting to date, a whole other set of changes and challenges occur. The same is true if their parents form a blended family, whether they legally marry or not.

With each major change, children’s ability to cope may diminish, especially if their parents are less available to support their needs. Changes are inevitable with a separation, but children do better when they have time both to prepare and adapt to each change. At all ages, children need careful preparation and time to adjust. Preteens and adolescents need even more time to adjust to the changes. Practical suggestions to help your children adapt to the changes are provided in later sections.

A Word About the Language of Separation or Divorce

Although the terms “separation” and “divorce” may seem interchangeable, under the law they mean different things.

A “separation” is when a couple decides to live apart from each other because the relationship has ended. A couple that separates may be married or have been living together in a common-law relationship. After they separate, married couples may also divorce. A “divorce” is when a court officially ends a marriage. Only legally married couples can divorce.

Provincial and territorial family laws apply when a married couple separates but does not apply for a divorce and when an unmarried couple separates. (See box Family Law: Where to Turn for Information and Guidance.) The Divorce Act applies to married couples who have divorced or who have applied for a divorce.

In this booklet, the term “separation” will be used throughout to refer to all couples ending their relationship, regardless of their legal status.

Family Law: Where to Turn for Information and Guidance

Where to start?

If you have questions about the legal aspects of parenting after separation and divorce, you can find more information under “Family Law” on the Department of Justice Canada website.

Your province or territory offers programs and services for separating or divorcing parents, including parent information programs. To see a list of these services, visit the Justice Canada web page under “Family Law”, click on “Family Justice Services”.

It is important to remember that family law issues can be complex. A family law lawyer can give you legal advice about all the different factors that are important in your situation.

There are many options for coming to agreements about co-parenting arrangements, without going to court. A family law lawyer can help you determine what option is best in your circumstances. When choosing a lawyer, talk to potential family law lawyers about their style to see if they are a good fit for you. For example, some lawyers focus their practice on mediation, negotiation and taking a collaborative approach to resolving issues.

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