According the Australian Bureau of Statistics (2016), in 2015 there were 48 517 divorces granted in Australia and 47.5 per cent of these cases involved children. This is without considering the number of parents who were never married and separated. It is then an unfortunate fact that many children who will come into our care will be exposed to parental separation. McIntosh (2010) recognises the impact parental separation can have on the child’s psychological growth and development. Thus it is of great significance that we understand what this means for the child and how we can help support the child and family through this difficult time.
The children that we cater to in early childhood, who experience parental separation, are at a stage of development where they cannot properly comprehend what is necessarily occurring between their parents and can become confused, distressed and are more than likely going to suffer a sense of loss over one parent which they may blame themselves for. So how can we help support them through this? It is important that we reinforce their sense of belonging and their primary relationships within the service. Parents may speak to us about their situation, but we must be mindful not to take sides and to reinforce both parental relationships with the child.
We know from our research in early childhood how important stability and smooth transitions are for young children. Parental separation can be a time of great instability for the child and the smoothness of the transition is often hindered by conflict between the parents. As educators we can support this sense of stability for the child within the early childhood setting. Again reinforcing the child’s sense of belonging is fundamental. Adhering to the child’s routines and encouraging parents to do so is also a good idea.
Family Relationships Online (2010) recognises the changes that can occur in this time and the detrimental effect of too many changes at once. This is why routine becomes so important, and as educators we can reinforce this through the early childhood environment. To further assist in encouraging smoothness of transitions it is a good idea to understand the arrangements parents have in place. Knowing who will be picking the child up and dropping them off means we can reinforce this with the child helping them to adjust to any changes there are in the routine.
Of course having a relationship with the families is of the utmost importance. We cannot help the family through this difficult time unless we have established a secure relationship with them. They need to feel comfortable informing you of any changes which are occurring in the home. There are many useful online resources we can share with parents going through a separation (familyrelationships.gov.au has some excellent information) and it would be helpful to have these as part of your parent library at any service in case parents do not feel comfortable approaching you for advice, which in many cases they may not.
As educators we play a consistent role in the child’s life so it is of the utmost importance we understand the effects of parental separation on the child in order to understand children’s individual reactions and how we can foster their continued strength and confidence.
Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2016). Marriages and divorces Australia. Retrieved 5 May, 2017, from www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/mf/3310.0.
Family Relationships Online. (2010). Children and separation [Brochure]. N.P: Commonwealth of Australia.
McIntosh, J. (2010). Children’s responses to separation and parental conflict. Every Child, 16(2). Canberra, ACT: Early Childhood Australia.