Serving the needs of separated and divorcing families

How Does Separation Impact Your Child’s Future Relationships?

How Does Separation Impact Your Child’s Future Relationships?

Parental separation can affect how a child grows and matures. While the child is at risk for behavioral and academic problems through the formative adolescent and teen years, what about his or her ability to form emotional relationships with others as an adult? Studies have found that individuals who grew up with separated parents may experience difficulty perceiving and maintaining healthy relationships. And because these children are more likely to develop insecure and avoidant attachment styles, these individuals are less likely to maintain commitment to long relationships, leading to higher rates for divorce (Mazur, 1993).

The hormone oxytocin (often called the “love hormone”) plays an important role in affection and bonding between parent and child, and is also responsible for one’s ability to bond with another individual. The amount of oxytocin one is producing depends on the affection and safety the individual perceives he or she is receiving.  A study measuring attachment styles in adults found that individuals whose parents had separated had lower levels of oxytocin (Boccia, 2021). This means that parental separation may have a lasting impact on how a child is able to develop emotional attachments in future relationships. This leads to lower relationship commitment and less secure attachment styles.

Experiencing the loss of their family puts children of separated parents at higher risk of developing a negative view of marriage, and are less likely to expect marriage for themselves (Amato, 1988). Children with separated parents are also more likely to expect divorce for themselves in the future. Studies have found that individuals from separated families are 2-3 times more likely to divorce when compared to individuals from non-separated families (Teachman, 2002).

Just as parenting styles can be changed and modified, so can one’s attachment style. There are many factors that influence how separation can affect a child. Promoting resiliency with your child will assist them in developing healthy emotional relationships with others in their adult lives.

Build a strong co-parenting relationship

Maintaining a positive co-parenting relationship centered around the needs of your child will help relieve stress your child may be experiencing. While your child may be experiencing confusing emotions, maintaining optimism and a “glass half full” perspective  will build a sense of stability through this adjustment.

Avoid putting your child in the middle. Remember that your child deserves to have a relationship with both parents. Remain patient with your child as they navigate sharing their time separately with each parent. Prioritize maintaining structure and discipline in your child’s daily life. Consistency throughout your child’s separate home lives will prevent your child from feeling unstable and developing unhealthy attachment styles.

Maintain optimism

Following separation, remember to actively support your child through positive reinforcement. Build on your child’s self esteem by acknowledging their strengths and accomplishments. Continue to encourage an optimistic attitude when spending time with your child. Your child will frame their own opinions and judgements based on your behavior around them, especially in regards to the other parent. This will influence how your child will develop emotional attachment with others, as well as how they will view relationship success, in their adult life.

Invite open communication

Create a safe space for open communication your child. Give your child the opportunity to speak openly with your undivided attention. Allow your child to have this space with both parents together and individually. This lets your child know that their voice and opinion are a priority for you throughout this transitional period.

It is important to keep in mind that difficult or uncomfortable topics may arise for discussion. Your child may blame themselves or one parent for the reason behind the separation. Focus on your child’s feelings rather than your own. Acknowledge with your child that you know the separation is causing them pain. This will prevent them from feeling insignificant in decisions that seem out of their control.

Furthermore, seek to educate your child on the aspects of a healthy relationship. Topics to mention may include prioritizing clear communication with your partner, the importance of valuing consent, maintaining physical, emotional, mental, and financial boundaries, and respecting each other’s opinion in mutual decision making.

Your child will continue to look to you for guidance as they grow. Remember that you serve as a role model for your child, and that they will develop their own beliefs and expectations for relationships based on how you conduct yourself through this separation. Remind your child that while mistakes may be made in relationships, they will always have your unconditional love and support. Remain open and honest, and show your support for your child through any challenges or struggles they face, so that they can rely on the safe environment you have created as they mature and learn to build healthy, secure relationships.

Eman Haddad, APRN

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