Family Separation and Co-Creative Parenting



Family Separation and Co-Creative Parenting.

Separation can be a very stressful and traumatic time for parents and children alike but it need not be so. In my practice I offer a holistic approach supporting families through this challenging time by informing parents of the importance of their own psycho-social-emotional well being as well as that of their children.

In a co- creative way we explore challenging behaviours, reach an understanding of them and how to respond effectively. I assist parents in creating a co-creative parenting plan which has the psycho-social-emotional welfare of the child at heart. This includes  all matters which are likely to impact on a child’s wellbeing.

The ultimate aim is that a mature co-creative parenting approach will be established to ensure a loving, secure, consistent, predictable holding for the children involved. It is from this secure base that children will feel free to express their needs safe in the knowledge that they will be heard, understood and held. The importance of this can never be underestimated for the effective development of each child in the family, whether separated or together.


“Always remember that no matter what the problem there is an infinity of solutions.” Marian Weinstein


“The purpose of the family is to develop relationships that will create the fertile ground for each family member to mature into a sure sense of self, independence and productivity”     

Dr.Tony Humphreys 2004.


Parent Alienation

When parents separate, they sometimes tend to focus on what they dislike about each other. Acting out these feelings, however, can be very challenging to each other and especially to their children. It takes true maturity from each parent to understand that he or she must strive to protect the child’s relationship with the other parent.  This is in the best interest of the child. The person either parent is alienated from is themselves as individuals and they will need support to care for and love themselves first before they can do so for anyone else.

In the vast majority of separating families the child’s sole wish is for the parents to stay together. Children often don’t understand the reasons for the separation, even though the parents have done their best to explain it to them.  Children are frightened by the changes occurring in their family.  Of course, the parents are also feeling unsafe and upset by all of the changes that family restructuring brings.

Denigrating the other parent can impact a child’s psychological development and stability.

It takes a mature person to separate his or her own issues with and feelings for the other parent from what is in the best interest of the child.   Some parents feel that the end result is that they will lose their children when they divorce/separate, which is the child’s greatest fear.  Children do not want to lose contact with either parent. As a general rule, when families separate, the best parent for a child is both parents.

When one parent is not careful to protect the child’s relationship with the other parent, a process called parent alienation takes place.  The qualities that the divorcing/separating parent dislikes about the other parent are shared either indirectly or directly with the child. The child receives a message that the other parent is a bad person, or somehow not okay or that the parent simply can’t be trusted to take care of the child.  Following are some examples of more typical situations.

Mother implicitly imparts to a child that he or she is not safe with the father by saying, “Call me as soon as you get there to let me know you are okay.”  “If you get scared, you call me right away. Okay?”  “I’ll come get you if you want to come home.”  “Don’t let your father keep you out too late.”

Father might say, “Your mother isn’t forgetting to put you to bed on time, is she?” “Remember to tell your mother that you want to spend more time with your daddy, okay?” “Who stays at the house over night?” “I worry about you all the time.”  “Call me every day and let me know that you are okay.”

Alienation is an attempt to subtly make one parent look like he or she is a better parent than the other.  Everyone in the family feels insecure, and it is hard to have emotional control around a child.  Usually this level of alienation dies down after the separating couple become used to changes brought on by the separation and move on with their lives. If the alienation is pointed out to parents, most of them have enough maturity to realize that this is harmful to children and will stop it.

A more serious form of alienation occurs with parents whose  responses to stressful situations are not effective. For example, when their anger is triggered, they react in ways that threaten the emotional and psychological safety of the child. A more effective response would be to take action for self and not against the child or other parent. This can be done by the parent acknowledging their anger at the point of feeling it, then naming it and taming it. Then to take action by leaving the stressful situation until they have calmed down. Upon returning, the parent needs to discuss what happened in the relationship that made it so threatening for them and the other and how they can resolve the matter in a mature way.  Blaming the other partner only serves to widen the gap in the relationships and may result in the child taking on the responsibilities of carer, pleaser, performer or fixer. They may become compliant, or defiant in an effort not to be left out or forgotten about or in an attempt to find a resolution With support,  parents can learn to accept their situation and work with it.  They can often be shown how to choose more responsible behaviour by self regulating their own emotions. Parenting programmes which help the parents to consider their own responses as well as those of their children’s make a difference.


The purpose of mentoring is to provide an opportunity for parents to understand the intention behind their own behaviour and that of their child’s and to work towards an effective relationship with all concerned in a safe environment.  It is a co-creative approach which enables the parent to reach their own decisions and to solve their own issues. A parent mentor believes that the answers lie within rather than without and with safe holding a parent will realise they have the answers.


The Child’s Perspective

Many parents assume that their child is doing just fine in adjusting emotionally to the family restructuring. However, this may not be the case. Many children learn to cope because he or she has no other choice. When parents recognise their child’s feelings, address them through open communication and behave responsibly and sensitively to them, then a child can ultimately overcome his or her feelings of loss.

To some degree, all children experience the following responses to family restructuring. The feelings may not be openly expressed, but rather may appear more subtly in the child’s behaviour, such as “acting out” behaviour, excessive crying or withdrawal.

Most children will temporarily regress to younger behaviors. This is a signal that they need help, patience and understanding.

The following are common reactions and behaviours for children going through the experience of separation.  Have you seen these behaviours in your child? If so, think about the best way to help.

q    Confusion and anxiety about the change

q    Worry about what will happen to him or her

q    Concern about whether there is enough money

q    Sadness, loss, loneliness and yearning (children are in a continuous state of missing the parent that they are not with)

q    Worry about both parents’ physical and emotional well-being

q    Concern about the well-being of the parent who is not with the child at the time

q    Anxiety about possible changes in homes, schools and friends

q    Fear of rejection by the parent who leaves the home

q    Feeling that he or she must choose between parents; being forced to have divided loyalties

q    Anger at the parents’ restructuring of the family unit

q    Guilt and a mistaken sense of responsibility for having caused the separation

q    Fantasies of a parental reconciliation

Parents have substantial power to facilitate the coping and healing process of their child. Conversely, parents have equal power to impede healthy recovery. In your parenting plan, demonstrate your sensitivity to your child’s adjustment to the separation and include your own ideas on how to accommodate the problem. You may need outside help, such as from a parent mentor or a therapist who specializes in working with children when they are going through difficult times.

When There is a New Partner in Your Life

Casual romantic relationships where a child becomes attached to a new person who suddenly leaves the picture can be a source of further distress for the child. When beginning a new adult relationship, it is best for a parent not to involve the child until there is a commitment for a long-term relationship and a substantial amount of time has passed since the separation from the child’s other parent. If possible, arrange your time with your adult friend when you are not with your child.  Predictable reactions to the new relationship are:


  • The child may feel cheated to not be able to spend all of the scheduled time with the full attention of the parent.
  • The child now has less time with each parent. Many children will reject the new person when he or she is introduced to the child too early.
  • The new relationship may set the child up for further losses. If the child establishes a friendship with the new person and the relationship doesn’t work out, it is another disappointment to bear.
  • The new partner may like you a whole lot more than he or she likes your child. Some new partners have unrealistic expectations about where your loyalties ought to be and resent shared time with your child.

Transitions:  A Predictable Problem

Children function best with what is familiar to them. Young children especially find change frightening. They need preparation for changes in routines, places of residence, activities or caretakers. The most difficult thing for a child to handle is having to move from one place to another, from one activity to another or from one person to another.

When a child protests leaving one parent or going to the other parent, this is not generally an indication that the child is unhappy with either parent. It is the transition that causes the child’s distress.

In order for children to gain one parent, they have to let go of the other parent. This is not easy to do. If they had their way, they would be with both parents at the same time.

Ways to Help

There are several important ways that you can help your child as your family reorganizes. Regardless of a child’s age, he or she will need the following built into the parenting plan:

q    Predictability –  I regularly tell our child what will happen and when.

q    Stability – I consistently keep schedules and activities regular.

q    Structure – I minimize the number of changes of people and routines in our child’s life.

q    Consistency – I am careful to keep my verbal and non-verbal (tone of voice, body and facial language) messages consistent.

q    Clear Limits and Boundaries – I am clear about setting limits and expectations.

q    Permission – I give our child permission to love the other parent and anyone else in the other parent’s life.

q    Continuous Relationship with Both Parents – Both the other parent and I are an integral, on-going part of our child’s life. (Both are crucial to a child’s development. Both perform important – similar but different – functions for a child.)

q    Acceptance of Feelings – I provide a safe environment for our child to express his or her feelings.

q    Accommodation of Long-Term Friendships – I help our child keep long-term relationships.  I make a special effort to let the child participate in social and extracurricular activities that are important to him or her.

q    Empathy for Your Child – I am able to put myself in our child’s shoes and see things from his or her point-of-view.

q    The Ability To Let Go – I can resolve and put aside my differences with the other parent for the sake of our child.

 Adapted from Humphreys. T,& Majors. J. 

For Parent Mentoring or Play Therapy support please contact Ber    087 2103247



Ber Carroll: Parent Mentor: Play Therapist. Sand Therapist. Co-Creative Psychotherapist: Sensory Attachment Intervention Practitioner

Membership: PSI. MBPsS. TCI. IAPTP. IARM.


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