Every year, many small children experience that their parents separate. Many of these children are in kindergarten. Yet we know little about how the children and the kindergarten staff deal with such parental break-ups.
A comprehensive research project carried out by the Norwegian Centre for Learning Environment and Behavioural Research in Education at the University of Stavanger has taken a closer look at how five-year-olds experience parental break-ups. The researchers also studied the experiences of kindergarten personnel with parental break-ups, what tools they have used to help the children, and how they react when children’s parents split up.
CHILDREN REACT DIFFERENTLY
One general conclusion is that reactions to parental break-ups differ greatly from one child to the next. Researchers used so-called “feeling cards” for the study. The cards were intended to help the children explain how they felt.
Using the cards, the researchers found the children could be divided into three different groups, based on their reactions to parental break-ups:
- Some children have a tough time after a parental break-up. These children are especially concerned about their parents’ feelings of sadness. By putting the cards in a certain order, some children showed that they felt they had to console mother and father after the break-up.
- Some five-year-olds seemed well-adjusted. These children found cards that indicated that they are happy to spend time with mother and father.
- Some five-year-olds showed mixed feelings. They found cards to indicate that they are often happy, but also cards showing that they can be anxious, sad and angry. Several children sorted the cards in highly unique ways, and it is important to allow for the fact that children experience parental break-ups very differently. It is therefore imperative that kindergartens have flexible tools to enable them to accommodate individual children.
INADEQUATE COPING SKILLS
Professor Ingunn Størksen headed the study. She confirms that kindergartens are profoundly important to the children of parents who have split up.
When mother and father go their separate ways, children often have to move to a new home. They have to acquaint themselves with a new neighbourhood, and they often find that the family finances have suffered. In turbulent times, a kindergarten and its staff can serve as a safe haven in the lives of these children.
‘However, findings from the studies in the project may indicate that children do not always get the help they need at kindergarten. Quite a few staff members are uncertain about how to help children deal with parental break-ups. Many employees also struggle with their own feelings in this area. They feel uncertain, and they find this stressful. In the worst case, this type of stress can lead to an increase in sick leave’, comments psychologist Klara Øverland’, who has studied the employees.
‘Kindergarten employees are sometimes unable to cope with this stress in a satisfactory way. They lack experience, and they don’t have a method for talking about break-ups with children and parents. This is especially true of staff members without training as early childhood educators. Our study indicated that those who have such training are more confident, even though they may also lack specific tools for talking about parental break-ups’, continues Øverland.
SHOULD NOT BE IGNORED
When a child is sad or frustrated, many kindergarten employees are not sure whether they should intervene. They are not sure how to intervene either. Ingunn Størksen is afraid this anxiety can make a bad situation even worse for a child.
‘Kindergarten is such an important part of children’s lives that it is natural for them to talk about their feelings there. Choosing not to talk to them about this sends the signal that the child’s experiences and feelings are not important. Parental break-ups are not a topic that should be ignored’, emphasises the researcher.
TWO MAIN POINTS OF VIEW
The researchers had two main points of view about children’s reactions after a break-up. Some employees believe these children are sad and frustrated. Others believe that kindergarten routines help these children cope, even though they can see that the children are sad.
‘Why do the employees see such different reactions among the children?’ Øverland asked herself. When she took a closer look at the employees’ own backgrounds, she detected a pattern.
‘As it turned out, those who had experienced parental break-ups themselves had a tendency to recognise a variety of adjustment problems. Do some underestimate the problems children have because they don’t know what to look for?’ the researchers wondered.
When children experience parental break-ups, kindergarten employees need to know how to help them. The researchers recommend that students and employees develop more and better skills to deal with this topic.
Several kindergarten employees who participated in the researchers’ study mentioned that it was difficult for them to know how to deal with such issues, so they waited for the situation to blow over. Some said that it is difficult when they don’t know anything about what has taken place at the child’s home. Others stated that they felt a conflict of loyalties between the two parents.
The researchers recommend that the employees get access to tools to enable them to talk with the children so they can help them get through a demanding situation, and that the employees also find good ways for continuing to cooperate with the parents.