Telling children about separation and divorce

One in three children will see their parents separate or divorce before they reach their 16th birthday.  Telling your child is one of the hardest conversations that a parent will have.  Many parents will be unsure how to manage the situation and put their child’s best interests first.  It is important to remember that as long as the separation is handled sensitively by the parents, most children can make a good recovery from the pressure of the separation.

How to approach the conversation

If possible, both parents should be present when telling a child. If the parents are of differing opinions as to why the relationship has not worked out or they are at different stages of the emotional process, then different accounts of why the separation or divorce has occurred can be very confusing for a child.  If you are faced with this situation, then separate conversations should take place but it is always best that a child has similar messages from both parents as this will help the child with the transition.

Try to keep the conversation simple and avoid placing any blame, as this is confusing to a child and it affects everyone involved. A child can become extremely affected by the situation when negative feelings are being expressed about one of the parents, they are better off when parents act respectfully towards one another. It is common for a child to blame themselves and parents must reassure the child that this is not the case. Try to be considerate towards your child’s feelings and try to see the situation through their eyes. Remember, whatever the cause for the breakdown of the relationship, it is hard for everyone involved.

There are a number of decisions that need to be made about childcare during the process. Address the issues that will affect the child such as when they will see each parent and how they will spend their time between the parents. If the child has a question that you cannot answer at present then reassure them that you will discuss this and let them know an answer as soon as you have one.

Denial

A child may be reluctant to acknowledge the fact that their parents are divorcing. They may act as though nothing has changed, carry on planning events with both parents and choose not to tell anyone about the subject. They may resist spending time in the other parent’s home because it makes the situation more real for them. Try to keep life predictable and as consistent as possible for you and your child and try to avoid making significant changes to your child’s normal and regular routine.

Anger

Anger is the most understandable emotion that is associated with a divorce for all involved. Managing this emotion is critical both for the parent and also the child. When a parent becomes angry, they may make irrational parenting decisions or engage in making personal attacks against their ex-spouse.  A child may behave badly, they may test the boundaries and lay blame on a parent for the breakdown of the relationship.  For younger children, they may display destructive behaviours such as kicking, fighting or hitting and for older children, they may engage in risky or dangerous behaviours. It is crucial that, as a parent, if you find yourself reacting inappropriately you find a way to detach yourself from your immediate response to provide the child with love and understanding as well as discipline.

Grief

A child may feel that they have lost their family and secure unit that they have so far been brought up in. These feelings of loss can carry on for a long period of time. The whole thought of their family breaking up can be a massive shock to them, leaving them bewildered and confused. They may not be able to understand what the future holds for them even though you may have discussed your separation for some time beforehand. It is important to give the child space to understand the situation.

Depression

It is quite normal that during the process of a separation or divorce to feel depressed or sad. If these feelings persist then you must seek professional help. It is very hard to see your child upset by the situation but it is important for them to have an opportunity to feel sad. Support them by letting them know that they have a right to feel sad about what has happened to their family and it is important that as parents you help the child to find healthy and acceptable ways to deal with the situation. For example, write about their feelings or draw a picture about how they feel, or read a story book about a child with divorced parents so that they understand that they are not alone.

Tips for helping children manage the situation

  • Allow the child to talk and ask questions about the separation or divorce and listen to them. If you cannot answer their questions then explain that you will discuss this and let them have an answer at a later date.
  • Educate your child about the situation and support the child’s feelings. Reassure them that it is not their fault and that they are not to blame.
  • Keep your child informed about how their life will change and let them know in clear terms when they will see the other parent.
  • Provide the child with a stable and consistent environment.

Children have many emotions at this time and your child’s needs must come first. They have a right to see both parents and it can become more damaging for a child if one of the parents withholds contact during the process of a separation or divorce.

If you have any questions about how to manage this process with your ex-spouse, then please don’t hesitate to get in touch today.