10 steps to take before you tell your children.
Separations can be messy, chaotic and confusing and it can be difficult to know when to break the news to your children. Choosing the right time is the first step in helping them come to terms with the major changes that lie ahead.
If there is a chance that you and your former partner may reconcile, proceed cautiously and wait until you have some clarity before you speak to your children. The last thing children need is mixed messages about whether or not Mum and Dad are getting a divorce. However, if the separation is final, it is better to communicate this honestly, rather than giving false hope that you may get back together.
Irrespective of who initiated the separation, both parents are likely to experience feelings such as guilt, anger, fear for the future and grief for a relationship that once held promise. It is important to understand that working through these feelings may take time and that the two of you may be at different stages in coming to terms with the separation. Try and hold it together for the sake of your children and take the opportunity to vent your feelings with a trusted friend when your kids are not around.
Whilst the support of family or friends can be invaluable during this difficult time, seek out a professional counsellor if your feelings threaten to overwhelm you and get in the way of building a cooperative parenting relationship with your ex partner. With appropriate help, you will be in a much better place to support your children through this period of transition.
One of the biggest challenges facing separating parents is that their relationship does not simply end with the separation. At the very time the two of you are trying to dismantle your previous intimate relationship, you need to establish a new ‘co-parenting’ partnership, based on shared parenting values and love of your children.
In the early stages of separation, intense emotions such as grief, anger or betrayal can easily sabotage your efforts to cooperate and communicate amicably with your former spouse. If this is the case, take it slowly and try and agree upon a business-like arrangement, with your focus firmly on the present and future. If you can put your differences aside while you work out a plan, your co-parenting relationship will be off to the best possible start.
What will your separation look like? The more you are able to work out the practicalities of your separation, the less fear and uncertainty will overwhelm you. Set up a meeting with your former partner to work out a plan for the next few weeks. Agree upon an agenda, work through one topic at a time and establish some ground rules to assist your communication (see point 7).
The future may look like a big black hole, but if you break things down into manageable chunks, you will start to figure out a way through.
The four things that need your urgent attention are
Living arrangements for you and the family
Finances – making sure you both have enough to get you through the next few months
How you plan to formally separate and whether professional advice might help
What and when to tell the children
Don’t try and think too far ahead. If you can make a plan for the next few months, the rest will fall into place as you begin to get your lives back on track. If you need to consider your options, seek financial or legal advice so that you are better informed when it comes to making the important decisions.
As you work through the practicalities of separation, think about what these changes will mean for your children. Treat their needs as your priority, so you can let them know that they come first in everything that you think and do.
Give plenty of thought to the following questions, so you are prepared to help your children picture what their daily lives will look like.
Will you still be living under the same roof? If not, which parent will be moving out? When will the kids get to see the parent who is no longer living with them? How will they stay in touch with extended family and friends?
How will the new arrangements affect their daily routines, such as school pick-ups and drop-offs, extra-curricular activities, homework and down time? Will they still get to attend sleepovers and birthday parties? Will they be able to continue their hobbies and sports?
For the time being at least, try and ensure that your children’s daily life is interrupted as little as possible, so they will have time to adjust and find comfort in the people, places and activities that they know and hold dear.
Parenting is hard enough, even when you are on the same page. Get communication right and everything else will follow. Sometimes you need to take the lead and avoid negativity even when you may be angry or frustrated. Show respect, look for common ground and try to consult the other parent so you don’t let the children drive a wedge between you.
Think about the tone and manner with which you speak to each other in person, on the phone and in writing. The kids will have their antenna up even when you think they aren’t listening. There will be times when you need to take a deep breath, count to ten, refuse to respond in kind to an inflammatory remark or text. If you show goodwill and don’t denigrate your ex partner, he or she is more likely to follow suit and eventually things will settle down.
One thing that surprises many people is how strongly their friends and family react to news of a separation. If those closest to you feel angry or outraged on your behalf, their reaction or behaviour towards your ex-partner can make the fall-out worse and over time create loyalty conflicts for your children.
Make sure that you are the first people to tell your children about the separation and they don’t find out through the rumour mill. Manage the flow of information and insist any friends or family keep news of your separation confidential until the children have been told.
To a large extent, your family and friends will take their lead from you. Whilst negative emotions are a normal part of separation, remind your family that your ex partner is still your children’s mother or father and needs to be treated with respect.
Some useful ground rules to share with those in your social circle include
If you can’t say something positive, say nothing at all
Don’t discuss the separation when children might be present
Don’t post anything about the ex partner on social media
Don’t make your children feel that they can’t mention the other parent in the company of your family or friends
Your new parenting partnership starts now, so best make it a good one! The biggest single thing you can do to help your children adjust is to support each other as parents and find a way to work together as a team.
Make a commitment right now to taking the higher ground, to being a bigger parent, to making the transition for your children as painless as possible. Discuss making your commitment together in writing so that you can both go back to it when things get tough.
Commitments that support children through separation include
To protect your children from conflict
To avoid criticising the other parent
To consult each other over parenting decisions
To encourage your children’s relationship with both Mum and Dad
To never put your kids in the position of having to choose between you
You owe it to your children to work out well in advance, how, when and where you will break the news to them that you are going to separate. This is a moment that is likely to stay with them forever, so you need to prepare yourselves to answer their questions and provide comfort and reassurance as the news begins to sink in.
BSc (Psych), BA (Hons)
Managing Director, Sydney Dispute Resolution
Julia is a family mediator, relationship counsellor and parenting coach with extensive experience working with single parents and couples going through separation and divorce. She is the Managing Director and co-founder of Sydney Dispute Resolution, an independent mediation and family dispute resolution service that assists separating couples to work out their parenting and financial arrangements without the need to go to court. To contact Julia, please go to the Sydney Dispute Resolution website here
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