Telling your children that you and your ex partner are planning to separate is one of the hardest things you are ever likely to do. It requires sensitivity, understanding and a calm approach, all things that may be difficult at this most stressful of times. But helping your kids understand the reasons for your break-up and that it is not their fault is the first step in helping them begin to adjust to the changes that lie ahead for the family. For guidance on how to prepare for separation before you tell your children, see Part One of this series, 10 Steps To Take Before You Tell Your Children.
The most important step is to first work out with your ex partner how, when and where you will break the news to your children that you are separating. This moment is likely to stay with them forever, so try and plan a family meeting on a day that does not hold any special significance, such as a family birthday or Christmas. If at all possible, you should both tell the children together.
The age of your children will help determine when you decide to share this news. For younger children, a couple of weeks in advance is sufficient, as they are likely to become anxious if too much notice is given. Older children and adolescents may need a few weeks' notice to adjust and plan for any changes in their lives.
Once you have told your children, be ready to let them share their feelings and concerns and encourage them to come back to you with questions over the coming weeks. Whilst it is appropriate to provide comfort and reassurance, resist the urge to treat your child as a confidante, which puts them at risk of feeling responsible for your wellbeing. Protecting your children from exposure to adult issues gives them the best chance of adjusting to the separation on their own terms and at their own pace. No matter what is going on between the parents, a child needs the freedom to enjoy just being a child.
Your children need to know what to expect, in language they understand, and with plenty of reassurance about what the future holds.
In general, the more concrete the message, the easier it is for children to grasp. "Mummy and Daddy have been fighting a lot" is more meaningful to a young child than "Mummy and Daddy haven't been getting along". Simple explanations can help a child understand what is going to happen next: "We want to stop fighting but we haven't been able to do that, so we think it will be better not to live together any more. Mum will stay in this house and Dad will move into another home close by, so that you and Dad will see each other and spend time together often".
Younger children are quite egocentric, so a key concern at this age is likely to be who will look after them. They often worry that if one parent can leave, the other may also follow. It can help to focus on a core message that you keep coming back to over the coming weeks, so that your children are reassured that you will both continue to care for them and that the problems in your marriage are not their fault.
"One thing we want you to understand is that we will always be your Mum and Dad and we will always be there for you. You are the most important people in the world to us and our love for you will never change. We know this is not easy for you but we have thought long and hard about our decision. None of this is your fault and it's not something you can fix".
Older children and adolescents may well have been aware of conflict in the home, but may still feel blindsided or betrayed that they weren't consulted on such a momentous decision. It can help to acknowledge that the news may have come as a shock and that the decision was not one that you took lightly. Teenagers should be given the time and space to reflect on the news in private, whilst gently being reminded that you are available to talk whenever the time is right for them.
If possible, reassure your children that their routines and social life will continue even if one parent is moving out. They will want to know whether they will get to see their friends, spend time with extended family and participate in activities, just as they did before. If you are uncertain what the future holds, let your kids know that the two of you are working on this together and that you will keep them in the loop as regards what is happening.
Remember that your children will be worried about your wellbeing and how each of you will cope living apart. Let them know that whilst everyone in the family may feel sad and confused for a while, things will start to get better. As their Mum and Dad, you will both continue to be there for them no matter what happens in the future. "We want you to love us both and never have to choose between us" is an incredibly powerful message that will allow your children to move between two homes without feeling anxious or conflicted.
Trusted friends and family such as grandparents, aunts and uncles, can be a great source of support for your children in the months following separation, as long as they avoid taking sides when in your children's company. Whilst some in your social circle may feel angry or conflicted, most people will take their lead from you.
Let people know that you and your ex partner are working towards a co-parenting partnership, even if things are difficult in the short term. Children will often confide in a trusted family member or friend rather than burden their parents with their concerns, so encourage your children to maintain these relationships on both sides of the family.
Teachers and school counsellors should also be made aware of the situation so that they can discreetly support your child at school. If it looks like any of your children is struggling, talk to the school counsellor or seek professional support from a child psychologist to help manage the transition over the next few months.
Research has shown that if separating couples are able to maintain a civil relationship, protect their children from conflict and continue to be involved parents, children are resilient enough to bounce back from family separation and lead happy, healthy lives of their own.
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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