How to tell your child about your separation
A GUIDE TO SHARING THE NEWS THAT YOUR CHILD’S PARENTS ARE SEPARATING
Telling people about your separation is difficult and yet, informing your child makes it very ‘real.’ Knowing what to say and when to say it has so many variables depending on the reasons for the marriage break-down, how you are handling the news yourself and the age of your child.
The ABS reported that in 2016 there were over 46,000 divorces and 46.9% of all divorces granted involved children ; this equates to an average of 1.8 children per divorce. Recent research polls also demonstrate that children aged 10-17 are unhappy with the little information offered to them about their parents’ separation.
Rachael Scharrer, relationship and divorce expert, coach and founder of www.DivorceAnswered.com.au and www.LifeAnswered.com.au, understands that regardless of whether you child is young or a mature adult, there are some dos, don’ts and best practices to follow when telling your child about your separation.
Some items to be mindful and considerate of when you are telling your child about the separation include:
- Carefully choose the location, time and day. For many, telling your child in their safe space allows them to be able to express their emotions as they feel appropriate and be a little less self-conscious through the process
- Decide whether you will inform your child with their other parent present or not. It is always wonderful to deliver the news with the appearance of a ‘united front’ – that is, with both parents together and echoing the same sentiments. However, if you feel that one parent will not be able to keep their emotions, temper or blame under control, then it may be best for the one parent who can sensitively deliver the information to do it on their own
- Try to encourage the other parent to echo the same reason or story for the separation. This will reinforce the appearance of having a united front. Children will invariably ask both parents the same questions separately looking for additional information. From the outset, until the adults have had sufficient time to process their grief and the new status quo, it is best that the parents keep the particulars of the break-up to themselves
- Decide in advance to not be derogatory or speak poorly of your ex-spouse. Children don’t need to be privy to your feelings towards the other parent. It takes a lot of energy to refrain from speaking poorly about the other parent, especially if you feel like you are the victim of the break-up. However, please remember that your child is half of the other parent and putting the other parent down is like disliking part of your child
- “What’s in it for me?” (WIIFM). In most situations, people only want to know what and how it will affect them. Try to remain child focused and let them know how you think the child’s life may be with the changes. It’s ok if you don’t have all of the answers. The child only wants to know that both parents are there for them
- Create a united front by using “we” in your explanation (whether this may be entirely true or not). The words ‘we’ and ‘us’ help your child understand that both parents have made the decision for the benefit of the child
- It’s ok to be emotional when telling your child. Showing your child true emotions is an exercise in vulnerability. It tells your child that it is ok to be sad and to cry sometimes. However, if you feel that you are going to ‘break-down’ or crumble in front of your child and not be able to pull yourself together, you might need some reinforcement or assistance from a supportive family member, friend or psychologist when delivering the news
- Listen to your child talk and understand their feelings. Be patient and take the time to allow your child to process their feelings. Allow them to talk without interruption or judgement. This is a great opportunity to exercise emotion coaching and talk about the child’s feeling and concerns
- Reassure the child that both parents still love the child. Continually reminding your child that no matter what the living (or sleeping) arrangements may be, they are so fortunate to have two parents who love them very much is so important. Just because the parents have broken-up it doesn’t mean that they love the child any less and it most certainly doesn’t mean that the parent is ‘breaking-up’ with the child
- If you need to, you can kindly make reference to the other parent and your feelings – say “I love Dad as your father” or “I love Mum because she gave me you.” Sometimes children want to know that their parents still care for each other and this is a positive step towards the child’s sense of self and needed reassurance
- Don’t give false hope of “one day we might get back together”. Create a new norm as quickly as possible. Giving your child an (often) impossible dream of their parents getting back together one day (whether this happens or not) will only lead to disappointment
- Make it an age-appropriate explanation. This is a difficult point to elaborate because of the variables. So, here are a few suggestions:
a. Young children understand happy and sad better than not loving someone. Perhaps try: “Mummy wasn’t happy living with Daddy and you weren’t happy living with two unhappy parents. Now that we are living apart, Mummy is happy, Daddy is happy and you are happy too!” or “Your other parent is living with your grandparents to help them out around the house. If we like all like this set up, then we can keep doing it forever”
b. Primary school age children and tweens are more observant with the issues in the home. You might need to reference a little more information. Try: “You know how we have been arguing a lot lately? Well, your other parent and I think that you shouldn’t have to be around this, so we are taking some space from each other in the hope that we can be better parents in different homes,” “your other parent and I have decided that we don’t want you around our tensions, so we have decided to create two happy homes for you and we promise to work on the way that we communicate with each other”
c. (Try to tailor your explanation to your situation, the age of your child and to what you feel comfortable with)
d. For children who were not aware of any issues in the home (and perhaps you weren’t aware of it yourself) the delivery of the break-up will have to be different again. If you need a little more time to process the news and are not ready to tell your child much about it, you could try to say “Your other parent and I need to create some space between us. We don’t know what this means yet and we don’t want you to worry. When we know what we are going to do, we will let you know”
e. Teenagers and young adults can see through the padding and are more likely to want additional details or more specific information. Depending on your situation, you are going to have to share more, however, please exercise restraint. They don’t need to know all of the details
f. Teenagers are a little more selfish about wanting to know how the separation will affect them. Teenage years are more introspective with an ‘it’s all about me’ attitude. So, talk to your child about what the separation will look like for them – which parent will they live with, will they change schools, will they have to move, will the separation interrupt their social lives
g. It is alright if you don’t have all of the answers. Be honest and say “I am not sure and I will get back to you” or “I don’t know how to answer your question right now. Let me have a think about it and I will answer you soon.” If you use the ‘I’ll come back to you’ make sure that you do address them and respond as promptly as you can
You aren’t just going to drop the bomb that your relationship is over and let your child sit with that information without addressing it again or being mindful of what they are going through. So, a few things for you to consider and action after you have ‘that talk’:
- Keep the routine for stability. Establish the new parenting routine and try to keep your child’s usual daily schedule as best as each parent can. Continuity and stability for the child will help them to better adjust
- Your child will work out the truth in their own time. Whether you like your ex-spouse and whether you think that they have done you and your children wrong, invariably your child will work out what type of person each of their parents are. A façade can only be kept up for a limited time. Equally, your child will decide what relationship they want with each parent over time. You can’t force your child or the child’s other parent to have a particular relationship or be something that they are not just because you want them to be or behave in a certain way
- Understand that talking badly of the other parent may work against you – your child may dislike you because you spoke badly of their other parent (yes, this has happened)
- Understand that the questions asked will change and become more detailed as the children become older. When that time comes, my phrase to the children will be “I made the best decisions that I could at the time with the information that I had”
- Be open to the process. You will never be perfect – you may stumble, you may be unsure about what to say, you may be asked a question that you don’t have the answer to, your child may give you a surprising reaction that you weren’t anticipating
- Take note of changes with your child. Grief, depression and anxiety can affect children in different ways. If your child is showing signs of stress, they might be acting out, being withdrawn, become more temperamental, not sleep, start co-sleeping, start waking at night, bed-wetting or performing poorly at school. Keeping an eye on the changes with your child can make the difference between being able to better support and assist them as needed and them continuing to struggle on their own
- Seek professional assistance as needed. Whether you seek the assistance of a family counsellor or psychologist yourself for strategy or with your child for support, it is nice for you and your child to have an independent, unbiased professional offering their perspective on your situation and how to best navigate these unfamiliar waters
- Refrain from over-sharing and using your child as a counsellor. Children are children – they are not your best-friend and they are not your therapist. Protect them from the daily roller coast that you are experiencing, refrain for sharing all of the minute details and allow your child to be a kid and be free from any separation stresses that adults
Remind older children that your separation is between you and your ex-spouse. It isn’t a situation that you should be allowing your child to get ‘in the middle’ or pick sides. Encouraging your child to be impartial with the particulars of the divorce and to maintain a positive and healthy relationship with both parents is most important for the future success of the relationship between each parent and their child.
Announcing a separation and experiencing the changes that come with separation is an emotionally taxing time for the parents and children alike. Taking time to look after yourself, be kind to yourselves and each other, be patient and more tolerant towards each other and limit unnecessary external stressors will help you to remain more in control throughout a time of uncertainty and ‘new-ness’. Your separation may feel overwhelming now, however over time it does get a little easier. Delivering your news with sensitivity and understanding is the best start to the separation for your child.
If you would like some personalised support and guidance during your separation, please book a 45-minute Strategy Session via this link