Telling the kids, you are separating
Separation to any degree is a stressful and emotive time
Separation is not just a life-changing event for you and your partner but it is also one for your children. This is no easy task but how you let your children know is a very important factor to help reduce fallout.
Your children need to feel supported through a really difficult process.
Some tips that might be worth considering
You know your children best
You know your child(ren) and family situation best so take the extra time and give lots of thought about the best way to let them know.
Letting them know
How you let them know will depend on your children’s ages and stages but both parents keeping some basic rules in place will help.
- Children do not need to know everything, they do not need to know the nitty gritty e.g., if one parent has had an affair. Remember the KIS strategy…Keep it simple, i.e., don’t over talk and complicate a delicate situation even further. The less exposure children have to any conflict and details of their parents’ relationship breakdown, the better they do
How you tell your children is important; the language used needs to be pitched at their level, there are many great books mentioned below which may help your child alongside speaking with them.
They will likely be upset and this is more than okay– but make sure you let them know you both still love them and your separation is not their fault. Giving your children the time and space to talk days, and even months/years later will help your children adjust better in the long run. Do not speak ill of your ex-partner in front of them, this may cause them to feel they have to take a side.
Reassure them that you still love them equally as much
Try to keep the discussions future focussed, how arrangements for future parenting might work. Describe how your children’s world will change from their point of view, e.g. “Mum will still pick you up from school but Dad won’t be here to put you to bed.” Or vice versa
- Make yourself available; some children take longer to process information; especially something that may be unexpected. Remind them to ask you questions again when they are ready.
If one parent is leaving the family home make sure the children know how they can contact the other parent
For the little ones
- Plan to be in familiar surroundings, like the family home and not in a public place.
- Less is more; little children have low levels of stickability or concentration.
- Help your children understand emotions by using physical descriptions. For example, they may understand “worried” better if they’re described as a tummy ache.
- If it’s hard for your children to use words to identify or describe their feelings you could, for example, ask them to do a drawing. Comment on what they do and what you like about it. Say if you feel the same too.
- Sum up what your children say to check you’ve understood them properly and show you’re really listening.
- Let your children know that whatever they’re feeling it’s OK and you are there for them
Even without dealing with their parents’ separation, teenagers have to cope with a lot. The teenage years are a tumultuous time of change, in how they deal with their parents, friends, body changes and process their feelings. At school or university heavy academic demands and deadlines are being made.
It is important to keep in mind their reaction to your separation (or other things happening at a similar time) may not be what you expected and may be personally very challenging when you are already facing massive uncertainties and change yourself – don’t give up. Your teenager still needs to know you are there when they are ready to talk.
One way I was able to talk to my teenage sons about many topics was in the car, no eye contact was needed and we were usually hurtling up the motorway to a sports game so any thoughts of jumping out of the car were nullified. Do whatever it takes but just keep it short and sweet. Us mums can be guilty of overtalking to our teens, especially our male teens.
Both parents need to keep on the same page and keep any backstabbing private between yourselves. Children do not need to be involved in the whys and whats, they have enough to deal with just being a teenager, let alone knowing their parents are separating.
If you can (not all teenagers like ‘chats’) ask them how they are feeling and let them know you are both available on their terms when they want to chat.
What not to do
…use your children as messengers between the two of you asking a child to report on the other parent is just not a good idea
…ask your child to spy of their other parent and report back, they are not in the SIS
…berate the other parent in front of your children, just don’t, it is a destructive tool.
…over spoil the children to make up for your absence, this creates friction. Keep the fun days for when they are real; it is not the child’s birthday every time you see them, keep the fun days for when they are real.
…encourage your children to take sides, turning your parenting into a popularity contest is harmful to you and your children.
…Remember you are the adult
Director Kidz Therapy
Some interesting reading…
Excerpts from Relate.org.uk, kidspot (Dr Justin), familyrelationships.gov.au/parenting/talking-children-about-separation and from Marie at Kidz Therapy, simply common-sense tips.