Telling the kids you’re separating is one of the most gut wrenching moments of a parent’s life. Easily and by far.
But, with a bit of forethought, some well-planned timing and a few deep breaths you WILL be able to do it. The key is to take things slowly and go in with an open mind and a warm heart.
You may wonder what makes me qualified to talk about this subject… fair enough. Professionally I am a qualified Counsellor but something you may not know about me personally is that I have been on both ends of this conversation – as a 17 year old child when my parents separated and as a 32 year old woman when I chose to end my marriage. I get it. I understand how having this conversation is so VASTLY different for each and every family.
What is said will depend on so many factors
These may include the reason for the separation, the age of the children, the circumstances going forward, the relationship between the parents, the communication skills and emotional intelligence of the parent facilitating the conversation and of course, the reaction of the child or children involved.
In reading this information it’s vital that you take into account the personal circumstances of YOUR family. This is not a case of one size fits all. YOU are the expert on your family. It’s up to you to consider how best to deliver the conversation based on your own abilities, resources and parental perspective. Remember also that this is a broad sweeping list of considerations to help you through. However you plan to manage the conversation be sure that it is ‘age and stage’ appropriate.
First things first…
Choose the timing as best you can
I’m talking not at 830 at night when the kids are exhausted and wanting to sleep, not at 345 in the afternoon when soccer is on at 430, not at 730 in the morning when breakfast is on the table.
To give yourself the best chance at getting this right you must allocate a time which suits all parties involved. If necessary, schedule it in. Diarise it. Plan around it. But whatever you do DON’T expect the kids to jump up and go about their day like nothing has been said. They will generally need time to process what they’ve been told. Remember, you’ve likely known about the separation for some time. If this is the first they’ve heard of it you need to give them thinking space.
Find a ‘non-threatening’ space or place
Myth: telling the kids you're separating should be done in a child’s bedroom, their ‘happy place’. I’d have to say that, in my opinion, this is a no-goer. The child’s bedroom MUST remain a safe haven where there is NO association to trauma (yes, this conversation WILL be traumatic). Their bedroom should be a sanctuary where they can go to feel safe, secure and happy. Other options to consider are somewhere out in the fresh air like a park or a quiet picnic spot somewhere. The sunshine will do everyone good. You could also consider a lounge room where they can snuggle up to their favourite blanket or sit with their favourite pet. If you feel up to it you could also have the conversation over a milkshake or beer etc depending on the level of privacy available (and the age of the children of course!).
Use loose questioning
Don’t like it when you’re hit with 20 questions?! Neither will your child! Remember, GO SLOWLY. Ask where necessary but otherwise just remain open and patient. Give them permission to ask you questions whenever they need to. Don’t feel that silence needs to be filled with talk. Allow them to sit and think. They may have questions, they may not. But using your questioning as a way to make yourself feel less nervous or uncomfortable will only make THEM nervous and uncomfortable. And also, never use leading questioning. Let them think and speak for themselves. No one likes people assuming what they were going to say or, worse still, putting words into their mouth.
Stick to the facts as much as possible
This can be hard under emotional distress but it’s so important when it comes to an upset, unsettled child. When telling the kids you're separating, only talk about what you know for sure. If you don’t know, tell them that. Honesty is key. Tell them that some things may take time to work out. Tell them if you simply don’t know. Never make things up or sugar coat things. Older kids will hold you to what you say, quite often in fact, so be careful. You may wish to tell the child that you are still working through some things so you can make the best decisions. That shows them that you aren’t rushing things, that you are doing what is required to make this as smooth a transition as possible for them.
Remind them that it’s not their fault
This one will be an issue for MANY kids, of all ages. It’s heartbreaking so be prepared for it to come up either directly in conversation or later on in behaviour changes. So many children take separation as a reflection of THEM..that they did something wrong, that they were too naughty, that they didn’t love someone enough or, worse, that someone doesn’t love THEM enough so they are leaving. Children will imagine all sorts of scenarios so make sure you reassure them that it’s nothing to do with them and that it is a decision that adults make some times, for their own reasons.
Focus on what remains the same
Amidst the emotional chaos, one way to settle and ground kids is to remind them of what WON’T be changing. Think about school, what house they’ll live in, the friends they have. Whatever you KNOW will be staying the same should be given adequate conversation time. This will eliminate more worry for the kids as they naturally start to nit-pick the situation and create endings to stories which haven’t even been written. When telling the kids you're separating, eliminating those factors which don’t need to come into play will provide huge comfort for them.
Ease their worries
“But Mummy where is Spot going to live?”… “Who fill feed Banjo?” … “What will happen to Lizzy?” Be prepared for the practicality ‘stuff’ because your kids will likely go there. Yes we adults are caught up in the emotion, stress and confusion of it all but kids will often go straight to practicalities. Consider family pets as soon as possible and try to have answers for them as best you can. Where things haven’t been finalised as yet, tell them that, but reassure them that no pet will be left behind or forgotten about. They will need to hear that their pets are being included.
Use books, drawings or real life examples
Depending on the age and emotional development of the child you may like to use some other resources to get your message across. In this day and age where divorce is rampant and families come in all shapes and sizes there are countless story books available to simplify a separation. You could pop into your local library or even do some shopping online for something you can keep and refer back to in future. Another good way to communicate the change to young ones is to use drawings. You could draw two houses or Mummy and Daddy doing different things in life. It’s hard to provide specific ideas as so much will depend on your family circumstances. Remember, you can always ask the kids to draw as well. Quite often children will find pictures for words they just can’t find.
Wherever possible try to maintain a normal routine for the kids. Routine provides stability and familiarity for children, more so when there is so much change going on around them. If possible stick to the same wake and bed times, school runs, after school activities, dinner time routines and bed time wind down activities.
Watch for behaviour changes
After you’ve had the conversation it’s important to keep an eye on their mental health. What you’ve told the kids is life changing and whilst you are able to cope and rationalise things as an adult kids just aren’t developed and experienced enough in life to do the same. It’s likely that you may see irritability, withdrawal, fear, sadness or moodiness but remember, these are normal responses. Give your kids space to feel what they feel, and validate them, often. It’s a good idea to actually TELL THEM that you’re there for them and that you are happy to answer any questions or let them vent. If you start noticing serious changes it may be time to look at getting some support on board. It may also be time to have a discussion with school teachers if you feel this is necessary.
Offer them professional support
This one I can NOT emphasise enough. Suggest a Counsellor, Psychologist, Youth Worker, Doctor… ANYONE. Tell them they can speak to someone else if they can’t speak to you. Encourage them to air their thoughts and give them healthy outlets for any anger that comes up. When you’re a kid this stuff is HARD but the right skilled ‘helpers’ can significantly reduce the trauma associated with a family breakup. What’s more, a therapist or support worker can offer them hope and a realisation that they are in fact not alone… that families all around the world experience separation.
...where to from here?
I hope these ideas give you some sort of confidence and peace as you push on through what is undoubtedly an extremely challenging and emotional time. Whatever you do, however you do it… BELIEVE that no matter how hard it gets you CAN handle it. When telling the kids you're separating, remember to act from a place of love… for yourself and for your kids. Take each day as it comes and look after yourself as you look after others. You may also be interested in reading my article 7 must do's to survive your divorce.
If you need a listening ear, some strategies or just some support, I’m here for you. My services are available Australia wide… during business hours and after hours. I’ve been where you are, I will understand you and your unique situation.
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Erica has a passion for Women’s Health. She works with women who want to be heard, supported and empowered! Erica is a survivor of many life experiences. A Mum. A travel lover. A green thumb in training and an eternal optimist!