How To Talk to Children About Separation
Telling children that their family will no longer live in the same home is one of the most difficult parts of ending a marriage or relationship. There’s no easy way to do it, but there are definitely better and worse ways. How and what you say is definitely dependent on the age of your kids. Consider these general DO’s and DON’Ts for pre-teen kids…
- Don’t tell lies or make promises you don’t have control over. “Daddy’s leaving but he’ll be back” sets them up for more pain down the road.
- Don’t give them information they can’t handle. Children do not benefit from knowing the details of who felt wronged by whom.
- Don’t say that Mommy and Daddy don’t love each other anymore. This is in the TMI category; it makes children wonder if their parents will stop loving them one day.
- Don’t be negative or blaming of the other parent. This can be very HARD sometimes, but it is simply in the best interest of the children for each parent to support the other whenever possible in front of the children. I’m seeing a lot of parental alienation lately, with parents turning children against the other parent. It’s a very disturbing trend.
- Don’t ask the kids to choose a parent to believe, love, or live with. That’s a terrible position to put them in, and far too much power for a child to manage. Children need to feel free to love all the people who support them, whether you like them or not. In general, adults should make decisions about where children live.
- Don’t assume that they’re fine just because they’re quiet. If they don’t say a lot, ask them what they’re wondering about and feeling.
- Do tell them the news together if possible, in a caring, supportive way.
- Do tell them only when there will actually be changes that they will see. Young children who don’t have a strong sense of time will be confused if you say Mommy’s leaving and then she doesn’t. Tell them when you have information about what changes will be happening and when.
- Do tell them that it’s about Mommy and Daddy (or Daddy and Daddy, or Mommy and Mommy, of course), not about them. Kids will blame themselves even though that seems preposterous to us.
- Do keep it simple. You can say something like “Sometimes parents decide not to live in the same house anymore. This is going to happen to our family, and we will both always be here for you.”
- Do answer their questions. In general, kids only ask questions they’re ready to hear the answers to. But be careful not to give negative information about the other parent.
- Do help them explore what will be different or the same in their lives, what friends’ have had parents separate, and what they think they will need in order to make it as smooth a transition as possible (two teddy’s?).
- Do minimize the number of changes in the child’s life. Splitting a family is one thing; moving schools or neighbourhoods is additional stressor.
- Do watch the children closely for signs of stress (change in temperament, school struggles, shutting down or aggression) and seek professional advice if you need it.
I believe that having children together is a good reason to work hard at a marriage, and I also believe in the right we all have to decide who we are married to. I believe that, more than needing parents to be together in the same home, children mostly need parents to be happy, present in their lives, and mutually supportive. You have the power to give your children those gifts as you go through a separation.