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How to talk to your children about separation and divorce

By Karli Steenkamp

It is never easy going through a separation or divorce and it gets even more complicated when children are involved. Struggling with your own grief from the ending of a relationship can be hard when you have to explain to your children what is going on. Children will act differently depending on their age and it is important that you acknowledge the different ages and how they might react.

Young children might act in a way that surrounds their needs since they are very dependent on their parents. They might not understand what is happening where older children might be blaming themselves for the separation or divorce. Despite the different ways they might react because of their age, the common thing they will experience is stress. How you deal with it as a parent will have a lot to do with how your children handle it.

How to tell your children about the separation and divorce

Before you break the news to your children, it will help if you and the other parent have figured out some aspects of how to go forward. Once the children are aware of what is going on, more emotions will be involved and it could be hard to think logical. It would be good if both parents could tell the children together, however there should be no conflict. It should be at a time where no one is rushed or tired.

When speaking to children about these changes in their lives, you need to tell them the truth. They can be very perceptive and will know when something is not right. Be clear about the facts that one parent will be moving out, where they will live and when the children will see the parent that moves. Children should not know details about what went wrong in the relationship or why the separation is taking place, all they need to know are the basic clear facts. When you are giving these facts to your children, it is important to focus on the future and try and sound positive about it.

It is definitely okay to be sad about the ending of the relationship, but assure your children that everything will be alright. They need to know that both parents love them and that it is an adult decision and that it is not their fault. Dr. Lisa Herrick suggests telling children 2-3 weeks before the separation. Use words like “We are still a family, we are just changing.” This conversation will not be a once off conversation. It will be necessary to talk about this again and reassuring them.

How to make separation and divorce work

In the initial days after you have spoken to your children about the separation or divorce, you should not constantly ask them how they feel. They also need to process this in their own way. You should ask them how they are feeling about the changes but it should not be on a daily basis. It is important that both parents are civil to one another for the sake of the children. You should not use your children as messengers and find a way to communicate to each other about the kids in ways that work for both. It is also important to refrain from prompting the children about questions about the other parent.

Never talk in a negative way about the other parent in front of the children. Children are loyal to parents and this can cause them unnecessary anxiety. Do not compete with one another to be the best parent. Both should try and have the same rules and not spoil the children to gain their favor and never make them choose one parent over the other. If at all possible, try and make as little changes as possible for the children to cope. Respect each other’s time with the kids. It is necessary to tell you children’s school about the separation so that they can keep an eye on your child and provide support.

What to expect from your children

Children all react differently to the news of parent’s separation. There could be different emotions from sadness, anger and fear – they need to experience it as part of the grieving. They could have fantasies that their parents will get back together. They could have emotional outburst or even regress in milestones. All these things are completely normal to go through and it should pass as they get use to the new ‘normal’.

The main thing to remember is that your children will love you no matter what. They will get through it with the strength they see in you. There are Family Dispute Resolutions offered that can guide both parents into finding solutions that works for everyone involved. If your children are quite young, a book might help to explain the new situation better. There are story books like Living with mom and living with dad by Melanie Walsh or Two homes by Claire Masirel.

There is also a booklet available “What about the children” at Relationships Australia. There are many resources to help guide you through this process, but making sure your child knows they are loved is the best thing for them.

References Today’s parent Family Relationships Online Kidspot Relationships Australia

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