How to tell your Children you are Separating - Parent Connection
Children react to separation and divorce in lots of ways - they may feel partly responsible; they may grieve for what they and their parents have lost; they may feel relieved; and they may feel anger and confusion at what was unthinkable to them.
Depending on their age, children show their distress differently; babies and young children may become clingy or have trouble sleeping; older children may get very angry, have trouble playing or getting on with their friends, or might side with one parent over the other.
Children need time and help to adapt. Most children will have some difficulty coming to terms with their new family life; a few may have long-term difficulties that can lead to various emotional and behavioural problems.
Many parents end up distracted and upset during separation and find it hard to give their children the support they need. If you need help for yourself or in supporting your children, call on a friend, health professional or counsellor. A sympathetic ear and reassurance that you're doing the best for your children can make life more manageable. Grandparents and other relatives can also be important in supporting you and your children at a very difficult time.
Taking time to talk and listen
Children can usually sense problems (even if they can't hear them) and will often think the worst, such as believing they are to blame for the separation. Telling them about what's going on can help them to make some sense of the situation.
Listening to what children want future arrangements to be like, whilst reassuring them that they're not responsible for making final decisions, will help them to feel that their views are important but that they are not expected to have to choose between parents.
You can help children feel more secure by helping them to express their feelings, letting them know that you understand how they feel, and making sure they feel they can ask questions if they want to will help.
Children often feel a great sense of loss and letting them grieve is an important part of helping them to deal with the situation and to move on to accept the changes in their family relationships.
Children often go through stages of loss and grief, and denial is a common response. They may also express anger towards you, and this is all part of the process - try not to take it personally.
A child will naturally have hopes and fantasies about the family, such as wanting you all to be reunited. Talking about these feelings, without raising false hopes, will help your child to move on.
Children often feel they've done something wrong and that they are to blame for the break up. They can be reassured by hearing that they're not responsible and that, although the situation may be painful and difficult right now, you want to make things better for the future.
Children are often afraid that if their parents loved each other before and now don't, they might stop loving them too. This fear can increase if there is a new partner or new children. Children feel more secure if they are reassured again and again that they are loved, and that although you and your partner feel differently about each other, you will continue to love and take care of them.
Protecting them from your problems
Children need to feel happy about enjoying the time they spend with the other parent. This can be hard, as they are often aware of the difficulties you are having. You can help them do this by avoiding making them feel that they should take sides and reassuring them that it's ok to love the parent who has left.
Hearing you criticise or blame the other parent can be extremely distressing for children. Avoid doing this in front of them so they don't feel burdened by information and details that they don't need to hear.
To help your children to not feel guilty and responsible for the separation, it's especially important to avoid arguing about them in front of them.
Keeping stability and a routine
Sticking to a daily routine can help to keep other aspects of life as stable as possible.
If possible, it might be best to wait before making any other big changes, like moving house or school, to avoid any further emotional and practical disruption.
Encouraging children to see their friends, and keep up with hobbies or other activities, can help them keep some continuity in their lives. Some children may feel guilty about doing 'normal' things and having fun - they may need genuine encouragement as the 'permission' that some children need.
Children tend to do best when they are in a stable, predictable environment, and need to know that there are limits (limits they will sometimes test!). Being consistent can help a child to work through things more clearly. For example, it will help if you and your ex-partner agree about discipline and are consistent in what you actually do.
Accepting support from others
Finding people you can talk to and making sure that you feel supported will help you support your children better. It will also help avoid burdening your child with your emotional distress by confiding in them or relying on them for support.
Children benefit from other people's support, too. Grandparents can be an important support to both you and your children. Research shows many children say they confide in their grandparents when they are worried. If teachers and other important adults in your child's life know about the separation, they can be more sensitive to your child.