How to Tell Your Children About Your Separation
Telling your children that you are separating may be one of the most challenging conversations that you will have with them and it's a conversation that they might remember forever. While there isn't a "right" or "wrong" way to have the conversation, there are ways to make it easier. The following are some general tips about what to do and what not to do in order to minimize children's stress and uncertainty and give them the space that they need to grieve.
If at all possible, both parents should be present for the conversation. Have a general idea of what you will say beforehand. No matter what's going on between you, it's important that you present the news as a united front. Kids don't need to know all of the details of your relationship breakdown. It's important not to blame one parent for the separation., even when the decision to separate is articulated by only one of you. Relationships are complicated and kids have a natural allegiance to both parents. They don't want to get caught in the middle. It's better to have a short conversation if that's all you can manage than to spend too much time talking to your kids and risk arguing in front of them. Focus on the children, not each other. Keep your explanations simple and honest.
Ideally, your conversation about separation should take place on a weekend, not during the week, when kids have less time to absorb the news and talk to you about it and when you have less time to support them and answer their questions. Other than in exceptional circumstances, it's important to reassure children that they will continue to spend time with both parents, even if you haven't yet agreed on a parenting schedule. It's also important to reassure children that the separation isn't their fault and that you are still a family, even if you live in separate homes.
Share with your children all of the things that will stay the same. For example, if one of you will continue to live in the family home, let them know. If they will continue to attend the same school, go to the same daycare or after school program or remain enrolled in their current activities they need to know.
If you have agreed on a parenting schedule and you know when the children will be in each parent's care or what important family traditions will be maintained, it's helpful to share that information with your children.
Give your children a heads up about what things will change. If you need to sell your home, let them know when it will be listed for sale and who will live in it until it is sold. If the children will have to change schools, tell them. If you aren't sure, it's ok to share that information, provided you let them know that you will keep them up to date as new decisions are made.
Expect a variety of reactions to the news that you are sharing. Children's personalities, ages and stages of development will all impact their reactions. Acknowledge your children's feelings of surprise, sadness, confusion, anger and worry. Older children who are aware of tension in the relationship may even express relief.
You will have more than one conversation with your children about the separation. Give them time to process what you tell them and check in with them to see how they are doing. Pay attention to changes in their behaviour, including regression, clinginess, aggression or irritability.
Children don't want to be caught in the middle. Don't blame each other - no matter how angry, betrayed or sad you may feel. Don't talk about the family finances. Don't talk about lawyers, marriage counselors or court proceedings.
After you have told your children about the separation, one of the ways that you can minimize their stress and anxiety is to maintain their daily routines, particularly around meals, bedtimes and household rules. The structure will be reassuring to them.
If you are uncertain about what to say to your children about separation, or if there are circumstances surrounding your separation that make it complex or unsafe, consult a mental health professional for advice.