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Do not delay telling your children about the separation!

Talking to your children about the separation is something many parents dread. But children often understand more than you think and it is important for the child’s well being not to postpone the conversation. 

When parents talk to their children they help them understand what is going on and how life will unfold. This can ease feelings of anxiety and help the child feel less alone.

Child psychologist & Associate Professor Malin Bergström provide answers to why it is important to talk to the children about the separation.

Why is it so hard to talk to the children about the separation?

Because we as parents represent the children’s security and stability. But in the event of a separation, we are the ones who turn their lives upside down. We are not stable, and we break a kind of basic contract with our children. This is hard for us and therefore we often postpone the conversation with our children because no parent wants to make their child sad or upset. 

Does our own sense of crisis make it extra difficult for us to talk to our children?

Yes. When we ourselves are in crisis, our brain is in a state of survival that makes it difficult to find the right words. Our mental capacity focuses on the basics – survival, daily routines and simple solutions. The brain goes at full speed to process the changes we are facing. The price for this is that our sharpness, creativity and logic is not very active. We find it harder to be empathetic and live in the needs of others. Before we have processed our own experiences, it is difficult for us to make the situation understandable to our children. Even if we truly believe that the divorce will lead to something better, it can be difficult to feel that this huge change will benefit our children. It is difficult to make them sad and at the same time convey security and hope when the rug has just been pulled away from under your own feet. 

It seems like it is important not to delay the conversation about the divorce?

Yes, it is important because when you tell them, the separation becomes real and something they can talk about. What the children may have sensed was going to happen can now be explained and discussed. Even if the truth hurts, it can be even worse to feel something is going on and have to carry it alone. Children are often good at both reading emotional moods and interpreting wordless communication.

Can you prepare yourself to make the conversation a little easier on everyone?

Absolutely! There are a few things that parents can talk through to be able to give as thoughtful answers as possible:

Think about the separation from your child´s point of view
Children need to hear how you think their lives may change and they often have specific questions. Therefore, talk amongst yourselves what is important from the child’s perspective. What will your child´s living arrangements be like? Will the child go to the same school and see their friends? Will the child be able to keep their guinea pig and ride their bike to school like before? 

Practical changes
It is common that you do not know how all the practicalities will be solved right away. Tell your child about the situation, but reassure them that you will arrange everything, even if you cannot say exactly how right now. Feel free to have a few different scenarios that you describe in a positive way. Promise nothing that you do not know if you can keep but describe what solutions you hope to find.

Make a plan together – if possible
If you are far apart and disagree about many things, it is extra important that you talk to each other before you tell your children. If the separation is not a joint decision, you need to find a way to describe it truthfully, but without burdening the children with too much information or your own feelings of disappointment and abandonment. Focus on your parenting skills. For your children, the most important thing is that you are still their parents – not what happened in your adult relationship.

Individual conversations

If the conflict is so intense that you cannot talk to the children about the separation together without quarrels, it is better that you talk to your children individually. It is best to have your individual talks the same day or at least close in time. Speak from your own perspective and at all costs avoid saying anything negative about the other parent but admit that you are angry with each other right now.

In infected situations, it is extra important to convey hope. Assure your child that you will work hard to establish a better relationship with the other parent and that these negative feelings will pass.

Be clear that the child will have continued contact with both of you. Say that parents can be very angry with each other when they are divorcing, but that they still love their children just as much as before and will take care of them. Children understand that you are sad when you go through something difficult, but they need to know that things will be okay. Maybe they have experienced being angry with someone and they have become friends again? 

If a parent disappears

If one of you will not have any contact with the children let the children know that. Try to explain the absence in a way that they can understand: “Now Dad is so sad and angry that he has moved out. I do not know when you will meet him again, but I will try to contact him in a while. ” By being open and honest, you give the children a chance to ask and react to what is happening. It is difficult to confirm the lack of someone you yourself are disappointed with, but it is important that the children get to talk about those feelings. Losing contact with a parent is often a loss even if the parent had shortcomings in their parenting. Children who lose everyday contact with one parent need extra support from their other parent to process the loss.

Listen to the children

Do not speculate about the children’s experiences and moods, listen to them instead. By saying something about the background to the separation, such as ”mother and I have felt that we are not so happy together, we like things differently and get annoyed with each other”, you show that the separation is about the adult relationship. Today, most children continue to have an everyday relationship with both their parents. This means that they can ask and process together with both parents (instead of having to wonder about their experiences and fantasize on their own).  

To be sad yourself during the conversation

It is understandable to feel upset when you tell your children about your divorce but try to focus on the children as much as you can. Do not walk away from the conversation. Be there for them and answer their questions without defending yourself or changing the subject. Children have the right to ask questions that are uncomfortable for you. Prepare how you will answer possible questions in advance.

Does it matter if we tell our children together or by ourselves?

Most parents choose to talk to their children about their separation together. It shows that you both are still there and can talk to each other. You both know what has been said and have seen the reactions, which benefits your continued communication about how to respond and take care of questions and reactions. A fruitful joint conversation, however, requires that you put your own disagreements and feelings aside. The conversation is an opportunity to show that despite the separation, you will function as a co-parenting team that takes care of your child in the future. If you can find or keep such a functioning team, the consequences of the divorce will be less noticeable.

It is important to understand that for the children the conversation is just the beginning of understanding and eventually accepting that the family will function in a new way. Children take in emotionally charged information little at a time and questions and thoughts arise gradually.

What happens after you have told the children?

It is good to have a plan for what you are going to do after the talk. It is common for children to withdraw and show that they want to digest what they have heard on their own. 

Let them know you are there, but keep your distance if that is what your child wants  you to do. Above all, do not force a conversation, but show that you are ready to talk when the child wants to. Stay close even if you are not allowed to hold them or comfort immediately. Maybe you sit outside the closed door. Feel free to cough a little so that it is noticeable that you are there, but do not bother. It is not the child’s job to comfort you as an adult.

Do something together

If possible, it’s nice to do something with both parents after the talk. Maybe you cook the child’s favourite food, watch a series on TV or play games. Suggest an activity that you know the child likes or something that helps them calm down. Your task is to try to give the child what they want and need, not what you think can be good. Try to create a calm situation without stress or rules and regulations. 

Focus on you child and be available

It is important to respect the child’s way of processing what is going on and be there when the child is ready to talk or interact. Being pressured to speak ”out” about how they feel or what they think may be harmful. Children need to take in and process information in portions and then rest and think about other things. After this type of conversation, the feeling of security and calm is more important than everything being said. Maybe the child also chooses to talk (or chat) with someone else. Especially teenagers may want to seek comfort and support from friends, and it is important to respect that. Just be mindful so that friends show support in a positive way. Try to capture the opportunities for conversation when your child takes the initiative. Focus on your child and show that you are available, even if you are standing in line at the grocery store.

When a parent is leaving

Prepare in advance if one of you will leave the home or move immediately. Describe when the children will meet the parent again and how they can have contact via phone or online. Make sure you are available the first few days even if you are not at home with the children. Suggest relaxed activities or things you can help them with.

Summary

Do not delay telling your children when you have decided to separate. Children often feel that something is wrong and before they are told, they are alone with their feelings and thoughts.

Together, prepare the answers to the questions that the child or children may ask. Be honest if the questions are about things you have not yet decided, but also convey that you as adults will take responsibility for solving everything they wonder about.

The younger children, the more concrete you need to be. Speak at the child’s level and use words that they can understand. Create peace and security and convey a feeling of hope. This is what we do as parents – we have a plan!

Tell the child how you intend to organize life after the separation. Confirm that you are sad and maybe angry at each other (if you are), but that you know it will get better. Receive feelings and questions without defending yourself or changing the subject. 

It is natural to be sad when we talk about difficult things like separation or divorce. Try to focus on the child and their feelings and thoughts. Do not walk away from the child.  

Assure the child that you both love him/her and that you will always take care of him/her (if that is the case).

Do not lie, but do not burden children with information they have not asked for (who did what in the adult relationship etc). Answer their questions, what is important for them to know right now? 

Children take in difficult things in small portions. Capture all emotions and questions when they come, even if it happens to be in the queue at the grocery store.

Try to convey hope even if it feels really hard right now. Maybe the child knows someone else whose parents have separated and where everything is going well now? 

Malin Bergström