How to tell your children about your separation
Talking to the kids about the separation is something many parents dread. But kids often understand more than we think and it’s important for the child’s sake not to put off the conversation. Letting the child know what is happening lifts the worry they would otherwise have to carry alone.
Child psychologist Malin Bergström of Varannan Vecka provides answers on why it is important to talk to the kids about the separation and how we can think to make the situation as easy as possible for the child in a difficult situation.
Summary of this article below.
Why does it feel so difficult to talk to the children about separation?
Because we parents should be the security and stability for our children. But when we separate, it is us adults who disrupt their world. We are not stable and we break a kind of basic contract with the children. That is why we often postpone conversations with the children, because no parent wants to make their child sad.
Does the crisis make it even more difficult?
Yes. When we are in crisis ourselves, our brain is in a survival mode which makes it difficult to find the right words. Our mental capacity focuses on the basics – survival, daily routines and simple solutions. The brain is running at full speed to process the changes we face. The price for this is that our sharpness, creativity and logic are put on hold. We find it harder to be empathetic and to put ourselves in other people’s shoes. Before we have processed our experiences it is difficult to make sense of the situation for our children. Even if we ourselves believe that the divorce will lead to something better, it can be hard to feel that it benefits the children. It is difficult to make them sad and at the same time convey security and hope when the rug is just being pulled away in one’s own life.
Is it important to have the talk early?
Yes, it’s important because when you talk about it, the separation becomes tangible and real for everyone. The things the children may have been feeling now have an explanation. Even though the truth may hurt, it can be even worse to feel something and have to carry it alone. When they are told, they get the chance to share their questions and thoughts. Children are often good at both reading emotional moods and interpreting nonverbal communication.
How to best prepare?
There are a couple of things that parents can discuss in order to give the most thoughtful answers possible:
- Start with the child. Children need to hear how you envision their lives and often their questions are concrete. Therefore, think together about what is important from the child’s perspective. What about the accommodation, friends and school? Will Alice keep meeting Vera at the nursery every day? What about the stuffed animals? Can I stay in the same school?
- Practical changes. It’s common to not know how to handle the practicalities, like where to live and how to manage the children’s accommodations, things, rooms, and so on. Explain the situation, but assure them that you will figure it all out, even if you can’t say exactly how today. Have some different scenarios that you describe in a positive way. Don’t promise anything that you don’t know if you can keep, but describe the solutions you hope to find.
- Keep a united front. If you are far apart and disagree, it is especially important to talk to each other before you discuss it with the children. If the separation is not a mutual decision, you need to find a way to describe it honestly, but without burdening the children with unnecessary information or your own feelings of disappointment and abandonment. Focus on your parenting. For your children, the most important thing is that you are their parents – not what has happened in your adult relationship.
- Individual conversations. If the conflict is so intense that you cannot talk to your children about the separation together without arguing, it is better for you to talk to each of your children separately. Try to have the conversations on the same day or at least close in time. Speak from your own perspective and avoid at all costs to say anything negative about the other parent, but admit that you are currently angry with each other. In infected situations, it is especially important to convey hope. Assure them that you will work on finding a better relationship with the other parent and that feelings will pass. Be clear that they will continue to have contact with both of you. Tell them that parents can be very angry with each other when they separate, but that they still love their children just as much and will take care of them. Children understand that you are sad when you go through something difficult, but they need to know that it will pass. They may even have their own experience of having fought with someone and then become friends with them again.
- If a parent will not be around. If one of you won’t have contact with the children – be open about it. Try to explain the absence in a way they can understand: “Dad is so sad and angry right now he has moved away. I don’t know when you will see him again, but we will try to arrange that soon.” By being open and honest, you give the children a chance to ask questions and react to what is happening. It’s difficult to confirm the loss of someone you are disappointed in, but it’s important that the children are able to talk about their 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 a parent need extra support from their other parent to help process the loss.
- Listen to the children. Don’t speculate about the children’s experiences and feelings, instead listen to them. By saying something about the background of the separation, like “Mom and I have felt that we are not so happy together, we disagree on things and get irritated with each other”, you show that the separation is about the adult relationship. Today, most children continue to have a daily relationship with both of their parents. This means that they don’t have to wonder about their experiences and fantasize on their own, but instead have the opportunity to ask and process together with both parents.
- If you cry when you tell the children. It’s natural to feel sad during the conversation. But refocus on the children again once you have composed yourself. Don’t walk away. Accept their feelings and questions without defending yourselves or brushing them away. Children have the right to ask questions that may make you uncomfortable. Prepare beforehand how to answer potential questions.
Does it matter if we do it together or one of us is telling them?
Most parents choose to talk to their children about the separation together. This shows that both of you are still present and can talk together. You both know what has been said and have seen the reactions, which benefits the parents’ continued communication about how to handle and take care of questions and reactions. However, a fruitful joint conversation requires that you put aside your own differences of opinion and feelings. The conversation is an opportunity to show that even after the separation, you will work together as a parent team to take care of your child in the future. If you can find or maintain such a functioning team, the consequences of the divorce will be less noticeable.
You must also understand that for 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 in stages and questions and thoughts arise over time.
Then what happens?
It’s good to have a plan for what to do after you’ve talked. It’s common for children to retreat and show that they want to process what they’ve heard on their own. Follow and show that you’re there, but keep your distance if the child wants you to. Don’t push for a conversation, but show that you’re ready to talk when the child takes the initiative. Stay close even if you can’t hold or comfort them. You can sit outside the closed door. Cough lightly to let them know you’re there, but don’t nag. It’s not the child’s job to comfort the adult.
- Do something together. If possible, it’s nice to do something with both parents after the talk. Maybe you cook your child’s favorite meal, watch a series on TV or play a game. Suggest an activity that you know your child likes or something that helps them to calm down. Your job is to try to give what your child wants and needs, not what you think might be good. Let go of any possible parenting expectations and focus on creating a peaceful atmosphere.
- Let the child lead. It is important to respect the child’s processing and to let them talk when they are ready. Being pressured to talk “out” or “express” can be harmful. Children need to take in and process information in portions and in between get rest and think of something else. After this type of conversation, the feeling of security and calm is more important than saying everything. Maybe the child also chooses to talk (or chat) with someone else. Especially teenagers may want to seek comfort and support from friends and you must respect that. Just make sure they support in a positive way. It is important that the child still feels there is both an everyday life and security. Try to capture the opportunities for conversation when your child takes the initiative. Put aside what you have to do and show that you are available, even if you are in the grocery store line or picking up from preschool.
- When it is time to go. Prepare in advance if one of you will leave home or move away immediately. Describe when the children will meet the parent again and the contact they can have digitally. Make sure you are available the first few days even if you are not home with the children. Suggest relaxed activities or things you can help out with.
- Don’t wait to tell your child or children when you have decided to separate.
- Prepare answers together to the questions they might have.
- The younger the children, the more concrete you need to be. Talk at their level, using words they can understand. Create a calm and secure atmosphere, and give a sense of hope. We parents can do this – we have a plan!
- Be concrete about how you will arrange life after the separation. Confirm that you are sad but that you know it will get better.
- Accept the emotions and questions without defending yourselves or changing the subject.
- It is human to get emotional when talking about difficult things. Take a break and come back to the conversation when you have collected yourself.
- Assure your child that you both love them and will always take care of them (if this is the case).
- Don’t lie, but don’t burden the child with adult matters. What seems important for them to know?
- Children take in difficult things in small doses. Catch all the emotions and questions when they come, even if it happens to be in line at the grocery store or on the way to an important work meeting.
- Try to convey hope even if it feels really heavy right now. Maybe your child knows someone whose parents