How to Tell Your Child You Are Separating

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How to Tell Your Child You Are Separating

Parents separating, or divorcing, is never a conversation parents look forward to having with their children. While it’s a tough subject, your child needs to hear it directly from you and your partner instead of someone else. Sure enough, divorce is a stressful moment for all parties involved, but it’s especially so for your child, who will have to endure the uncertainty that comes with it. Whatever the background, you and your partner will have to do your best to minimize the impact on your children. That process begins with understanding how to tell children about divorce, which also reaffirms your love and commitment. We have a separate article on how to have difficult conversations with your child. However, this is such a key one we have decided to give it a separate one.

Likewise, timing is also essential here. Parents shouldn’t only consider how to talk to kids about divorce but when to do it. You don’t want to wait until one of you is about to move out before informing your child. If possible, try to tell them at least two weeks before the separation when you are sure you’re going through with the divorce. However, if safety or abuse is an issue sooner and without your partner’s knowledge may be necessary. For instances like this, we would strongly suggest getting some specialist support. Here is a detailed article on how to co-parent.

How to Discuss Divorce With My Child

Ideally, you and your partner should be present when you tell your child. It matters little whose fault the divorce is. Moreover, doing it together gives your message that both parents will be involved a stronger impact. You don’t want to be telling your child that you both will always be there for them when one party isn’t even there to join in passing that information. Find out more on how to prepare your child for divorce below:

  • Have a plan. Before approaching your child, you and your partner should have a plan. It would help if you decided when to do the telling, where to do it and how. “Strive to have an agreement with your partner on how the situation will be handled,” says clinical psychologist Dr. Carla Marie Manly, author of Aging Joyfully. “Children do far better with the news of divorce when parents are positive and aligned.”
  • Be open to any reaction. Knowing your child, you may have a faint idea of how they might react. But remain open to the possibility of a completely different response. Some children may retreat, slam doors, yell, cry, or even display a shocking amount of nonchalance. Being open to any reaction can help you read the situation better to know whether to go in for a reassuring hug or give your child space.
  • Stick to the important details. You might want to avoid any point that might lead your child to think that they can fix the situation. Or that anything is their fault. Keep your divorce papers away from sight and avoid discussing any legal issues. Even after telling your child about the divorce, avoid making phone calls to discuss legal matters within their earshot. Similarly, phone calls to ‘supportive friends’ bad-mouthing your ex can turn your child against you.
  • Tell your child why you’re separating. Especially if your child is older, they may want to know why they have to go through all those potential changes. So it would help if you came up with a reason why you and your partner are separating. But it shouldn’t be so specific as to border on the personal. One of you could say, “You know that Mom and Dad have been having issues. We’ve done our best to fix it, but things aren’t working out.” You can follow that with how, having two separate homes, might mean they get the best of both parents.
  • Acknowledge that some things might change. At the news of divorce, most children wonder how this will impact their daily lives. Change can be scary and overwhelming. While you need to give your child a sense of stability and security, you also need to be honest. Not everything will remain the same, but some things will. You need to acknowledge this and let your child know that you both will be there to adjust and handle things as they come. Assurance goes a long way to put children at ease. Parents should also assure their kids that they will always love them even though the parents are not together anymore, says Dr. Carol C. Weitzman, a pediatrics professor at Yale School of Medicine.
  • Assure them that it’s not their fault in any way. Your child may not put it into words, but they might be thinking that there’s something they must have done that caused the separation. Maybe if they had behaved well enough or were less demanding, then it wouldn’t be happening. This kind of thinking can cause low self-esteem in your child. You and your partner need to provide lots of assurance. Your child needs to know that nothing they did caused your separation and nothing they could’ve done to prevent it.

How to Help Your Child Grieve and Cope With Your Separation

Research led by Dr JoAnne Pedro-Carroll, a clinical psychologist and child specialist in Brighton, New York, suggests that your child can cope during and after the divorce process depending on three factors. First, your relationship with your child, then your psychological health, and then the environment. Ultimately, it’s not always the act of the divorce itself that creates emotional stress for your child. How you and your partner handle the process before, during, and after the separation is what predominantly produces emotional pain and affects your child’s ability to cope. Separation is horrible. There is always blame and hurt. We owe it to our children to try and keep them separate from any additional pain that we can.

Below are a few tips on how to help your child grieve the news of your divorce and thereafter.

  • Give them space and look out for unusual behaviors. Your child may withdraw after the news of your divorce. Badgering them in this situation may not be the best course of action. Instead, allow them space to process the news and their feelings. However, keep an eye out for any unusual behaviors that may be harmful. Older children may become less interested in education, experience depression, or display aggressive behavior. Younger children may regress with sleep or potty training, become clingy or insecure, and display naughtiness or anger. Keeping an eye out will help you know when to seek professional help if necessary.
  • Let them know that whatever they say is OK. To encourage honesty and openness, let your child know that whatever they say is fine. Children can sometimes keep their feelings to themselves for fear of hurting their parents. Providing this safe space can get your child to express how they feel about the news. That’s the first thing if you’re to have a chance of helping them work through it.
  • Help them put their feelings into words. Younger children may remain quiet because they don’t have the words to express how they feel. Sometimes this can also happen to older children. By noticing the changes in their moods, you can encourage them to begin there.
  • Acknowledge their feelings. When your child finally lets you in on how they feel, you shouldn’t dismiss those feelings. Instead, acknowledge their feelings and let them know it’s OK to feel the way they’re feeling. This communicates understanding and encourages openness going forward.
  • The announcement shouldn’t be the only time you talk about the divorce. While it’s good practice to keep your child out of financial and legal issues, the announcement shouldn’t be the only time you talk about the divorce. If you have more than one child, you and your partner should sit down with them individually from time to time and ask how they are feeling. Then in between, you can also do it as a family. This is an avenue to bond and for children to air their concerns. Important insights can be shared on the best possible way to continue moving forward.
  • Express your love for them physically and verbally. Divorce introduces uncertainty, which affects your child’s sense of security and stability. When children don’t feel secure, it affects their psychological well-being, triggering a departure from typical behavior. So you and your partner need to provide lots of assurance, both physically and verbally. Tell them that you and your partner will always love them, and nothing can change that. Also, let them feel your love in a warm hug, a kiss, or a gentle squeeze on the shoulder.

Final Thoughts on How to Tell Your Child You Are Separating

Most times, parents can become so consumed by getting their children through the divorce that they fail to remember to take care of themself. Dr. Weitzman remarked that parents’ functioning impacts children’s ability to cope with their parent’s divorce. Parents should make sure they can cope with their own emotions related to the divorce to provide stronger emotional support to their children. “The more a parent is feeling capable and OK, the more they are going to be able to meet their children’s needs,” she said. “The less in control they feel, the more overwhelmed they feel [and] the more difficult it will be to keep their children’s needs front and center.”