Talking To Children About Separation
Communication is paramount when a separation involves children.
No matter the circumstances, it will be a time of great upheaval and uncertainty and the children will need ongoing reassurance about the changes that separation and divorce will bring. It is imperative that parents communicate with their children in an open and compassionate way, without bias and without letting their own feelings influence the ‘story’. Most of all, the children need to know that they are loved, that their feelings are normal and that they are not at fault.
Here are some practical tips for talking to children about separation.
Have a plan
Telling the children about your decision to separate is a profoundly significant moment. It is life-changing for them.
If possible, you should endeavour for the two of you to break the news together and to tell the children the same story. Reaching agreement on how to tell the children with your partner prior to the discussion can make an enormous difference to how the children respond. They need a consistent message and reassurance from the two of you that they are loved and will continue to be cared for.
Your unified message is that your relationship as a couple is ending, but your relationship with your children remains the same.
Don’t rush the discussion
Separation can be a hard concept to understand and children need time to absorb the news and ask questions. When you are deciding when and how to break the news to them, choose a quiet spot with no distractions and make sure there are no appointments or activities scheduled afterwards. Be patient and give them the time and space to respond in their own way.
Tell the whole family together
It is often, but not always, best to have the whole family together when you break the news about separating. Even if you are tempted to talk to an older child first, it may be advisable that they are all together. If you and the other parent are unsure how best to tell the children, seek professional advice from a counsellor.
Children will react differently and they will need to be reassured that all their feelings are normal. Be ready for any reactions, even if they make you feel sad, uncomfortable or angry. It is also a good idea to give some thought beforehand to questions that may arise so that you are prepared, but remember that it is OK not to have all the answers. If you are unable to answer a tricky question on the spot, reassure your child that you will come back to them.
Encourage children to ask questions. Be sensitive to their feelings and what is going on for them.
Emphasise that they aren’t at fault
Children can sometimes feel guilty and responsible for the separation. Reassure them that separation is an adult choice and that they are not to blame. Keep reminding them that nothing that any child said or did – or can do in the future – had any influence on your decision to separate.
Reassure your children that all their feelings are normal. They may be frightened, bewildered, angry, confused, hurt, worried, curious – let them know those feelings are natural and healthy. They are also likely to see you expressing strong emotions and it is helpful for them to see how you manage those in a healthy way.
Give them a plan
If possible, explain to your children what they can expect. Your plan doesn’t have to be detailed, but they will feel reassured if they have some idea of how their ‘new normal’ will look. Comfort children that you will always listen to their perspectives. Mention things that will be different and emphasise those that will stay the same. Routines and rituals can help children feel safer and more secure.
Establish a trusted circle of caring adults
It is not uncommon for children to have difficulty talking to their parents about the separation. It is a good idea to encourage your children to talk to another trusted adult such as a grandparent, teacher or counsellor.
Consider advising the children’s teachers about the decision to separate so that they are prepared for any questions or actions that may arise at school.
During the days, weeks and months following the initial conversation, you should endeavour to continue communicating with your children as openly and as often as possible. It is helpful to arrange a regular discussion time (for example after dinner) where no subject is off limits. The same questions may arise time and again because a child is mulling over an issue, so be patient and keep your answers consistent and truthful.
It is also helpful to let them know that their opinions matter and to find constructive ways of empowering children. Keep reminding them that they are loved, valued and important and that both parents will take care of them.
A separation is a momentous life event and can be particularly challenging when children are involved. However, if both parents try their utmost to be respectful, forgiving and compassionate and work together to maintain as many of the family routines and rituals as possible, it will be easier for the family to recover and readjust to the new way of life.
All of our lawyers at West Family Lawyers in Perth have extensive experience in assisting with separation and divorce, including working out appropriate parenting arrangements. If you are considering a separation and want to talk to a caring, compassionate family lawyer who will genuinely act in your best interests, you are welcome to get in touch on 9380 9111 or make an appointment through www.westfamilylawyers.com.au.
Please note that this article is informative in nature and does not constitute legal advice.
Natalie has worked in family law for 18 years, with skills and qualifications in law, mediation, psychology, management, and company directorship.
Natalie is equally comfortable at mediation negotiating a settlement and in the Family Court advocating for clients. She has experience in all areas of family law, including child support, financial settlements, and parenting issues. She is part of a small team of trusted family lawyers in Perth practising in the Family Court of Western Australia.
Find out more about Natalie here.