Getting separated or divorced? How to break the news to your children

Relationship counsellor and clinical sexologist, Leandie Buys, offers some advice on how parents can break the news to their children that they are separating or getting divorced.

This is an unpleasant situation for everyone involved. There is no way to make a divorce or separation seem like a holiday – especially when there are kids involved …

But there are ways to go about breaking the news to your children to help them cope with the coming changes and trauma.

Remember that just as you and your partner are going through a tumultuous time, your kids are also experiencing a level of chaos. And just because they are children, don’t think that they don’t really understand what’s going on.

Kids are extremely observant. They know when you and your partner are fighting (even if you keep your arguments to yourselves), they know when you and your partner are not talking to each other, and they know all about ‘divorce’.

They will have a number of friends at school whose parents are divorced, and they will have picked up a lot of information from these friends. Information which may not, in fact, be correct. They may have seen how sad their friends are on ‘parents day’ at school when only one parent arrives, or at birthday parties when couples are separated, and they pick up on the awkward tension. Your kids may be fearful about what’s happening, but they may not want to talk about it with you in case they ‘make things worse’.

Your job as parents is to be as truthful as possible with your children while still maintaining a level of respect for each other as you go through this difficult process.

So how do you talk to your kids about the situation?  

Whether you’re going through a separation or a divorce, the process is exactly the same. But make sure that both you and your partner are on the same page before breaking the news to the children. A colleague of mine has a very wise saying “don’t pull your gun if you are not ready to shoot”.

So don’t tell the kids until you’ve made up your minds that you are ready to separate.

Don’t lie to them

Your kids will inevitably have heard your arguments. They will know the basic story behind your decision. They will know that there has been hurt. Don’t try to cover this up, or hide the truth from them.

Don’t degrade your partner in front of your children – even if the separation is due to infidelity and you’re feeling deeply hurt and angry. Don’t say things like “Dad is a disgusting human being and shacked up with that blonde bimbo from work and he’s leaving us for her.”

Tell them that although you’ve both tried really hard to work things out between you, dad has asked mom for a divorce, and you’ve come to an agreement that it’s the best thing for the whole family. They don’t need to know the nitty-gritty details.

YES this makes it seem like there’s a ‘bad’ partner and a ‘good’ partner, but the children will forgive you, and they would far rather be told the truth now than find out a few years down the line that they have been told a lie about the reason for the separation. Pretending that “everything is fine” and you’re getting separated “just because” leaves them with more questions than answers.

They will learn to trust the ‘bad’ partner again when they see how much less fighting there is, and how much happier both dad and mom are when they’re not together anymore.

Tell them it was not their fault

This is ABSOLUTELY VITAL. If you emphasise anything, you need to emphasise this. Children naturally blame themselves for their parents’ divorce, and they need to be constantly reassured that they had nothing to do with the situation.

They also need to know that both of you still love them, and no matter what other changes take place, the fact that they are loved will never change.

Be honest about how their lives are going to be influenced

One of the biggest worries for kids whose parents are going through a divorce is “what’s going to happen to me?”

It is easier for children to handle change if they know what the change is going to be. Rather inform them about exactly what’s going to happen than keep them in the dark.

If you’re going to have to move to a new house, and they are going to go to a new school, tell them as soon as you can so that they can prepare emotionally for the change. Don’t just pack their bags and march them out the front door all-of-a-sudden.

If you and your partner are going to be living far away from each other, and the kids are going to be sharing their time between you, then tell them exactly how that’s going to work. If they are going to ‘dad’s’ place every second weekend, take them there and show them their bedroom, and make sure they are comfortable in the environment.

Try to make their future as certain as possible during this tumultuous time.

Talk respectfully about your partner at all times

When you have a private get-together with your friends, you can vent all the frustrations you want. You can tell them exactly what you think of your ex, and how you would love it if they were run over by a cement mixer.

But in front of your kids, make sure that you remain respectful about your partner. He might soon be YOUR ex, but he will ALWAYS be your child’s dad. Your child will have a connection to him for life, and your child will develop their identity from both of you. Insulting your partner will only serve to decrease your child’s self-esteem and confidence.

Tell them the truth about the divorce, but don’t get personal. Leave that for therapy and girls’ nights.

Teachable moments

Use counselling as a way to show your children how to solve big issues effectively. Relationship therapy is not always about making sure couples stay together (although I would love that!). Sometimes it’s about making sure that two people leave a relationship with no “unfinished business”. It’s about making sure that even though you have both been hurt, you have also healed those wounds, and you won’t take them with you into your future relationships.

Show your kids that when they face major life changes and go through a life crisis, it is not ‘weak’ to seek help. In fact, it shows strength of character and bravery to ask for help from a professional.

Don’t you always tell your kids to come to you for help if they need it? Whether it’s issues with friends, or difficult homework, you encourage them to seek assistance.

In this same way, by seeking counselling, you are practising what you preach.

Counselling also helps you gain an impartial perspective on the whole situation, and a trained professional can help guide you through each step towards the best outcome for everyone involved.

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