Telling your children you’re going to split up can be a daunting task. It may be something you have been considering for a while, or it may be quite sudden, but either way it is one of the most difficult conversations for a parent to face.
There is no easy way to tell your children and there are no hard and fast rules. Every family is different and much depends on the relationships between family members before the separation. However, there are steps you can take to make the whole experience as positive as it can be.
Who Should Tell The Children?
This decision depends on the state of the relationship between you and your ex-partner. If you’re still amicable enough to be able to tell the children together, this is beneficial for everyone. If both parents are present, the children can be given a more balanced view and you can both answer any questions they may have.
If your relationship has become very hostile it may no longer be possible to tell your children together. When emotions are running high, it can be hard to give a balanced view and you risk letting your feelings get out of control in front of your children. If this is the case, it may be in your children’s best interests that you put your feelings to one side long enough to agree on which one of you will tell the children.
How Should You Tell Them?
There is no ‘right’ way to tell children you’re splitting up and it’s important to bear in mind that you will probably feel nervous, upset and confused yourself. These feelings are completely natural, after all you are just a parent trying to do your best in a difficult situation.
When Should You Tell Them?
It’s not always possible to choose your time but if you can, try to tell your children gradually, not at the last minute. They will need time to adjust to the news and it’s likely that you will have to have the conversation with them several times over the next few days/weeks.
Avoid important times such as the beginning of school term, GCSE exams, or just before they are about to go and stay with a relative. It’s best to avoid bedtime or when the children are tired, especially if they are younger, and choose a time when you know you can stay with them without interruption.
What Should You Say?
All children, whatever their age need information to help them understand. It may be tempting to say as little as possible in order to spare their feelings, but without information, children can fantasize and come up with answers for themselves.
It can be difficult to decide just how much information children are capable of facing and this will depend on their age and how you normally communicate with them day to day.
Tell your children what’s happening in an open and honest way. If you tell them half-truths they can become confused and distressed. For example, if you tell them “mummy had to go away for a while” they are likely to wonder a great deal about why she has gone and when she’s coming back. If she then doesn’t come back, they may feel betrayed.
Although your children may be devastated by the news, it’s important not to give them false information to make them feel better. For example, if you tell them that nothing has to change, they will be temporarily reassured by this, but will quickly find that everything actually is changing for them and then feel confused.
Keep it brief and stay calm
Try to stay calm and keep the information clear and brief. It can be a big shock to children, even if they were expecting it, to hear their parents are splitting up and they may not be able to cope with being over-burdened by information.
Don’t pour out all the complex reasons behind the split and avoid blaming or criticising your ex-partner if you can. This may make your children feel they have to take sides and this can be very distressing.
Explain it’s not their fault
However well you explain to children that you are getting divorced, they are unlikely to be able to understand the nature of adult relationships. Bear in mind how anxious they can be about whether they have done something, however trivial, to cause the break-up.
For this reason it’s essential to tell children, whatever their age, clearly that it is not because of them that you are splitting up. You might want to explain that while you are splitting up from each other, an adults’ love for each other can change whereas a parent’s love for their child is forever and never changes.
It is worth repeating this over the next few days, weeks and beyond. Children may take it on board at the time, but their head may be full of anxieties and the information can fade and guilty feelings may creep back in. So, reassure them as often as you can that it is not their fault and nothing they could have done would have changed it.
Tell them you love them
It is common for children to think that if you have stopped loving each other, you will stop loving them. Once again, you will need to be very clear and reassure them that you have loved them since the day they were born and that nothing will change the way mummy or daddy feels about them no matter what.