How to Tell Your Children You’re Separating

Having counselled a number of couples through the separation process, it has become clear to me that there is one step that isn’t well covered in the publicly available materials on separation and divorce. That is: How do you tell your children that you’re separating? Parents are very afraid of the damage the separation might do to their children and sometimes try to shield the children from hurt by simply avoiding the issue, or only telling bits of the story they think the children want to know about.

However, there is a lot of research showing that one of the complaints that children commonly make about their parents’ separation is that they were left “in the dark” about what was happening. There is also research showing that sharing “adult” information about the separation can make children even more confused and distressed. Therefore, I decided to write this piece in an attempt to dispel some of the myths about children and separation, and provide some practical strategies for coming to grips with the issue of keeping children informed about the events associated with the separation.

Before I make practical suggestions about what to say to children about the separation, it’s important to clear up a number of misunderstood issues. First, many parents have the impression that children think about the family in the same way that parents do. This is not true. If you think about it, most parents dream about having a family and plan how it will work long before children are born, meaning that they have ideas about family that are well-formed before children even arrive. And as children are growing, parents continue to work out their hopes and plans for the whole family.

Children are not privy to these dreams – and shouldn’t be as they are not capable of understanding the implications of their parents’ plans. In addition, most adults have an ability to see “the big picture” that children lack. This is simply a function of brain development, and it means that children (and even young adolescents) only “see” the part of the picture that relates specifically to them.

Therefore, when parents worry about children being distressed about the “breakup of the family”, they are assuming that children perceive “the family” the same way they do. The truth is that children see the family primarily in terms of its support for them – they don’t see “the family” as the larger system of interdependent people with common goals and dreams. So, they are mainly interested in how things will affect them, and what kinds of differences the separation will mean for their lives. They are, in fact, strongly egocentric – and that’s how it should be! They are physically and intellectually vulnerable, given their immaturity, so they pay close attention to the adults around them to check that those adults are providing them with the protection and support they need.

Finally, all children are born hard-wired to attract the close attention of the adults around them to ensure their survival – and the more adults the better! We know, for example, that children development strong relationships with more than one caregiver if they are given the opportunity to do so. So, children are always interested in how their support system is doing – but only insofar it affects them. If they think that their support system will be disrupted, they are bound to become anxious about what it will mean for them, and may fight to prevent this disruption happening.

So, children need to know how the separation will impact on the number of parents available to them and how their caregiving will continue.

Second, given their tremendous egocentricity, children may think that the separation has been caused by them – that something they have, or haven’t, done has made the parents separate. Children are well aware of the significant impact they have on their parents – they experience their parents’ reactions to them on a moment-to-moment basis, and know that they affect their parents in many ways. This knowledge can easily extend to thinking that their actions have caused their parents’ separation behaviors, too.

So, children need to know that the separation has nothing to do with them – they did not cause it to happen, and it is a decision reached by the adults because of the adult relationship.

If parents understand these two issues, it gives them ideas about what their children need to know about the separation. Clearly, children need to know how the separation will impact on the number of adults that will be available to protect and support them, and what is being arranged to ensure that they have as much adult support and attention as possible after the separation. This translates first into concerns about how often and where they will see the non-resident parent, or how the resident parent will cope without the other adult. Then, they need to know that the separation is the result of a decision by one or both adults and that nothing they did caused it.

This does NOT mean that children should be told the details of why the separation occurred – this will simply throw them into a loyalty conflict about which parent is right and which parent is wrong. They only need to know that it is an adult decision to separate from each other, and that although the adults feel differently about each other, they don’t feel differently about the children, and will continue to love them and care for them.

In practical terms, I suggest that parents tell the children together. Parents sit side by side (however hard this may be) and face the children. They will have worked out in advance what they will say and who will say what. If it is not possible, then both parents need to at least be saying the same things to the children. First, tell the children that the adults have decided not to live together anymore and, for example, that one parent will be moving out of the family home (or whatever the arrangement is to be). Then, immediately tell them where the other parent will be living and how and when they will see that parent.

Second, tell them that the decision to separate was taken by the adults, and that, although the parents feel differently about each other now, they do not feel differently about the children. This may be really difficult if one parent is strongly opposed to the separation, but your children really need to think that the parents have a more or less united stand on the issue.

I suggest that parents repeat this process two more times, each time allowing for questions. It’s possible that children will take away distorted information from the first (and even the second) sessions, so it’s important that they get a chance to hear it again. You can tell them that you will be talking with them again about this the following day and you are keen to answer any questions they may have.

But remember that your answers need to demonstrate that you are not criticizing or belittling the other parent in any way. This is dangerous for children’s adjustment, and their relationships with BOTH of you. So make sure that you stick to the ideas presented above – this is an adult decision, and although you feel differently about each other, you don’t feel differently about the children. Please don’t say “Well, dad/mum has decided to leave and I don’t know why” (even if this is true). You may sound like a stuck record, but your children will be protected from adult issues that could harm them if you simply repeat “That’s a grownup decision, and you just need to know that we love you the same as we always have”.


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