Talking to your child about your separation

Separation can be as tough for the couple as it can be for their children. In this article, we bring to you age-appropriate ways in which you can talk to your child about your separation.

By Divya Sainathan  • 17 min read

Talking to your child about your separation

After months of arguments, hostility and discord, Neena and Sameer decided to part ways. When they sat their 10-year-old son to explain their decision, he appeared to listen calmly. When he was told that he would move along with his mum to Hyderabad so they could be closer to his maternal grandparents, he exploded into a screaming mass of tears. ‘What about my school? I have so many friends here. I have sports day at school next month. What am I going to do? You only care about your happiness than about me. You don’t care about what I want!’

The outburst left his parents at a loss for words. Even though they had discussed at length about the specifics of the separation, they did not factor their child’s emotions into their planning.

Separation is not an event but a process, a complex and life-changing one at that. It is fraught with pain and loss. Children can feel deeply insecure and vulnerable because of the unravelling of their family unit. Parents need to set aside their own stress and grief and muster all their strength and resourcefulness to talk their children through their separation and prepare them for the changes ahead.

Effect of separation on children
Drastic changes in the family dynamic and living conditions due to separation can leave children with a toxic cocktail of feelings. They could experience

  • Confusion, shock, disappointment
  • Fear of abandonment
  • Anger
  • Guilt
  • Anxiety, depression
  • Grief, a sense of loss
  • Relief
  • Denial

Research indicates that the emotional trauma of their parents’ separation can lead to long-term problems such as mental health problems, difficulty in relationships, substance abuse, etc. in some children. The overwhelming majority, however, cope well enough with the news when it is broken gently and thoughtfully.

By carefully planning how you communicate your separation to your children, you can lessen their pain and give them strength to face what lies ahead.

Framing a ‘separation’ narrative
Each separation is unique, and each child has their own way of making sense of the world. That being said, it doesn’t hurt to prepare in advance for the newsbreak. Here are some things to consider before putting together a thoughtful, clear and firm ‘separation’ narrative

  • Make peace with your feelings— Renowned psychologist Dr. Shefali Tsabary strongly recommends coming to terms with separation yourself before discussing it with your children. To be able to convey strength, hope and positivity, you need to believe that separation is a positive and healthy way forward, a release from an old relationship into a new beginning.
  • Know exactly what you’d like to say— Chart out the things you’d like to share (who, what, when, where, why, how) and steer clear of topics you’d like to avoid (blame game). If possible, ensure that you and your spouse are on the same page. Differing versions could confuse and influence the child. It is also a good idea to stay ‘future-focussed’. Speak more about what the coming days will look like, instead of dwelling on what went wrong and how things came to such a sorry pass.
  • Decide how you’d like convey your message— Would you rather have several short conversations over a span of time or discuss everything in one go? Would you like to have the other parent present or communicate by yourself? Would you prefer to speak separately to children in different age groups/levels of maturity?
  • Pay attention to timing and location— You and your spouse can agree on the best time and place to have the discussion, when children will be relaxed, secure and comfortable. Give them the news before the actual separation instead of springing it on them in the last minute. At the same time, you do not want them to wallow in the news for too long.
  • Anticipate your children’s reactions— Expect confusion, anger, tears, tantrums and lashing out. Prepare also for quietness and withdrawal.
Talking to your child about your separation
  • Be game for answering tough questions— Children’s questions can reveal the concerns that most plague them, Remember to keep your answers factual, neutral, age-appropriate.

Breaking it to your child
Let’s take a look at what separation feels like to children of different ages and what you can say to make them feel safe and loved.

Very young children (0 to 6 year olds)
Infants and toddlers cannot understand what separation is, and they do not have the tools to express their feelings. They can, however, sense your stress. It is better to avoid exposing them to hostility or conflict between you and your partner.

Talking to your child about your separation

Pre-schoolers (3 to 5 year olds) have a limited understanding of their environment and think of things mainly from their own perspective. And since they already have a lot going on developmentally, separation can be particularly hard on them. Their active imaginations could exaggerate what they think could happen. They might fear abandonment by both parents, or believe that their parents will reunite.
While talking to such young children, keep things simple, straightforward, factual and consistent. Here are some phrases you could use—

Mom and dad will not be living in the same house. You will live with _____________ .

‘When you are with me, I will make you food, play with you, read you stories and tuck you in. When you are with _____________, he/she will take care of you the same way.’

We both love you and want to be with you.

Four- to six-year-olds could blame themselves for separation, become clingy and feel conflicted about their loyalties. They may even take sides, which you could find hurtful. While communicating with them, you must repeatedly assert that it was the grown-up’s decision to separate, based on adult problems. They have no part in that conflict. Both parents still love them. Here are some words that can calm them:

Mom and Dad find it hard to continue living together in the same house, but it’s not because of you. We have our own problems, and none of it is your fault.

We love you and want you. We are still your parents and we’ll both be there for you when you need us. You will always be our child, and we will always be your parents

You and mom are still family. You and dad are family too. You will always have a family.

Even if we don’t live in the same house, we still love you and care for you.

While communicating the details of separation to young children, try to give specific information on timelines and living arrangements—the what, why, where, and when. When they have a clear idea of where they will live and go to school, who will take care of them, and when the parents will separate, they can prepare themselves for the changes. Also, instead of just talking about the things that will change, try to highlight all the things that will remain the same.

One good way of getting young children to express themselves is through indirect communication. For example, you could tell them a story about another child in a similar situation, or read them books. Then you could ask them, ‘How do you think that child feels?’. This will get them to explore their own fears and feelings.

Middle schoolers and pre-teens (7 to 12 year olds)
Middle schoolers and pre-teens are old enough to understand the consequences of their parents’ separation. They acutely feel the loss of a two-parent team at home, and may worry about how the separation will impact their financial situation, their friendships, and their relationship with the non-custodial parent. They are likely to be angry and saddened by your decision, and will mince no words in telling you so. They could ask some truly poignant questions. They are capable of viewing a parental decision as unrelated to their own activity, but they could still feel responsible for the separation in some way.

Talking to your child about your separation

While communicating with this age group, take care to validate their feelings Encourage them to express their anger, disappointment, grief, anxiety, fear or guilt.. They must speak up, to you or to anyone else they are comfortable with. You could use words like:

I understand how you feel. We are also very upset by what is happening. There’s nothing wrong with feeling this way. You can talk to us whenever you are upset. We will always be there for you.

….But we have thought this through and feel that it is best for us to part ways. We don’t want to keep fighting all the time. We want you to grow up in a peaceful, happy and healthy home.

A child could sometimes point out a parent’s flaws and ask if that’s the reason the marriage broke. In such a situation, you could accept the mistake but explain that it is only one part of a bigger problem.

Yes, that is just one of our problems. But we have many more issues that we are unable to work out together. Fixing this one thing will not fix everything. We feel it is healthier to start over separately.

You are not one of our problems, and we want to give you a happy place to grow up in. That is why we decided to separate.

Your child may also wonder if they can do anything to reunite you and your partner. This is a good chance to tell them that your marriage cannot be salvaged, but that doesn’t mean they should stop doing the things they love. It is not their job to fix you. It is their job to be a child.

We know you want to help, but it wasn’t your fault in the first place.

We know things will change, but we still want you to enjoy going to school, hanging out with friends and doing what you like (reading and writing/playing a sport/art/music and dance etc.).

You can help us by doing some things for yourself—making your bed, doing your homework, having fun with your friends, paying attention at school, and helping a bit around the house.

Pre-teens will have a robust social life and a desire for independence. They could turn their feelings of helplessness into anger and lash out at friends and family. You must take care to handle their anger with patience. Respond calmly. Tell them that even you find things frustrating at times, but all of you have to work your way through together.

I am so sorry you have to go through all this, but we must accept that our family is going to change.

Teens (13 to 18 year olds)
The oldest, most mature children can also be the toughest too talk to. As strong-willed individuals who’ve seen something of the world outside their homes, they will have a firm opinion on everything. As older children who have some understanding of how adult and romantic relationships work, they are likely to hold the parents responsible for separation. They may even ponder on whether they themselves can sustain relationships in the future. 

Brace yourself to face shock, anger, disappointment and sadness that you and your spouse hurt each other and let your marriage fall apart. Watch out for signs of anger or stress, which could include keeping risky company and experimenting with drugs and alcohol.

Parents must communicate directly with teens. Do not involve them in your problem solving, but take their inputs in decisions concerning them. They can have some autonomy, but parents need to be in control ultimately.

  • Be honest about your plan for the future, including the parts you still haven’t worked out.
  • There will be many things the teen will disagree with. Pick and choose the things you can compromise on and live with (fashion choices, room décor), and things that are non-negotiable (curfew, peer group, schoolwork).
  • Acknowledge their needs while also setting limits. The rules of the house must still be followed; the stability will give children a sense of security.
  • Accept that they may want to spend more time by themselves or with friends, reassuring them that you are always available when they need you.

You are the best judge of your child’s development, maturity and temperament. Choose the approach that works best for your circumstances and your child’s disposition. Also, remember that just as separation is a process, talking about it is a process too. It won’t happen in one sitting. You and your child will have several new questions and concerns as you live out the separation. It is vital that channels of communication are kept open and considerate.

It is natural to dread and avoid having such a painful conversation with your children. But the truth is, talking about your impending separation allows you to take responsibility for your own choices. By owning up to your decisions, you can absolve your child of blame. By telling them what will happen next, you could spare them imagined fears and fantasies. By listening to their opinions, you could make them feel important and loved. By asking for their inputs, you could give them a degree of control over their circumstances. By laying out the facts, you can demonstrate your sincerity. By putting together a positive separation narrative, you could help your child develop essential life skills—trust, hope, communication, coping with loss—and build resilience to last them a lifetime.

In a Nutshell

  • Children can handle separation better if parents talk to them and help prepare them for change.
  • Before telling your child about your impending separation, decide on what you’d like to say, when and where you want to have the conversation and how you would like to frame your message.
  • Take your child’s age, maturity and temperament into consideration before talking to them. Children in different age groups process parents’ separation differently.
  • Keep the narrative focussed on the future and avoid raking up past wrongs or blaming your spouse for the separation.

Things you can do right away

  • Chart out a parenting plan, clearly defining where children will live and where they will spend their vacations. Try your best to preserve their existing routines, friends and activities.
  • Come to a consensus with your partner about how to frame the discussion about your separation.
  • Resolve not to speak ill of the other parent while the child is with you.
  • Familiarize yourself with distress cues, and try to create a support system for the child involving teachers, friends and extended family (whom they can talk to and confide in).

About the author:
Written by Divya Sainathan on 4 March 2020.
Sainathan is a writer and editor with a special interest in early childhood education.

About the expert:
Reviewed by Meghna Singhal, PhD on 4 March 2020.
Dr. Singhal is the Manager, Global Content Solutions at ParentCircle. She has a doctorate degree in clinical psychology from NIMHANS (Bangalore) and holds a post-doctorate in parenting from the University of Queensland (Australia).

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