"We're separating...so how do we tell the kids?"
In 2013, Australia saw the divorce of 47,638 couples. Of these, 22, 590 involved children under the age of 18 years (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2013). It is unlikely that someone enters a marriage envisaging divorce. If it does eventuate that separation is the next step, parents can find it difficult to manage their own thoughts and emotions, let alone support their children to adjust to such a major life change. It is important for parents to get their own support during this time.
It is somewhat reassuring for parents to know that most family separations do not lead to serious negative outcomes for children (Clark, 2013). The same quality parenting that supports children within intact families supports them post-separation. Parents’ responses to their children during this time are important determinants of their healthy adjustment. On the flip side, there are a number of factors that may increase the likelihood of difficulties post-separation (Teyber, 2001). Parents should try to avoid:
Being openly hostile between themselves
Overcompensating with children, leading to a lack of discipline
Losing contact with their children
Placing children in a position where they must ‘choose sides’
Drawing children into an adult role of confidant, caretaker or protector.
One of the most common questions from parents at this time is “how do we talk to the children about it?” It must be pointed out that some level of anxiety is to be expected at this time, as there is with any significant life change. It is helpful to acknowledge these feelings, support children to label and normalise them.
There are three main points for parents to communicate to children at this time:
An age appropriate explanation for the separation.
Everyone will do this slightly differently, according to circumstances. However one thing is clear - whilst there may be an urge to pass blame (e.g. an affair, one partner made the decision to leave), for the sake of the child’s ongoing relationship with both parents it is worthwhile keeping any explanation at a respectful and age appropriate level. For example, mum and dad are having difficulties living together/mum and dad are not getting along/ mum and dad like different things/mum and dad want to do different things.
What children can expect to be different and what will remain the same.
Children need routine and predictability. Separation can up end their sense of security and safety. Be sure to tell children what will remain the same (e.g. live in the same house, attend the same school, have the same friends, attend soccer training each week, etc). They also need to know and prepare for the changes to their lives (e.g., dad will be moving into a new house next weekend, you will see mum every Wednesday night and every other weekend, etc). Children need time and support to develop and settle into new routines.
Reassurance of their continued relationship with both parents.
Children love their parents. Ideally, children need to know that despite the separation they will continue to have a strong relationship with both parents. Whilst this cannot always happen (for a host of reasons), this is an essential part of attachment and healthy development.
Talking to children about the separation is most effective when delivered by both parents together, if this is possible. This communicates that regardless of what happens, they will always work together when it comes to the child. Leave the door open for further questions from children regarding the separation, as they arise. They will often take time to process the new situation and some fine-tuning and clarification will be in order. Be mindful of any behavioural acting out in response to the changes (be it at school or at home). Children do not always have the skills to identify and articulate what is going on for them, in which case we often see them communicating through their behaviour.
Navigating a separation can be a harrowing and intensely emotional experience for all involved (children, their parents, grand parents, extended family members and significant others). Support for children during this time is paramount, in order for them to adjust to this change in family structure and achieve healthy functioning despite parent separation.
Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2014). Marriages and Divorces Australia, 2013.
Canberra, Australia: Author.
Clark, B. (2013). Supporting the mental health of children and youth of
separating parents. Paediatrics and Child Health, 18 (7), 373-377.
Teyber, E. (2001). Helping children cope with divorce (2nd ed.). San Francisco: