How to Talk to Children About Separation

December 25, 2018
It's not easy to explain a separation to your children. However, these tips can help you get through this challenging situation.

British critic and writer Graham Greene said: “There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.” Now, that door really does exists, but it may sometimes be opened far too quickly. For example, as parents, we might not know how to talk to children about an impending separation because they may be too young and too innocent for it.

A separation is a delicate situation that also affects children. One of the main worries that parents have when they separate is having to tell their kids about it. When should you do it and what words should you use? And, perhaps even more importantly, how do you answer their questions? Psychologist Monica Cruz, an authority on this issue, provides some great pointers on the appropriate way to tell children about a separation.

“Children should always show a great forbearance toward grown-up people.”

– Antoine de Saint-Exupéry-

Come to an agreement ahead of time

It’s a good idea for the separating parents to come to a prior agreement on what they’re going to tell the children. Furthermore, they should tell them about the separation together if it’s possible. It‘s important for the parents to practice beforehand.

It’s important to stay calm, even if the situation becomes difficult. In fact, if one of you starts to lose your temper, it’s best to put off the conversation for another time.

Sometimes personal differences can make a separation necessary.

Tell the kids the truth

It’s best to avoid lying. Children are generally egocentric (especially before the ages of 6 or 7). As such, they tend to blame themselves for what happens to them. It’s very important that you explain what’s going on in clear and concrete terms. That will make it less likely that the children will come up with a story in their minds to explain the information they don’t have.

Confidence above all

A separation is never easy, but it’s important that the children feel the confidence in their parents’ words. This is the best way for them to understand that the decision is final.

Cruz suggests that you should tell your children that when the two of you got together, you loved each other very much and that’s why you decided to start a family. Even so, as time went on, you didn’t get along as well as you used to in the beginning, and you finally realized that you couldn’t be happy together.

“In the happiest of our childhood memories, our parents were happy too.”

-Robert Breault-

Don’t demean your ex-partner

It’s very important not to demean your ex-partner. You can tell your children that you were arguing a lot lately. However, that doesn’t mean you should insult or blame your partner.

If you demean them, all you do is complicate the situation further. That information doesn’t help anyone. What’s worse, it can be misinterpreted by the child and cause tension. Don’t say things like “He wants me to go” or “She’s leaving me”.

Explain that you both did everything you could

It’s not a bad idea to tell your children that you tried everything. By that, we mean that both parties tried to keep the family together but that it didn’t work out in the end.

This is one way to help the children accept that your separation wasn’t an impulsive decision. If they believe it is, then they’ll possibly think there’s some way to reverse it. That’s why it’s so important to tell them the truth. They’ll understand that you’ve reached the conclusion that this is the best solution for everyone.

It's important that a separation be dealt with delicately when children are involved.

More points to consider

It’s important for your children to understand that:

  • They’re not to blame for what happened. Things simply didn’t turn out how you thought they would.
  • They can cry and express their emotions. They don’t have to pretend like nothing is happening.
  • It’s also important to ask their opinion. You might even ask if they suspected it, seeing as things hadn’t been going well for a while.

Also, you have to explain what’s going to happen in the near future. In other words, whether you’ll keep being a family and how much time they’ll be spending with mom or dad, among other things. This will reduce their uncertainty.

Finally, it’s important to ask and verify whether your children understood everything. If they have questions, it’s important for them to ask them.

As you’d expect, talking to children about an impending separation isn’t easy. They might go into denial, get angry, or not say anything at all. Whatever the case may be, it’s important for them to understand that their parents will always be there for them.