There are always good ways of giving upsetting news. Preparation on the part of us parents makes things easier for our kids and starts our co-parenting relationship off on the right foot.
For anyone with kids, this is perhaps the hardest part of separating or divorcing to navigate. It's a difficult conversation that most people don't know how to have or when its best to have. You might feel strongly that the time isn't right or you might feel that limbo or hiding the truth from your kids can't go on much longer. Worst still, you might be at odds with your co-parent who sees things very differently. We know this is tough and we know many of these decisions depend on your specific circumstances.
To help you jump that first hurdle and face the conversation head-on we've gathered tips and stories from separated parents and experts who have 'been there, and done that' so that we can help you navigate this tricky part of the process.
Tip 1. Tell your kids what's going on
Saying nothing is rarely the best option but it's better to tell children once the decision to separate has been made (not when you are in the early stages of thinking about it) and when something is changing. Such as no longer spending time together as a family, the house going on the market and definitely if one parent is moving out.
Action: Agree with your co-parent this is an important conversation to have and that you will do it together; prep what you are going to say, how you will answer any questions they ask and plan a time for the talk. It's usually best to tell them at the beginning of the weekend when you are both potentially around and able to answer their questions.
Tip 2. Know the difference between sad and bad
How you think about a problem impacts how you solve it. The ending of an unhappy marriage is a sad thing not a bad thing and what feels bad and what is bad are different things. There are good ways of giving upsetting news. How you handle telling the children and your behaviour following this will determine whether the children will feel short-term distress or suffer long-term damage and this is an aspect of family change that is within your control.
Action: Present what's happening as a change, not the end of the world. Acknowledge the sadness your children express and that change is hard and meet their emotions rather than lead them. Stay focused on their concerns. Don't try and dress it up as a good thing.
Tip 3. Keep the messages short and simple
The key message to convey to your children is that you are no longer together as life partners but you are still together as their parents. The key messages are;
- We love you, we're sorry our decision is causing you distress
- It's not your fault
- We will both still continue to look after you, but it will be in different houses because we don't get on well enough with each other to want to live in the same house together anymore
- We are on one family in two households
Action: We love Parenting Expert, Sue Atkins idea of taking a large sheet of paper and drawing a big circle on it. Divide the circle into pieces of pie and work with the kids to fill in each segment with things that won't change. This will give your kids a sense of security and keep the changes from overwhelming them.
Tip 4. Tell all of your children at the same time
Even if they are very different ages, they will gain support from each other. No one will feel excluded or that there are secrets, everyone will have heard the same thing. You may have to phrase it in different ways for younger children but try and do this at the same time as telling the others.
Action: When planning what to say with your co-parent take time to consider the children's individual personalities. As parents you are the experts in your children and you know their likely individual reactions, questions, fears and concerns.
Tip 5.Be truthful
This is a tricky one, the truth and everything are not the same thing. Kids need to be protected from aspects of the truth that would harm their need to feel safe with both of you. For example, don't blame the other parent for being the instigator of the split as this will cause a child to feel insecure (it will also make you look weak, as if the other parent calls the shots, and this can be tricky when you're co-parenting). Agree that when telling the children you have both come to recognise this is the best way forward.
Remember; the nitty-gritty of your adult relationship wouldn't be a topic of conversation were you together and so it isn't now you're separating either.
Action: When I'm coaching parents and preparing them for these conversations I use this test:
Before saying something ask yourself: does this statement give our children some insight into how the divorce will impact their future lives? If the answer is no, question whether you need to tell them.
Tip 6. Don't expect perfection
It's ok to be sad when telling the kids. Don't worry about being emotional when you tell the children, it is fine and is real; this is sad news. Your own release of emotion will signal to them that it's ok to feel sad and cry. Bad-mouthing or blaming because you lose control of your sadness however, is harmful.
Action: If you're worried about your own emotional reaction and holding it together, see a divorce coach or family consultant to help you prep, practice and deal with your own emotions.
Tip 7. Don't be surprised by their reactions or lack of them
You may get a strong reaction or no reaction; everything is normal at this early stage. Try to acknowledge and accept their reactions. Try not to be offended or affronted if they appear to ignore the news. However they react, they will have heard you, and will be processing what they have heard in their own way and at their own speed.
Action: Get some additional support if you get reactions from any of the children that concern you. Children who appear to be cycling through emotions are having a normal reaction to what is called the grief cycle. Sometimes though, children get stuck in one particular emotion or behaviour (anger is a common one or bed-wetting) and then it's best to get some early support from the child's school or a Family Consultant. It's a tricky balance between being rightly concerned and over anxious about a normal reaction.
Take heart, if you've already told the children before reading this and you did it differently don't worry. It's an imperfect world, we all make mistakes and your kids will survive. If you and your ex have said or say something blaming or bitter about the other within your children's earshot, then repairing that is always good. You could say to your child: "I'm sorry; I shouldn't have spoken like that about Mum/Dad. I'm feeling cross with her/him at the moment, but I really understand that you don't want to have to hear that."
It's never too late to start a new way of relating within the family.
If you have any other tips to help other parents having 'the talk', please leave a comment below to share your experience and support.