For anyone with kids, this is perhaps the hardest part of separating or divorcing to navigate. It is a difficult conversation 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 parents and experts who have ‘been there, done that’ so that we can help you navigate this tricky part of the process.
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. Best to tell them at the beginning of the weekend when you are both potentially around and able to answer their questions.
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 – meet their emotions rather than lead them – stay focused on their concerns. Don’t try and dress it up as a good thing.
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, one family- 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 fil 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.
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 – expect 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.
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. So 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 – this can be tricky when you’re co-parenting). Be agreed 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.
Action: When I’m coaching parents 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.
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. You can email us here for support.
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’ve 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 we’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 tips to help other parents having ‘the talk’ please leave a comment and share your experience.