How do We Talk to our Children about Divorce?

Elaine Halligan

Elaine Halligan
London Director of
The Parent Practice

Children do suffer from family separation unless it is handled extremely carefully.

When adults divorce their world is in turmoil and so is their children’s. This is a time when the parents need to know what to do and what to say to their children to ensure they survive the transition and thrive in a post-divorce world.

Traumatised adults often do and say things that can be very confusing for children but we know divorcing parents want to support their children through this experience so here are some guidelines of what to say to the kids when telling them about this huge change in their lives.

CHOOSE a time to tell them

Carefully consider the best time, when there are no plans for a few days so they can ask questions, confusions can be cleared up, and feelings aired. If at all possible, arrange to tell them together so you are united in creating the new structure.

If parents are so conflicted that doing this together may cause more tension, then tell them separately. If talking separately be sure to say “Mum and Dad together have decided…....

LET them know that:

Their mother and father were happy once together and they were born out of love, and although you no longer love each other, reassure them that you will both always love them. (It may help to say that the love that adults have for each other is not the same as the love a parent feels for a child lest they worry that you will fall out of love with them too.)

child maintenance and child contact

BE clear with them that:

The separation has nothing to do with them and it is definitive– it is not their responsibility to try and make things better between mum and dad, and they can’t do anything to get you back together again.

Mum and Dad are sad, but they will take care of their own feelings – it is not for the child to worry about this.

The children will have lots of different feelings. This is normal and you want them to talk to you or some other adult that they trust about it. Involve a loved relative or friend for these conversations.

GIVE details about what will happen

Let them know how life will change and what will remain the same – address practical issues of living arrangements. Eg when they visit the other parent, what happens on holidays, with the pets, about money and school etc. An involved and informed child will feel more in control of his life and will be able to cope better. Give age appropriate information.

AVOID blame

Parents often say ‘it’s important for the child to know the truth!’ Ask yourself why a child needs to know about adult matters such as infidelity, or about legal or financial matters.

Details about these can disturb them and can convince them there is something ‘wrong’ with one parent. Children need to believe in the goodness and love of each parent whose DNA they share. Children know they are one part Mum and one part Dad, therefore if one parent is vilified they take that on board and feel part bad as well.

It is vital that both parents avoid any temptation to demonise the other– a child has the right to a relationship with both parents. To include children in these conversations will scare and confuse them.

Children often miss their fathers but are fearful of voicing it because they fear a negative reaction from their mother. Never use your child to convey messages to the other parent, especially if there is a negative tone to the missive.

The London director of The Parent Practice, Elaine has been a parenting facilitator since 2006, teaching parents in the Wimbledon and Clapham centres. 

She works in schools and nurseries, coordinates our corporate and business seminar programme and works with special educational needs such as dyslexia, dyspraxia and dyscalculia. 

Elaine sees many of our clients in private consultations.

Elaine came into parenting thinking she should instinctively know how to parent.   She sought parenting advice when she felt guilty when she thought she had done a ‘bad job’ and ashamed when she saw someone else parenting the way she wished she could. Being a parent is the most demanding job she has ever done but equally it is a role filled with joy.

Elaine has helped hundreds of families to understand their child’s unique temperament and motivates parents to bring out the best in children and teenagers to ensure they have the opportunity to lead fulfilling lives and be able to cope with life’s knocks.

© the parent practice 2014

photo credit: Destiny via photopin (license)

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