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  • Separation: How to Break the News to Children

    Separation: How to Break the News to Children
    by Suzanne St. John Smith, M.A., M.A. (Psychology), C.C.C.
    December 17, 2010.

    The process of coming to the final decision to separate is unquestionably a difficult one. But most parents would argue that telling their children about the separation is, without a doubt, the single most painful part. After all, by sharing the news, parents effectively shatter the hopes and dreams held by most children – founded or unfounded – that is, that their family will remain happily together forever. Prior to sharing this information with their children, many parents anxiously anticipate responses of disbelief, anger, and grief. And, after the news has been shared, the responses from children typically include all of the above, and often many others.
    Generally, the questions that tend to prey most upon the minds of these parents prior to talking with their children include the following: “How do actually tell them?”, “What should we say…or, more importantly, not say?”, “Do we answer all their questions fully and honestly?”, “How long do the children need to know prior to the actual separation?”, and, most often, “Will my children be okay?” The burden of each of these, and many other, questions often weigh heavily upon the shoulders of any parent facing this difficult task.


    If you’re currently preparing for a separation, and have children, I’d like to offer you a few concrete guidelines that might help you negotiate this challenging process:
    1. I strongly recommend that you adhere to what I believe is the single most important issue when telling children about a separation: that is, never burden children with direct information relating to the actual issues and problems that parents are facing with one another. Again, never. Parents sometimes believe that if their children understood why this is happening, it would be much easier for them to accept it. And, if the truth be known, most children do ask lots of ‘whys’, and so it might be tempting to let them know the ‘real’ story behind the separation. But resist this with everything in you. If you don’t, you effectively open the topic up for discussion, or even for debate. And, as such, children will scramble at the challenge of coming up with a solution to any given problem the parents may be experiencing, and often they feel their very security depends upon them doing so. This is an impossible burden to place upon children, even if it isn’t your intention to do so.
    2. The answer to the ‘whys’ needs to be necessarily vague, for example, ‘We care about one another very much, but we’re experiencing problems that have led us to the decision to separate”. It’s going to be important at this point, to reassure children that they didn’t in any way contribute to the issues that led to the separation, and that the love you feel for them will not change under these, or any other, circumstances. Yet, despite the efforts of parents to contrary, children are often left believing that somehow if they’d behaved better, or listened more, their parents wouldn’t be separating, so lots of reassurance is vital in this regard. Older children may have a more difficult time understanding why this is taking place, particularly if the family environment wasn’t typically fraught with obvious tension between their parents. And, older children aren’t as likely to willingly accept the ‘generic’ answer that’s suggested above. Generally they need more time to process the information than their younger cohorts, and their questions will typically reflect a cognitive maturity that demands more thoughtful answers from their parents. That being said, you should still refrain from providing the intimate, and private, details that led to the decision to separate. No matter the age, children need to remain appropriately distant from the adult relationship.
    3. Since children typically live in the present, imagining a future that’s quite different than what life is like for them ‘now’, is often a challenging concept. So what they need from you is a concrete description of what life will look like for them once this change occurs. For example, how often will they see/stay with each parent? Where will they live? What will happen to the family pet(s), if there are any? Will they be able to remain in the same school, and maintain the same friendships? These questions, and many others, will likely be concerns for your children at this point. Before talking to them, sit down and try to imagine being them, and, in so doing, come up with the sorts of questions that you, in their place, would want answers to.
    4. If it seems that your children are having a difficult time understanding, or talking about how they feel about the separation, you might ask them if they’d like to talk to someone else outside the immediate family – a relative, friend, or even a counselor. And, if they decline the offer at first, keep an eye on them and make the offer available to them later if you think it might be useful. It’s also a good idea to talk to the children’s teachers so that they can observe how your children are doing as they make the transition from a two-parent family, to two single parent families.
    It’s my hope that these 4 guidelines will prove useful, if only as discussion points between you prior to your actual ‘talk’ with your children. If you keep your children’s well-being in the forefront of your mind, it’s unlikely that they’ll fall through the emotional cracks of your broken marriage.
    This article was originally published in forum thread: Separation: How to Break the News to Children started by David Baxter View original post