You have decided to make the difficult step to separate. You’ve decided to be mindful and collaborative in your separation. Now, how do you tell your children? Here are some sound guidelines to follow when speaking with your children about your separation.
- Be prepared. Timing is important. Once you have some concrete plans in place, you are ready to take the first step. Try to iron out as much of the detail as possible so when your children ask you questions, you are prepared with solid answers. Your kids will respond better knowing how their day-to-day lives will be impacted by this change.
- Book a family meeting. Let your children know you need to have a serious family discussion. Book this time earlier in the day when you can spend some time together following the discussion. Do not do this before bedtime.
- Know the plan. Be prepared to answer questions such as, “Where will I live” and “When will I see you?” You need to have already made the main decisions about the separation agreement: children’s schedules and living arrangements. Their input can be taken into account so they feel heard; however, the primary decisions are best made prior to this initial meeting. Again, this shows them you are working together in their best interest and it takes the bigger decisions out of their hands. Consider the parts of this situation they can control and let them know about these aspects. For example, “You get to choose the room colour and bed sheets for your new bedroom.”
- Tell them together. Modeling your ability to work cooperatively helps the kids feel more confident that you are both at the helm. This provides more certainty for them and allows them to ask you questions together, again providing a more secure base for this significant life transition.
- How much should I tell them? When your children have questions, do not speak to them about any details of the breakdown of your marriage but rather speak in generalities about how you will all move forward. “We have had some wonderful years together but sometimes couples grow apart. We have both decided that this is the healthiest decision. Sometimes adult love changes, unlike a parent’s love for a child that remains forever.” Reassure them that adult love is different than a parent’s love for their child.
- Be prepared for emotion. When your children have an emotional response, do your best to allow this and stay supportive. Let them know that it is normal for them to have feelings about such a change in their lives. If you have some emotion, this is normal. You can acknowledge your feelings and swiftly redirect the conversation back to the children and their response. Be kind and open to each child’s reaction. No one child is the same. Stay open and invite their questions.
- Similar to #3, know the plan. Discuss the upcoming changes to ensure the children know what will change and what will remain the same. Let them know about specific changes and begin to formulate a visual of how things will look differently and what will remain. Giving this information will help them settle. The unknown is hard. They will want to learn what they can and cannot control about this impending change.
- Be respectful and supportive of one another. This will go a long way to insulate the child from your adult conflict and protect their relationships with both of you. This can be very tricky. Kids often take on roles to protect their parents and take sides. This can be emotionally exhausting for kids and is not in their best interest. The more supportive you are of one another in this process, the better for the children. Do not talk to your child about what the other partner did that was wrong. Resist any temptation to blame your partner using your child as a sounding board. This will only set your child up for emotional stress and take they away from a healthier emotional life.
- Provide resources for your kids. Gather a few age-appropriate books on separation and divorce, read them with your children and leave them somewhere special so the kids can access them at anytime. Check in with them periodically to see how they are doing with the new information. Be aware of mood changes and keep your lines of communication open.
- Seek the help you need individually and as a family from professionals with the appropriate clinical expertise. Find other collaboratively trained professionals such as lawyers and financial advisors to support your family through a collaborative process.
Remember, working cooperatively with your spouse is the best for your kids. A collaborative separation and divorce will cost the family less emotionally and financially, and will keep your children’s wellness as something you and your spouse maintain as your central focus throughout this challenging time of transition.
By Heather Bach MA, CCC
Bach Counselling Group