How to tell the children we are separating

‘So we have decided that we are going to separate, now we need to tell the children but are not sure what to tell them and how we go about it.’

Often couples feel that they should not tell the children anything as the children will not notice any change. This is just not true. It can make children feel that they are being excluded and that they have done something wrong. You, as parents can help them by telling them what is happening in a way that they can understand. They don’t need to know all the details. First, let them get used to the idea that you are not going to be together. Most children and young people say that they still want to see both parents although this may not always be the case.

Let us have a look at the things that may be useful for you to share with them:

  • That it is not their fault.

  • That both of you still love them and that will not change.

  • What is probably going to happen and how their lives may change i.e. going to see you on alternate weekends – but they will not have to miss swimming/football/ballet (or parties).

  • To know that it is OK to feel cross and sad.

  • It’s fine to talk and ask questions but there may not always be answers.

  • That you will both do your best to listen to them.

Our children often feel that the break up has been caused by something they have done; not going to bed when asked, being rude and difficult are just two examples. Perhaps the first thing to tell them once they know that you are not going to be together is that this is not their fault.

We need to acknowledge how our children may be feeling. This is often not easy as we may be feeling vulnerable or angry ourselves. It probably will not make things better by buying those treats and/or letting them have their own way. Share with them that the hard feelings are OK and you sometimes feel like that too.

Here are some more pointers to help you as parents think about how you tell your children:

  • It doesn't help to make your children feel responsible for making decisions, but where possible do try and consult them and listen to what they say. You may not always be able to deliver everything they want but you can acknowledge their thoughts and feelings.

  • Some things we tell our children need to be made specific. For example, the time they are going to spend with each of you, their grandparents and even their pets.

  • Don't ask your children (whatever age they are) to choose between you. The fact they are asked to favour one of you can confuse and upset them.

  • Children don’t need to know the ins and outs of your adult relationship. What they really want and need to know is how it will affect them.

  • ‘Big feelings’ are not a sign of weakness. Leaving or being left by someone you love hurts.

  • Keep telling your child that you love or care for them and make sure if you make promises you keep them.

  • Making sure arrangements for collecting your child, where and when the child will be is important. Maybe have a calendar with different colours for each parent.

  • Make sure both of you give your child plenty of ‘time’ time to talk, time to play – just plain time.

  • When you co-parent (i.e. you share the time your children spend with each of you) there will be times when it doesn’t quite work out the way you think it is going to, this is the time that you have to find a compromise that works both for you and also your children.

  • Decide between you (the adults) what you are going to do about their possessions – toys, shoes, clothes, school uniform etc.

  • Tell your children that whatever has happened between you two it is still OK for them to love both of you.

  •  This may be hard, but try to remain positive when you are talking about your ex.

  • Try and agree as adults to have similar routines for your child, so no matter which parent they are with they know when bedtime is and how long they can play on the computer etc.

  • Make sure that your children know they don’t have to choose between you.

You may not be able to use all these pointers and they may not all work for your family but I would like to end this article by sharing a parent's words. This applies as much to either parent.

‘I am not divorcing you. I will always be your Dad and always love you very much.’

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Staines-upon-Thames, Surrey, TW18 4AX
Written by Clare Francis, M.A. PG dip BSc (Hons) MBACP
Staines-upon-Thames, Surrey, TW18 4AX

Clare attained her master’s degree in relationship and family therapy from the University of Hull in 2011. Clare works with families, young people and individuals. Clare also manages a thriving private practise which she currently runs from Twickenham and Staines. She has also worked for Relate since 2008. She is a Member of the BACP.

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