When couples decide to end a relationship and it leads to the breakup of a family with children, the amount of information to process can be somewhat overwhelming. While the separation may be what’s best for everyone involved, how the information is shared with children will be a memory they hold forever. How this family change is shared can impact the trajectory of the entire transition for each child. This process should be handled with tender care and with an emphasis on how you, the parents, will provide physical, mental, and emotional safety for each child. Here’s a simple list to guide you through a very challenging decision making process which can help you share this news with your children in the most honest and gentle way possible.
- Who – It would be ideal if both parents could sit safely and respectfully with the child to explain the family changes. In some cases this would take incredible self-restraint, and in other cases, this may not be an option at all. If the hostility between you and your ex is so high that you feel you (or them) would not be able to remain respectful throughout the conversation, it may be best to have two separate conversations with your child. The art and skill of shifting your relationship from a ‘personal relationship’ to a strictly ‘parental relationship’ is a challenging one. I’ve listed some ways to do this in a separate article, Here. Parents have asked if the therapist should be the bearer of this news and I usually discourage this. The parents are making the family changes for very specific reasons; therefore, the parents need to be the ones sharing the news and answering the child’s questions. Leaving the child’s therapist as a safe person they can go to after the changes have been shared is a good idea, because it gives the child a safe person they can process openly with in therapy. By having the therapist share the news, it could harm the client-therapist relationship, further isolating the child during a time of need.
- What – Children are oftentimes already aware of relationship strains and challenges in the home before adults bring up the topic to them. They have usually heard the arguments or minimally picked up on the coldness and distance in the home. Children and teens can also subconsciously (and for some, consciously) tell when parents are “faking it.” For this reason, age-appropriate honesty is important. When you affirm that a child’s intuition is correct, you affirm their lived experience in the home and in their relationship with you, which has lasting positive effects, even if what you are confirming for them is bad news. When telling your children news of a divorce, consider how you can share about the separation without blaming any one party. Remember – your child has a connection (however strong it is) with both parties. Anything you say or do to place blame on one party harms your child; it places them in the middle. By sharing an honest, neutral explanation of the separation, you are gifting your child the ability to maintain a relationship with both parents and you are protecting them from your personal feelings toward your ex. Your feelings are yours to manage, not your child’s. Your child will have enough of their own feelings to wade through; don’t give them yours too.
- When – When to tell your child includes several things to consider. First, I encourage parents to try to think of all the questions your children will ask about how this will impact them, and then have answers to those questions ready. Sometimes this forces parents to make those decisions ahead of the conversation with their children, if they have not already done so. For example, your children may ask where their home/s will be, what their schedule will be, who will take them to soccer practice, will they have separate holidays, who will keep the pet, etc. Brainstorm as much as you can and then be prepared to answer those questions before you tell your children. When you show your child that you’ve considered all their concerns, you are demonstrating that you are in charge and that their safety (emotional, mental, and physical) is being handled very carefully. This is settling for your child, even during a very unsettling conversation. The goal is to have answers ready, but if you are unclear about a couple of things, respond honestly, such as “I’m not sure about that yet, but let me write it down and get back to you as soon as I figure it out.” Secondly, you’ll want to talk to your children during the most ideal time of day, which is never before school and also not at bedtime. You’ll want to be sure you have a chunk of time where you can share, talk, respond to concerns/questions, and provide emotional support for your child. Avoiding time crunches allows the conversation to be natural and fluid and not rushed. At bedtime, everyone is tired and not at their peak of the day in any capacity. Additionally, you’ll want your child to have some time after the conversation to process and calm down before their actual bedtime.
- Where – Where you share this big news with your child is oftentimes a big concern for parents. Sometimes parents suggest telling the child in the therapy office. I oftentimes discourage this, unless there is intense, reactive, hostility and a neutral third party needs to be present to guide the conversation. Typically, a safe, neutral, private place is the ideal setting for difficult news, and for many families, that would be at home in the living room, kitchen, or in the yard/patio. You wouldn’t want to share this news in public and by telling your child at home, they have easy access to the items/things that bring them comfort. By telling them in a neutral family space, instead of the child’s room, it saves the child’s room as a safe space to recover after they’ve learned of the upcoming changes in a shared room, such as a living room.
- How – Allow your love for your child to shine during this conversation. Keep the conversation direct, honest, age-appropriate, and calm. Emphasize how you are caring for your child during this time by making the decisions and considering their needs. Ask if they have questions and encourage them to bring questions to you later if they have them then. Reassure that your decisions are not because of anything the child has said or done and that it is in no way their fault. Be gentle, loving, and tender. Consider asking them what they need afterward – to stay together or to have space apart. Let them know you’ll want to follow up with them and check in to see how they’re doing with all this news later, and do so.
You can expect that your child will have some feelings to work through after news of family changes. For some, they may be internal experiences such as worrying and bad dreams. For others, it may be through external experiences such as irritability, outbursts, or panic. When children experience stressors, expression of emotions comes out in behaviors. Remember: big feelings = big behaviors. You may want to consider gaining some support for your child with an appointment with one of our team members, especially those team members who offer Transition Prep Action Planning. These team members have action plans available to guide families through transitions such as separation and divorce. What’s most important is that your child understands that you love and support them. Let this love and support shine through, even throughout a challenging time for your family.