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How to tell your children you are separating

Children react to separation and divorce in lots of ways – they may feel partly responsible, they may grieve for what they and their parents have lost, they may feel relieved, or they may feel angry and confused.

Depending on their age, children show their distress differently. Babies and young children may become clingy or have trouble sleeping. Older children may get very angry, have trouble playing with others, or side with one parent over the other.

Children need time and help to adapt. Most children will have some difficulty coming to terms with their new family life. A few may have long-term difficulties that can lead to emotional and behavioural problems.

There are no hard and fast rules applying to children and divorce, but if you need help for yourself or in supporting your children, call on a friend, health professional or counsellor.

Taking time to talk and listen

Children can usually sense problems (even if they can't hear them) and will often think the worst, such as believing they are to blame for the separation. Telling them about what's going on can help them to make some sense of the situation.

Listening to what children want future arrangements to be like, and reassuring them that they're not responsible for making final decisions, will help them to feel that their views are important but that they are not expected to have to choose between parents.

You can help children feel more secure by supporting them to express their feelings, letting them know you understand how they feel, and making sure they know they can ask questions if they want to.

Children often feel a great sense of loss. Letting them grieve is an important part of helping them to deal with the situation and to move on to accept the changes in their family relationships.

Denial is a common response to big changes. Children may also express anger towards you. It’s all part of the process – try not to take it personally.

A child will naturally have hopes and fantasies about the family, such as wanting you all to be reunited. Talking about these feelings, without raising false hopes, will help your child to move on.

Being reassuring

Children often feel they've done something wrong and that they are to blame for the breakup. Reassured them that they're not responsible and that, although the situation may be painful and difficult right now, you want to make things better for the future.

Children are often afraid that if their parents loved each other before and now don't, they might stop loving them too. This fear can increase if there is a new partner or new children. Children feel more secure if they are reassured again and again that they are loved, and that although you and your partner feel differently about each other, you will continue to love and take care of them.

Protecting them from your problems

Children need to feel happy about enjoying the time they spend with the other parent. This can be hard, as they are often aware of the difficulties you are having. Reassure them that it's OK to love the parent who has left and avoid making them feel they should take sides.

Hearing you criticise or blame the other parent can be extremely distressing for children. Avoid doing this in front of them so they don't feel burdened by information and details that they don't need to hear.

To help your children to not feel guilty and responsible for the separation, it's especially important to avoid arguing in front of them.

Keeping stability and a routine

Sticking to a daily routine can help to keep other aspects of life as stable as possible. Try to wait before making any other big changes, like moving house or school, to avoid any further emotional and practical disruption.

Encouraging children to see their friends, and keep up with hobbies or other activities, can help them keep some continuity in their lives. Some children may feel guilty about doing 'normal' things and having fun. Let them know it’s OK to do the things they usually enjoy.

Children tend to do best when they are in a stable, predictable environment, and need to know that there are limits (limits they will sometimes test!). Being consistent can help a child to work through things more clearly. It will help if you and your ex-partner agree about discipline and are consistent in how this is carried out.

Accepting support from others

Finding people you can talk to and making sure you feel supported will help you avoid burdening your child with your emotional distress by confiding in them or relying on them for support.

Children benefit from other people's support too. Grandparents or other family members can be an important support to both you and your children when they are worried. If teachers and other important adults in your child's life know about the separation, they can be more sensitive to your child too.

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