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When to tell your children that you are separating

Most parents agonise about how the decision to separate will affect their children. Understandably, they worry about how to break the news and are apprehensive about how the children will respond. This is what happened in three families:

1. Michael, aged 10
Mum and Dad were arguing again and I was in my room, where I usually go when they’re shouting at each other. Then I heard Dad shouting for me and my sister to go downstairs – he sounded really angry and we were a bit frightened.
Mum was crying and pleading with dad to stop and we knew it was bad. Dad said he was leaving and that it was all Mum’s fault and then he left and drove away. We didn’t understand what was going on or what would happen next. We didn’t know when we’d see dad again. 
2. Grace, aged 7
We were having tea, when mum and dad said, “Oh, we’re getting divorced, but don’t worry everything will be fine”. They didn’t really tell us anything else and I was so shocked I didn’t know what to say. I think they were pretending to be cheerful and I could tell they didn’t want to talk about it so we all carried on as normal. Later, mum asked if I was OK and I said yes, but I was crying inside. 
3. Jack, aged 10 and Courtney, aged 13
Mum and Dad said they wanted to talk to us in the kitchen. They looked serious. Mum said they had sad news – they were separating and dad was going to move into a flat nearby at the end of the month.
Dad explained that they had been happy together once and one of the best things was having us children. They had tried to work things out but decided that the best thing would be for dad to move out. Mum said that love between grownups can change and it’s different from the love that parents have for their children. They said Dad would still see us lots; that we could stay with him in the flat and that he’d still pick us up from school once a week. We all cried a bit.

Parents want to get it right and with good reason because, unless they are very young, children will remember how they found out about their parents’ separation for the rest of their lives. It helps if you set aside some time to plan how to break the news.

When to tell the children

The biggest impact on children is from the physical separation, so tell them before it happens. This gives them time to get used to it and ask questions while both parents are in the house. If you’re not sure when the physical separation will happen or if it is not likely to happen for some time, consider delaying the announcement, as there’s a risk your children might think it’s not really going to happen.

How to tell the children

Ideally, both parents should tell the children together. If this is not possible, try to agree on what to say, so that there are no misunderstandings and the children get the same message.

Be prepared – it will still be a difficult thing to do and it might not stop you from feeling upset, but you will be more confident that you are giving the children the information they need. Brothers and sisters can be supportive in a family crisis, so try to have all the children present if you think it is appropriate.

What to say

There are five key things to remember when telling the children.

  1. Tell your children what to expect.
  2. Give them an explanation that they can understand.
  3. Offer lots of reassurance about the ongoing involvement of the parent who is leaving.
  4. Your children will need some time to take the news in. Give them a chance to express their worries and ask questions.
  5. Telling the children is a gradual process. The first talk is just the start of an ongoing conversation.

When you are ready go ahead with the separation, our partners at amicable can help you find an affordable route to divorce.

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