What to tell the children: parenting after separation

Sadly I work with couples from time to time who decide that the only way forward for them is to separate permanently, usually divorcing  at some time in the future. One can only grieve over the brokenness of this world that manifests in such situations. Often once the decision to separate is made, couples believe that there is no further point to attending counselling: counselling was sought to save the marriage and that goal has not been achieved. However I strongly encourage couples to continue with their counselling at that point to ensure that they separate as well as they can, particularly for the sake of the children. Children are truly the innocent victims of marriage breakdown – research shows that living in an intact marriage is generally the healthiest place for children to be raised, unless the marital conflict is violent and frequent.

Apart from creating a stable, predictable environment where the parents treat each other with respect and keep children “out of the middle” of the separated parents, one important area for consideration is what and when to tell the children.

Numerous parents I have worked with baulk at being the one to tell the children about what is happening. The “leaving” parent may have already left the marital home and leaves the task to the parent who is left behind caring for the children on a daily basis. Or the one left behind feels that since they were not the one to instigate the marital separation that they should not be the one who has to break the sad news: it is the other person’s fault so they should be the one who deals with the children’s distress and in some way is seen to carry the blame in being the parent who tells.  None of this jockeying helps the children.

Children need clear, age appropriate information given at the right time. Ideally both parents will tell the children together an agreed statement that explains the situation in truthful ways that does not place the blame on either parent. Some parents will explain something like “Sometimes Mummies and Daddies stop loving each other and decide they can’t live together any longer. This doesn’t mean they would ever stop loving you (the child)”. Not giving this information soon enough leaves children in a place of confusion:  younger children at the ego-centric stage of development can believe that they are responsible for the problems in the marriage, or develop underlying anxiety problems due to their inability to make sense of the situation.

This can be partially mitigated through good communication:

-- Tell children about separation and divorce together if possible

-- Children need information and reassurance about how they will be affected by changes

-- Children need reassurance that they are not to blame for divorce

-- Questions should be answered honestly while avoiding unnecessary details

-- Discussions are in terms that children understand

-- Avoiding terms such as ‘custody’ and ‘access’: instead talking about ‘living with’

-- Encouraging children to talk about the impact of the divorce and their feelings as a result.

This is not the time to attempt to protect the children by NOT telling them what is happening: they will sense the underlying disturbances and pick up more than most parents realise. In the midst of their own pain and confusion, parents need to be brave enough to tell children the truth, sensitively and with wisdom.

This is indeed a heavy responsibility when making the decision to end a marriage: seeking support and praying for wisdom at this time may help.

Nicky Lock, BSc(hons) Grad Dip EFT PACFA reg., Senior Counsellor and Clinical Consultant, and a lecturer and author of counselling courses.

Comments (13)

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  • David Pettett
    November 22, 11 - 2:03pm
    Thanks Nicky for this reminder to speak openly and not put the kids in the middle of a marital dispute.

    It doesn’t stop at the point of separation either. The kids will have questions later on. "When will Daddy come back to live with us?" Events will happen that they will be wondering about. “How will we celebrate Christmas this year?”

    In answering these questions the parent stays focused on the child; the anxieties, the doubts, the fears, and doesn’t try to make the child part of the dispute between the parents.
  • Robert James Elliott
    November 22, 11 - 2:19pm
    Thank you for sharing this Nicky. I tred around this subject in fear as I know one divorced couple with 3 children. It is all so sad. Again, thank you for writing on this very difficult issue. RJE
  • Nicky Lock
    November 23, 11 - 7:41am
    @ David - yes you're right in pointing out that the separated/divorced couple will always be the parents of their children and the working together in that doesn's stop at the point of separation. The parents of the young man in a young couple I know separated when he was 8, but there were still issues to deal with at the engagement party and wedding about the divorced parents 20 years later. It is one of the ironies of separation and divorce, that the couple who were struggling to get on together are then forced into the incredibly difficult task of shared parenting and all the negotiating that involves. However there is help at hand: government funded Family Relationship Centres,including the ones run by Anglicare in Parramatta and Nowra,offer excellent courses on parenting after separation. Another option as I mention above is to get some counselling with your local Christian relationship counsellor to discuss post separation parenting.
  • Robert James Elliott
    November 23, 11 - 8:17am
    I do not want to open a controversy here but I also find it hard, as a friend, to deal with my two divorced friends, who have 3 children. I do not understand why they split - there does not seem to be a reason or another person - and yet I cannot help think less of them because their children range from 10 to 16 and are clearly not taking it well. Is there a resource for how the friends of the divorced are supposed to behave? I have so far done all the right, non-judgmental, politically correct stuff, but I feel less inclined to talk to either of them now as I cannot believe they would leave their children in this position.
  • Nicky Lock
    November 23, 11 - 10:00am
    @ Robert. Yes it is always hard to deal with when a friends' marriage ends for many reasons. It is difficult, near impossible, to understand looking on from the outside, about what has happened in the marriage. Even as a counsellor, when i hear much of the story,I cannot really work out what is has been like to live in the painful marriage that is described.Given that you may have supported your friends (if you knew about what was happening to them) in the lead up to the separation, I think once a couple have made a final decision what we can do is to love and support them through what will be a very difficult time for both of them. I guess it is much the same as any other sin that we see in our friends - whilst we may talk with them about it, if they decide to continue on that path, we are not to be in the position of "judge". Mostly I am sure they will have done much soul searching, and they are the ones who are answerable to God for what they have done.
  • Sandy Grant
    November 23, 11 - 10:03am
    Robert, as I have said previously, I have found Cath Lamb's materials published here very helpful in my own pastoral ministry.

    What I know about divorce

    Sadly her article on Caring for Divorcees seems once again to be lost in the archives of Sydneyanglican.net. It used to be at http://sydneyanglicans.net/archive/indepth/caring_for_divorcees/ but this seems broken.
  • Robert James Elliott
    November 23, 11 - 12:34pm
    Sandy: thanks for your assistance.

    Nicky: I did not mean to come across as judgmental, as if somehow I know all. However, having always known the man and woman as husband and wife, it is impossible to "un-know" them. It is very hard and yet I do not want to cut either of them out of my life, albeit to the degree I see either of them, I see him more than her, because of a previous history in the armed forces.
  • Nicky Lock
    November 23, 11 - 5:30pm
    @ Sandy: I still have a copy of that article which I could email to people if they want it. Or maybe we can get it re posted on sydneyanglicans since it is a great article?
    @ Robert - yes I did hear that you are doing your best not to be judgemental - but you are struggling about how to think about them. I think it will just be hard and awkward as everyone goes through the grieving of the relationships that were - and can never be again.It will get easier with time.
  • Nicky Lock
    November 23, 11 - 5:33pm
    Here are some points from Cath:
    Get to know a situation and don’t assume anything. In complex situations like divorce, every story is different. Some leave; others are left. Some physically separate from their partner because they want to put boundaries around unacceptable and injurious behaviour and constructively rebuild the relationship; others separate in order to finish the marriage. Some agree on where responsibility lies for the major issues between them; others disagree. Some take responsibility for their end of the relationship; others, bitterly blame their partner. Some choose to divorce; others have no choice. Some have harmonious settlements; others protracted court battles. Some have experienced physical, verbal or emotional abuse, sexual infidelity or major deceit within the relationship; others have not. Some people forgive too quickly, excusing behaviour and not allowing themselves to acknowledge the injuries they have suffered; other people struggle for years with bitterness, anger and a desire for revenge. Some reject Christ; others run to Christ for comfort and strength.
    2. Stay relationally connected. Make an effort to stay connected, even when the two parties in the marriage break-up need a lot of space. Whilst close friends often provide most support, comfortable social connections with people in the broader Christian community are vital for maintaining a sense of belonging to the church. Some people find that hanging out with ‘happy
  • Nicky Lock
    November 23, 11 - 5:34pm
    A couple more:
    Listen well and respond to immediate need. The healing process is not something you can plan or structure. Issues surface and demand attention at different points in time. Today may be a time for feeling anger about injuries received, and to forgive; tomorrow, a time to face your own failings. Immediately after separation, people often need to give attention to practical needs, such as housing, rather than relational issues. It is often most helpful to listen in a matter- of-fact way, to hear what it is like for the person, and respond to the immediate issue at hand.
    4.Offer alternative perspectives respectfully. Recognise that you may not know the whole story or fully understand the relational dynamics between the two parties, even if you are close to the persons involved. Offering insights or an alternative perspective about the situation is best done with respect and in the context of long-term support
  • Russell Powell
    November 25, 11 - 7:32am
    Apologies friends, our recent back-end upgrade has moved some stories. Cath's article 'Caring for Divorcees' is now here . She also has a reader's essay in the forthcoming December edition of Southern Cross on this subject.
  • Robert James Elliott
    November 25, 11 - 4:59pm
    Thanks Russell.

    Nicky: thank you for that -- I especially liked the line about "grieving" over the relationship's breakdown. That is exactly right and it also includes the friends who did not see it coming or really understand it.

    I was troubled - in a good way - by Cath's comment about helping to craft the divorced couple's "public story". I am not sure how to do this without entering into the rights and wrongs of the split. Unless I am misunderstanding this, which I may well be.
  • Nicky Lock
    November 28, 11 - 10:01pm
    @ Robert - I think the crafting the public story is about telling the public a story that is not dishonouring anyone and yet gives enough information to stop people gossiping and speculating about what might have happened.