What to tell the children: parenting after separation

Nicky Lock

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.