Watching their parents divorce or separate can be one of the most difficult experiences any child will have to go through.
The reality is, that for many children, seeing their parents separate will be the toughest thing they have encountered so far. Understanding how divorce can affect children and knowing what you can do as parents to help them adjust, can enable you to take the necessary steps to ensure that the sometimes bumpy road to having two parents who are no longer together, runs as smoothly as possible.
Children react in different ways
There is no ‘normal’ way for a child to react when they hear that their parents are separating.
Shock is not unusual. Often, children will be confused, too. Depending on their age and level of understanding, they will probably have a great deal of questions.
Anxiety is also common, as the only family that they have ever known is changing forever, in a big way.
The emotions that children feel when they find out their parents are separating, can result in everything from sleepless nights to temper tantrums. Often it is difficult for children to articulate their feelings in words, especially if they are young.
Break the news together if possible
If you can, you and your partner should tell your children about your separation together. This way, you are showing a united front, so the children don’t think that it is just one parent’s decision and that the other parent is unhappy or to blame. This can help to reduce conflict and anxiety for the children.
It’s important to break the news in an age-appropriate manner. How much detail you tell the children and how you explain the situation, will depend upon their age. It is good to agree together upon the level of detail and what you are both going to say before speaking to the children. If you are in any doubt as to what to tell the children or as to the level of detail, guidance can be sought together from some of the organisations referred to in the link in the comment at the end of this article.
It’s also important to explain to them that the separation is not as a result of anything that they may or may not have done but simply as a result of the fact that their parents may not be living in the same house in the future.
Stick to the practicalities
Children will want to know what this means for them. Explain to them that, for example, they will now be lucky enough to have two homes, one with one parent and one with the other.
Informing children of how everything will work will help to provide certainty and stability for them which will help them to feel less anxious about the future.
Answer any questions
Encourage your children to talk about any concerns they have. Reassure them that if they have questions at any time, they can ask either you or your partner.
Ensuring that children are able to talk freely about the situation, without being worried that they will upset either parent, can help to make sure that small concerns don’t turn into big problems. Keep the dialogue open by regularly asking your children if they want to talk about anything.
Tell them you both love them
Maybe most importantly, reassure your children that both you and your spouse still love them and nothing will change that. It is not unusual for children to think that it is something that they have done wrong that ended your relationship. Make sure that they are clear that this is not the case.
Be respectful of your partner at all times
No matter what the differences may be between you and your partner it is important to always speak positively of them in front of your children. It is natural for children to want to please both their parents. Any divisive or negative comments, therefore, may cause them to internalise any conflict between the two of you which may have a negative and long lasting effect on them.
Neil Graham, a Partner at Grayfords, comments as follows: “The interests and welfare of the children should always be the most important consideration when relationships break down, not only when the day to day arrangements for them in the future are determined but also when their needs are considered as part of a resolution of the financial consequences. Whilst we at Grayfords have extensive knowledge and experience of the legal remedies and processes involved in each of these two areas we recognise the importance, first and foremost, of trying to resolve any differences by agreement either in the form of mediation or alternative means of resolution before resorting to legal proceedings. Alongside each of these processes, there are practical ways in which parents can assist by minimising the impact of the breakdown of their relationship on the children such as some of those referred to in the article above or such as attending a Separated Parents Information Programme, full details of which are available via the following link: https://www.cafcass.gov.uk/grown-ups/parents-and-carers/divorce-and-separation/separated-parents-information-programme/
We have also produced a book which may be of assistance both to parents and to children, the proceeds of which go to the Evelina Children’s Hospital. Full details may be accessed via the following link: