Talking to your children about separation: advice from Relate
"Mummy and Daddy have something important to talk to you about…" With an estimated one in three families affected by separation, thousands of parents each year have to find the dreaded words to tell their children that their world is about to face a seismic shift.
January is particularly significant for troubled couples: calls to Relate's national phone line soar after the Christmas break. So once the hugely difficult decision to split up has been made, how do parents start to change family life forever whilst minimising the impact on children?
It's worth saying straight up that separation is never easy; it's one of the most painful and distressing events that anyone will experience. As individuals, it's usually heartbreaking and confusing, no matter what the reasons for the breakdown of the relationship. And as parents, our words and actions take on a whole new significance during separation, so getting things right from the outset is vital in maintaining and building stronger relationships, and helping everyone to deal with these tough times together and adapt to the ongoing changes in a separated family. Here's some advice from Relate's Paula Hall.
Some things to think about during separation
- Help children to accept the pain
It's important to be optimistic and hopeful when you talk to your children about separation, but just telling them that everything will be fine could leave them unable to share the painful emotions they're feeling. Encourage them to talk about their feelings to you or another family member or friend.
- Be prepared for practical and emotional changes
It's more than likely that there will be two households to support now, so money won't go as far anymore. And if one of you is starting a new relationship then things could be particularly tense. As parents, you'll need to work on communicating with each other from the outset so that your children aren't stuck in the middle of these issues.
- How you manage leaving day can make a difference
The day that you or your partner leaves home will be one that you all remember for a long time. Try and lessen the practical and emotional impact by preparing everyone in advance and being clear about what's going to happen.
- Establish new routines
Children cope best with divorce when they have regular contact with both parents. This includes phone, email and text, as well as face-to-face time. Developing a routine is important, but try and be flexible too as the new arrangements take shape.
- Let them know it's ok to enjoy seeing your ex
Even if you're seething inside when it's time to hand over the children, keep a smile on your face when your ex comes to the door and give them all a cheery wave goodbye. Your children must know that it's fine for them to leave you and enjoy their time with their other parent.
Crucially, let your children know that both parents still love them regardless of everything that's happening. Children need love and reassurance when the world they know changes, particularly in the early days. Be there for them when they want to talk, and try to give them some control over things like which bedroom they have in their new home, and what colour they want to paint it, but also reassure them that the adults are looking after them and that you will all get through it.
Finally, try and make time for yourself and get the support you need. Dealing with the loss of a partner as well as the loss of a dream of living happily ever after is difficult enough, but when you have children relying on you to be at your best, it can feel like the world's closing in on you. Sadly there are no magic answers, but it's really important for you to be as physically, psychologically and emotionally healthy as possible. Talking about how you're doing is a good starting point and will help you to understand where you are and what's next.
Support from Relate
Relate's new campaign, Being Parents Apart, aims to support parents in getting their kids through separation in the best way possible. Mums and dads who are dealing with separation can visit Relate's separation pages for guidance on managing the practical and emotional realities, or can call 0300 100 1234 or contact their local Relate Centre to find out more about our services, such as mediation, face-to-face counselling, courses for parents and children and young people's counselling. The website also offers parents who are worried about their relationships with their teenagers the chance to chat to a Relate counsellor online for free.