Depending on the age of the child, realise that this moment might be something that they will always remember – the time you told them that you, mummy and daddy, were going to live separately. It is therefore critical that the news is conveyed with caution.
Here is what you will need to keep in mind and to have in place when and while you are breaking the news.
- Chose the right time. You know your children best so you will know when the right time is. However, before bed is not usually a good idea as this means that they are left with their own thoughts through the night, not the best time to digest such news. You want them to be able to come to you through the day with any questions they may have. Of course they will still think about it when the lights are out and for a long time coming but let’s reduce the pain and stress as much as possible.
- Tell them together wherever possible. This may sound obvious but I have heard of cases where one parent has taken it upon him/herself to talk to the children without the knowledge of the other. This usually doesn’t work out well for several reasons one being that the children think the other parent has already left (if she/he hasn’t then why are they not here at that moment?) and this can change the whole dynamics of the ensuing conversation. If you cannot tell them together for whatever reason, do let the other parent know what, when and how you are intending to tell the children and later as you tell the children, do let them know, from the start that their father/mother knows that you are talking to them.
- Agree on what you will be telling them and how you will be saying it. As we all know, words carry a lot of power and prepare yourselves for questions. Some questions to anticipate:
- Do you not love mummy/daddy any more?
- Where are we going to live?
- Am I changing schools?
- Will I still see daddy/mummy?
- Most importantly reassure them that it is not their fault in any way. Really make sure that they get this. Contrary to popular belief, not all children blame themselves but it does happen, depending on age, and they may not necessarily do so right away so nip that in the bud as you speak with them. You might have to revisit this with them again and again.
- Be honest. If it’s a trial separation then let them know, if it’s definitely going to end in a divorce then let them know that too. Do not, under any circumstances, give them false hope. It is not fair on them to have to relieve the whole thing again, once they realise that you will not be getting back together ever again. Do not promise them ANYTHING. If you don’t have an answer then let me them know that.
- Tell them when you are both calm and have the time to sit through any questions or concerns that they might have. Please don’t rush through it.
- Tell them when you are somewhere safe, somewhere calm and preferably somewhere familiar to them. This way there are neither new nor noisy distractions. They can concentrate on what is going on here and now. Don’t make it a “special” occasion i.e. take them to the cinema, get them whatever they want and then out to lunch in their favourite restaurant and break the news in there. They don’t need any associations with the news i.e. they don’t need to always see a Pizza Express or a Zizzi restaurant and “remember the time when…”
- This is one of the times that you will need to be totally present with your child. Watch them as you speak. Watch their body language and their facial expressions. They can tell you a lot about what is going on within them. Are they fidgety, avoiding eye contact, fighting back tears, curled up. Sometimes these and other behaviours will give you a cue on when to reach out to them physically. “Come here Tom, you look like you could do with a hug right now.” There are some children who might feel that they suddenly need to look after you – “Are you alright mummy/daddy?” Don’t let them parent you this could just be their way of avoiding hearing, processing and dealing with their own anxieties, fears and worries and displacing/transferring them onto you.
- Whatever you tell them make sure it’s age appropriate and use age appropriate words and language. Little ones might not understand a whole account of what is going on while teenagers may need more information. Be ready to explain what divorce means.
- Be prepared to have them come to speak with you at the most inconvenient time….yes, children have a way of finding the strangest time to want to discuss the most difficult things. It could be when you are rushing to leave for work, when you are about to go have a shower or when you have friends over. Bear with them. The timing may not be the best for you but it is for your little one.
Do not, under any circumstances, tell the children to keep what is happening to themselves. This is very heavy news for a child to carry. You have off-loaded onto them, they should be able to do it too and to whomever they chose. They need care, attention and support from you and others around as opposed to them looking after you and your secrets. Anyway divorce and separation is like pregnancy, you can only keep it a secret for so long.
Call me if this is something that you are struggling with at the moment and wish to get it right. We will also discuss how to continue taking care of your little ones and making sure they are alright in this changing world of theirs.