By Emily Hanlon
Thousands of kids experience the stress of divorce each year. Last year alone, between 40 and 50% of marriages ended in divorce. This number doesn’t even include the parents who separated, who were never legally married. Often, when couples separate, children are involved. How children react to the news of separation depends on a number of factors including their age, personality type, and the separation process itself.
**NOTE: The information in this article is based on a few really helpful resources, which I have quoted below. I will offer some general information on managing separation as a family, and then delve into some of the ways I try to help support the families I work with. Please note, when there are issues of domestic violence and court orders are in place, the advice provided in this article will not apply. Please seek the advice of a lawyer and psychologist as to the best ways to help your family and children through your specific situation.
Regardless of how well parents manage a separation, children will undoubtedly be affected in many ways. However, when children are helped through this process appropriately, they are better able to cope with stress and may become more resilient young people.
For parents, the most important things that both parents can do, according to Relationships Australia, are:
Keep visible conflict, heated discussions, and legal talk away from the kids.
Minimise the disruptions to kids' daily routines.
Confine negativity and blame to private therapy sessions or conversations with friends outside the home.
Keep each parent involved in the kids' lives.
Adults going through a separation also need support from friends, professionals, and community organisations. But it is really important not to seek support from your kids, even if they seem to want you to.
Breaking the News to Your Kids
Please never discuss a separation with your children unless you are certain of your plans. Together, talk to your kids about the decision you have made to live a part. There is most definitely no easy way to have this conversation, and the language used will vary depending on the age of your children. However, the message should always be consistent: the separation has absolutely nothing to do with them and is in no way their fault. It is extremely necessary that this message of reassurance is portrayed and received effectively. It is always a good idea however to practice how you're going to manage the conversation with your kids, so you don't become upset or angry during the talk.
Relationships Australia offers the following advice:
Tell your kids that sometimes adults change the way they love each other or can't agree on things and so they have to live apart. But remind them that kids and parents are tied together for life, by birth or adoption. Parents and kids often don't agree on things, but that is part of the circle of life — parents and kids don't stop loving each other or get divorced from each other.
Give kids enough information to prepare them for the upcoming changes in their lives. Try to answer their questions as truthfully as possible. Remember that kids don't need to know all the reasons behind a divorce (especially if it involves blaming the other parent). It's enough for them to understand what will change in their daily routine — and, just as important, what will not.
With younger kids, it's best to keep it simple. You might say something like: "Mom and dad are going to live in different houses so they don't fight so much, but we both love you very much."
Older kids and teens may be more in tune with what parents have been going through and might have more questions based on what they've overheard and picked up on from conversations and fights.
Managing Your Child’s Reactions
Undoubtedly, whether they show it in the moment or not, children are upset about the news of separation. It is important to empathise with these feelings and reassure them that their feelings are OK and completely understandable. You may also want to let them know that even though you have decided to separate, you are both also feeling upset about the situation.
That being said, not all kids react right away and may need time to process the conversation. It is equally as important to let these kids know that they are always welcome to talk to you about the situation when they are ready. Some kids may to please their parents by acting as if everything is OK or try to avoid any difficult feelings by denying that they feel any anger or sadness at the news. Often, this builds up stress and can portray itself in other ways such as changes to their appetite, behaviour or sleep patterns.
Before you have the conversation with your children, be prepared with answers to the most common questions. These questions may include:
- Who will I live with?
- Where will I go to school?
- Will I move?
- Where will each parent live?
- Where will we spend holidays?
- Will I still get to see my friends?
- Can I still go to camp this summer?
- Can I still do my favourite activities?
By having the answers to these questions, children will feel like you understand the impact this is going to have on them and have genuinely thought through this situation. You may not have the answer to every question, and letting them know this is OK, but try to be as prepared as possible.
Helping Kids Cope with Separation
With any separation comes grief. Grief can be associated with children missing the presence of both parents and the family life they once had and enjoyed. Because of this, it is extremely common for some children to hope their parents will someday get back together, even after the finality of divorce has been explained to them.
Relationships Australia offers the following ways that parents can help children cope with the grief associated with separation:
Encourage honesty. Kids need to know that their feelings are important to their parents and that they'll be taken seriously.
Help them put their feelings into words. Kids' behaviour can often clue you in to their feelings of sadness or anger. You might say: "It seems as if you're feeling sad right now. Do you know what's making you feel so sad?" Be a good listener, even if it's difficult for you to hear what they have to say.
Legitimise their feelings. Saying "I know you feel sad now" or "I know it feels lonely without dad here" lets kids know that their feelings are valid. It's important to encourage kids to get it all out before you start offering ways to make it better. Let kids know it's also OK to feel happy or relieved or excited about the future.
Offer support. Ask, "What do you think will help you feel better?" They might not be able to name something, but you can suggest a few ideas — maybe just to sit together, take a walk, or hold a favourite stuffed animal. Younger kids might especially appreciate an offer to call daddy on the phone or to draw a picture to give to mommy when she comes at the end of the day.
Keep yourself healthy. For adults, separation and divorce is highly stressful. That pressure may be amplified by custody, property, and financial issues, which can bring out the worst in people.
Seeking Help from a Professional
Help from a psychologist will also assist children in processing their feelings about the separation. Psychologists are trained to help children manage their emotions, regulate their emotions, and appropriately express their emotions. It is however important that both parents are on board and will consistently implement any suggested strategies that the psychologist may suggest.
I cannot stress enough how important consistency and routine are in helping children deal with divorce or separation. No matter the animosity you may feel towards your ex-partner, you have children together, and therefore MUST work together for the sake of your children. When possible, try to minimise unpredictable schedule changes, transitions, or abrupt separations.
Behavioural changes are important to watch out for and a psychologist may help you keep track of these changes. The most common ones to keep an eye out for are any new or changing moods, anxiety, school-related difficulties, social problems, changes in appetite, and changes in sleeping patterns. Older kids and adolescents may also be vulnerable to risk-taking behaviours such as alcohol and drug use, skipping school, and other defiant acts.
One strategy I always try to implement in cases of separation is A Place to Call My Own. In my opinion, children need a place of their own and a space to store their belongings in both homes. This is your chance to get a little creative but include your child in the process. Find a way that works for you, where your child can have some ‘me space’ even if they have to share a bedroom. Ideas may include a cubby house or tepee, or even a specific cupboard just for their toys. It really depends on your child’s interests! If they have an avid interest in reading, for example, you may want to set up a little reading nook with a bean bag, some comfy pillows, and a small bookshelf.
Free Handouts and Links
I use a lot of the FREE PDF Downloadable resources from The Family Separation Hub. They have so many amazing free resources for you to download including handouts on improving communications, building children’s self-esteem, helping children talk about their feelings, helping children adjust to separation, and so on. There are 10 free downloads in total. To access them, click on the link below:
Parenting Positively: For Parents of Children Between 6 and 12
Parental Separation from an Adolescent Perspective
The books I tend to use frequently in therapy are linked here:
Helping Children Coping with Divorce
The Invisible String
When Mom & Dad Separate
The following books may also be helpful to parents experiencing divorce or separation:
Helping Your Kids Cope with Divorce the Sandcastles Way by Gary Neuman
Does Wednesday Mean Mom’s House or Dad’s?: Parenting Together While Living Apart by Marc Ackerman
The Fresh Start Divorce Recovery Workbook: A step-by-step program for those who are divorced or separated by Bob Burns
What Children Need to Know When Parents Get Divorced by William Coleman
Coparenting After Divorce: A Handbook for Clients by the ABA Family Law Section
Getting To Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In by Roger Fisher et al.
Caught in the Middle: Protecting the Children of High-Conflict Divorce by Carla Garrity & Mitchell Barris
Impasses of Divorce: The Dynamics of Resolution of Family Conflicts by Janet Johnston
In the Name of the Child: A Developmental Approach to Understanding and Helping Children of High-Conflict and Violent Divorce by Janet Johnston & Vivienne Roseby
Mom’s House, Dad’s House: Making Two Homes for Your Child by Isolina Ricci
How to Avoid the Divorce From Hell and Dance Together at Your Daughter’s Wedding by Sue Talia
Crazy Time: Surviving Divorce and Building a New Life by Abigail Trafford
Getting Past No: Negotiating Your Way from Confrontation to Cooperation by William Ury
Surviving the Breakup: How Children and Parents Cope with Divorce by Judith Wallerstein
What About the Kids? Raising Your Children Before, During, and After the Divorce by Judith Wallerstein & Sandra Blakeslee