When divorce and separation occurs, children will experience a wide range of emotions. Telling your child that you are separating or divorcing has to be one of the most painful conversations a parent will have with their child. However, it is important to remember that most children can make a good recovery from the stress of the separation providing that the separation is handled sensitively by the parents.
Talking to children about divorce/separation
There is never a good time to break the news but it would be best to tell a child about a divorce or separation several days before one of the parent’s moves out of the primary residence. Both parents must be responsible and remember that by managing the process together in a sensible manner, it will give their child the best chance of a healthy recovery. If parents are unable to tell their child together, it is important that you try to discuss with the other parent (before you tell your child) so that you are both relaying similar messages. This is important because more often than not, a child will speak to the other parent and may test that parent as to what has been said. However, there may be times where one parent may have a different opinion to the other and may blame the other parent fully for the breakdown of their relationship. Try to be considerate towards your child’s feelings and try to see the situation through your child’s eyes. Remember….whatever the causes of the separation, and whatever the circumstances, it is hard on everyone involved! It is important to leave feelings of guilt, anger or blame out of the conversation no matter what the cause of the separation is!! You do not need to tell your child what you think of your ex-partner even if your ex-partner has been having an affair with your best friend. Children are not prepared to listen to parents’ negative feelings about each other. No matter what the other parent has or has not done, children are far better off when parents act respectfully toward one another in their presence.
Divorce ranks second only to the death of a very close loved one, therefore, children of all ages can grieve for quite a long time for the loss of the family that they knew. Children are often shocked and confused after the initial conversation and they will not take everything in, your child will need time to process the discussion. Therefore, give your child space, you and your ex-partner have probably been talking about separating for some time, your child is just learning about it and needs time to decipher the news.
Guilt and Blame
A child’s reaction after the shock and confusion may then turn to self examination and blame. When a child hears that their parents are separating it can shatter their trust because once your child realises that trust can be broken, they will immediately begin to look for other situations to doubt. For example, they may believe that if their parents can fall out of love, then their parents could stop loving them. In particular, small children often feel that they must be to blame and that they are responsible for the separation of their parents. In their immaturity, they often link separation to some naughty behaviour of their own and will try to put the family back together. It is important to empathise to your child that what has happened between you and your ex-partner is not your child’s fault and keep on reassuring them that you love them and will continue to love them.
Denial and Fantasy
The idea that life is changing can often lead children into being reluctant to acknowledge a separation or divorce. A child may change the subject when you try to talk to them or choose not to tell others, such as friends or family. They may resist spending time in the other non resident parent’s home because it makes the situation more real for them. The feeling of being rejected by a parent’s departure will often trigger thoughts such as ‘one day mummy and daddy will get back together’. It is important that your child realises that sometimes adults can change the way they feel about each other so they have to live apart. Older children may be more in tune with what has been going on and may have more questions, again, it is important to answer their questions sensibly.
Anger is quite often an associated behaviour to separation or divorce, a child may test limits or break boundaries. They may even tell a parent that they hate them or blame one parent for the relationship breakdown. Young children, in particular, cannot understand separation and will tend to react emotions such as bewilderment, sadness and grief. Before a visit to a non resident parents’ home or even during and after visits, they may be clingy, cry or withdraw from a parent. At the end of the contact visit they may display emotions such as anger or be withdrawn and sad, toddlers may show other symptoms such as behaviour problems or regressive behaviour.
Be prepared for questions!
Let your children know about the changes they are about to encounter such as where they will live, who they will live with, when they will get to see their family and loved ones. Re-assure your child that they can ask questions and they can talk to either parent about anything which is worrying them.
Do not interpret the emotions of a child to mean they do not want to see a parent!
We have not listed every emotion as each child is different to the next depending on their maturity and understanding; however, we have demonstrated some of the types of emotions which children can experience when going through separation or divorce. It is important to understand that a young child’s emotional behaviour as a result of separation or divorce does not mean that a parent has harmed a child during a visit or that a child does not want to see the other parent. Unfortunately it is a common occurrence after a separation or divorce for parents to misunderstand these types of emotions which children can go through and as a result contact is terminated between the child and the non resident parent. Your child needs both parents after a divorce or separation, it is their right to see each parent and by preventing contact or having long drawn out court action can be more damaging to a child than the actual divorce or separation itself.
The contents of this article are intended for general information purposes only and shall not be deemed to be, or constitute legal advice. We cannot accept responsibility for any loss as a result of acts or omissions taken in respect of this article.
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