This is the third blog looking at practical realities of making arrangements for children as part of a divorce or separation. You can also look at the blog looking at what arrangements you need to make and also a blog looking at whether children can cope with having two homes and two bedrooms.

Another question we get asked is how do we tell our children we’re separating?  It is not unusual for couples to come into family mediation and use their first session to explore how they tell their children that they are separating and use mediation as a structured place to create a plan for this conversation.  It’s a conversation that might happen in the early stages of a planned separation or further on down the road of divorce when the physical separation (when one parent moves out of the family home) is getting nearer.

It is difficult to plan this conversation because often parents are not sure how they’re children will react. But it can help to give some thought to things like this:

• When and where will you tell your children about your separation?
• How quickly will you do this before the physical separation happens? Will there be a period of adjustment between the conversation and the moving out? Do you intend to stay living together in the immediate future?
• Will you both be present for the conversation (it helps if you can be)?
• What are you going to say?
• What key messages do you want to get across?
• What are you going to do after this conversation? Will this change if your children are very upset? Will it change if they are not initially as upset as you thought they might be?
• What questions might they have? How will you answer these? It can particularly help to give some thought to what you might say if they ask why you’re separating.
• It can also help to give some thought to your children’s experience of separation. Do they have friends whose parents have separated? Is this something that their friends talk about positively or negatively. What view might it have given them about separation?

  • It can also be useful to research additional support for your children either through your GP, through their school or privately in the community if you feel they’re struggling with issues arising out of your separation or divorce.

We are often asked what kind of things people should say when telling their children that they are going to separate. At that initial stage it can be a lot for your children to process so we usually suggest keeping it fairly simply but answering any questions that your children may have. It can help to have key messages that your children take away from your conversation and we suggest the following as key themes:

• Reinforcing to your children that they are and always will be loved by you both.

• Making it clear that they are free to have a relationship with both of you going forwards and that you are both happy about this. This needs to be a really clear message that comes through all your communication and isn’t complicated for your children by mum grimacing when we talk about dad, or dad rolling his eyes when we talk about mum. Children pick up on verbal and non-verbal communication and they are usually very tuned into what’s happening between you after this conversation, or even before this where they were aware that you were not getting on.

The separation is not their fault. This is a tricky one because often parents don’t want to introduce this idea in case their children did not think this and gives them an idea they hadn’t thought of. But it’s common for children to think that if they had behaved better, not fought with their sibling or not played up at bedtime that their parents might still be together. These are concerns that they may not voice and so it’s really important that you are able to reassure them that it is not anybody’s fault.
• Make sure they know that they can come and talk to you both about this at any point that they have questions.
• Give them a voice in the arrangements that happen for them. This is not the same thing as a decision making responsibility but allowing them to say what’s important for them and to shape arrangements that concerns them e.g deciding what colour their bedroom at the other parent’s house might be. You can also address concerns they may have such as whether they will have to pack a bag to have at each parent’s house etc.

It may be a lot to children to take in and it is often helpful to look out for changes in their behaviour in the days, weeks and months that follow to see whether they are withdrawn, anxious, angry or displaying any other behaviour that you feel is a little out of the ordinary. If you feel your children are struggling at any point then having a conversation with their school or your GP to talk about what help is available can be really useful. Sometimes it’s helpful for children to have an unconnected person they trust to talk to.

You may also find these blogs helpful:
A simple way to think about co-parenting
Your wellbeing in a separation – giving and getting support

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