The decision to separate or divorce is an incredibly challenging one, in part because of concerns about how to tell children, but how you share the news can ease the road for everyone. An empathetic, reassuring approach can help your whole family cope in a healthy way and lets your children know you are always there for them. Let’s talk about how to tell your child you’re getting separated.
As you talk with your children, think about how you can be sensitive to their age, their stage of development, and unique emotional needs.
1. Set up for a quality conversation
Be sure you’re emotionally ready to talk with your children, and ensure the timing is right too. If you, your partner, or the kids are tired or stressed, wait until everyone is better rested and calm. Ensure you’re not rushed and that the conversation isn’t too close to bedtime, especially for younger kids. Have the meeting in a comfortable place, such as your family’s living room or dining room.
2. Be honest, but limit the details
Sticking to the truth builds trust and maintains a sense of safety with your child during the transition. But keep your explanations simple and age-appropriate. Too much detail can burden your little one’s heart and make them worry more than they need to. You might say something as simple as, “Your dad and I haven’t been getting along very well and feel it’s best to take a break for a while.” or “We’ve been having a hard time staying calm and loving toward each other, so we’re taking time apart until we can do that again.”
3. Reassure them and express your love
Children can sometimes jump to conclusions and assume they play a role in the separation. Make sure your child knows that they’re not the reason for your separation and that the change is outside of their control. Tell them how much you love them and how you will continue to love them every day, no matter what. When kids feel unconditional love, they feel safe and free to share their emotions — even in challenging situations.
4. Talk about logistical changes
Where will each parent live? Who will take the kids to school? Be sure you go over the main changes to your child’s daily or weekly routines. When children understand what is (and is not) changing for them, they feel more secure and confident. If they ask questions, do your best to answer honestly, but it’s okay if there are some questions you can’t answer just yet. The important thing is that they know that when you have answers you will share them.
5. Avoid negative talk about your partner
While there might be tension between you and your partner, it’s important to shield your child from the turmoil as much as possible. Conflict can cause stress, and negative words about your partner can build resentment in children and make them feel like they have to “pick sides.”
6. Care for their emotions
Understanding and talking through your child’s feelings is critical to helping them processing any life change.
You may sense that your child feels sad, angry, or confused. Show empathy through simple statements such as, “I know this must be hard.” and “It’s OK to be sad. I am here for you in that sadness.” By being there for them emotionally now, you’re showing them that they matter and that they can trust you with their feelings.
7. Give them time
Some kids might process the change quickly and be able to share their emotions right away. Others might need space and feel sad later in the week, or have questions in the morning. Take your child’s lead and be there to help them process the news at their own pace.
8. Seek additional support
When parents separate, a range of feelings are typical, including anger, anxiety, and sadness. If your child seems to be struggling as time goes on or you notice sleep issues, trouble at school, frequent outbursts, or withdrawal from activities and people they love, consider getting help from a child therapist or pediatrician. These experts can help your child process the change in a healthy way, leading to your child’s long-term resiliency.
- Daniel J. Siegel, M.D., and Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D. The Whole-Brain Child. Random House, Inc. 2011. Print. https://www.wikihow.com/Tell-Your-Child-You-Are-Separating.
- Dona Matthews Ph.D.”How to Tell Your Child You Are Splitting Up.” Psychology Today. May 18, 2019. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/going-beyond-intelligence/201905/how-tell-your-child-you-are-splitting.
- Gina Kemp, M.A., Melinda Smith, M.A., and Jeanne Segal, Ph.D. “Children and Divorce.” HelpGuide. November 2020. https://www.helpguide.org/articles/parenting-family/children-and-divorce.htm.
- “Traps Divorced or Separating Parents Should Avoid.” Healthy Children. American Association of Pediatrics. September 11, 2014. https://www.healthychildren.org/English/healthy-living/emotional-wellness/Building-Resilience/Pages/Traps-Divorced-or-Separating-Parents-Should-Avoid.aspx.