Telling your children

Does the child realise what is happening already?
At a time when parents are so stressed out with their own adult emotions and shock, it is easy to forget that children feel these things too but have difficulty in expressing them. You should see them as individuals. From approximately nine years of age, they don't like feeling ignored in decision-making. As they grow older, they tend to have regrets if they were not consulted, not included, sent to their room. Shut out. Although no child, in normal circumstances, wants their parents to live apart, they do have more self-worth if they are given a voice in the proceedings, especially about being able to see the parent who moves out. They should not however have to decide on any major decision. Their comments can be quite startling, very close to the truth.
If only we could see evrything through the eyes of a child.

There is no easy way to tell the children. Perhaps this Lindsay Lohan track, Confessions of a broken heart (Daughter to father) willl warn you of the dangers.
This link opens with the music: Child of divorce music

Should it just be an announcement?
Imagine if you were the child. Have you done everything you possibly can to avoid this separation? Have you read through the Emotional Aid section? Did you read, 'Where's Daddy?' as detailed in our Books section? Can you seek help from anyone else? But are you and your children safe? If you are at all worried, please go directly to Domestic Violence in our Legal where you will find Information about Women's Aid and NSPCC helplines which never close. They are always there for you with support, advice and action. You are not alone.

Just as telling your spouse about your decision to separate is so important (see Emotions), communicating this decision to the children is of equal if not more importance. Even at a very young age, a child can detect feelings in their family. If you have not managed to treat your partner in a dignified and caring way, this will, of course, have a knock-on effect on the children. Everything is connected. All actions have consequences. Try to work together for the sake of the children.

"The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy."
(Martin Luther King Junior)

Do it together
Nobody really wants to hear their child's anger and pain but leaving in a shroud of silence and letting the other partner explain is not helpful. Setting aside your differences as adults, and joining forces as parents, can lessen the impact of this turmoil for all concerned. This is easier said than done but, with hindsight, wouldn't you want to lessen your child's pain? Answer their questions? Make their world seem a little safer and secure?

If you are left to do the explaining.
Try to be calm and gentle. This is something that will always be remembered. Try not to blurt it out but you can forgive yourself if this does happen. You are not superhuman. If you are in deep shock yourself, it is almost impossible to be rational. Look for support. Is there a relative or friend who can come round quickly? Try a neighbour. Just as in any crisis, you will probably need some help.

So take time to plan what you are going to say and, hopefully, talk to the children together. Your relationship may be ending but you are both still parents. A new type of relationship has to be established. There is never a good time to leave but if this is inevitable, choose a time to talk together as a family when there won't be any interruptions. Avoiding special times like exams, birthdays, illness, a new school or new area, can only assist in reducing the emotional distress for all the family. You may think that fighting about your children may prove that you care but be aware that children do not see it this way. Showing that you both can communicate is a better way of showing your love.

Pre-school children

A young child should be cuddled and told the news in simple terms, assuring him that you both love him. If one of you is leaving, describe where it is and arrange a visit. If the child mentions whose fault this is, be sure to take away any blame that he may be feeling. Young children sometimes think that the separation is because of something that they have said or done. If, later on, your child suddenly does not want to be parted from you, this is understandable. Reassure him. You could also see a change in behaviour patterns. He could become quite angry and naughty with other children and seem to regress to types of behaviour you would expect at an earlier age. Bed-wetting could occur. Again, cuddles and understanding are needed. Children can also become a little isolated from their friends as they readjust to the new arrangements. The more you are distressed, the more the child will feel it too but he will be less able to make his feelings known.

"Children's talent to endure stems from their ignorance of alternatives."
(Maya Angelou)

Reassurance that all is well is needed frequently. You should try, whenever possible, to keep to your normal routine. Children feel safe when they are in a routine. Try to be gentle with yourself. Ask for help from family and friends or see below where assistance can be sought. Try to keep communication open between you and the other parent. The more you talk, the easier it will become. The kinder you can be to each other, the better it will be for the children.

Children aged 5-10

As in every age group, children need to know what is happening in simple language.
' We love you,' is what they need to hear. You could try to give a brief explanation of why you are splitting up but be prepared for the child believing it is his fault. There will be many tears and this reaction should be encouraged.
' We are sorry that this is such a sad time. We understand how you feel.'
A child of this age could also believe that he could bring you back together, that everything will be all right. You must be honest, otherwise the grieving process could be put on hold as your child waits for the family to reunite. Outline what new arrangements are going to be put in place.
'Would you like to ask us anything? How are you feeling?'

"The value of marriage is not that adults produce children but that children produce adults." Peter De Vries. 1954

Look out for anger, especially from boys. It would be a good idea to let the school know about these changes. You should get some support here too if you keep them informed; they would then be alert to any behaviour which could cause concern. Is your child behaving as normal at school? Is she still as active with her friends or is she a little withdrawn? Just because she seems to be able to cope at home, does not mean that all is well elsewhere. Try to encourage out of school activities. Try to be involved as much as possible.

Children aged 10 to 12

Children at this age will understand more and will therefore ask more questions. Be prepared. Their reaction could be one of intense anger, especially in boys. They will tend to blame one parent, probably the one leaving. You may even be rejected for a time. One thing is for sure, the anger will be directed at those they love the most.

Even when temper outbursts happen for no apparent reason, try to accept this behaviour. Look out also for the child withdrawing from friends or normal routines. Talk about what is happening. Encouragement and understanding is needed. Make sure that you try to be involved in their activities and with their friends. Invite their friends round as usual; their friends are very important at this age, and, moreover, very comforting. One danger however is to treat the child as an adult, as a close friend, as a support. 'She is my best friend.' 'He is the man of the house now.' This is a natural temptation but you must be the adult. Children love to please you and give you comfort, but they must return to their childhood. That is where they belong.

This is a sign that you may need to call on other adults for help. Children are unable to make you totally happy and you, therefore, must not let them see themselves as failures in this respect. See our Further help section.


"Children begin by loving their parents; After a time they judge them; Rarely, if ever, do they forgive them." (Oscar Wilde)

If there have already been signs of tension and unhappiness in the marriage, your teenager may well have understood this and the separation may not come as such a surprise. You may therefore think that they will behave as adults. But the shock and anger will still be present. Ask for their opinion but do not let them decide any important issues. You are the adults and it is unfair, especially for young teenagers, to assume adult-like worries and responsibilities. It is important for them to express their own sadness and concerns. All children, whatever their age, need to hear their parents saying you love them. You need them. You understand and respect them.

"If you bungle raising your children, I don't think whatever else you do well matters very much."
(Jackie Kennedy Onassis. 1965)

Encourage them to see both parents. It is unfortunate, for all the family, if they are forced to take sides, to choose one parent, to abandon the other. It is not a denial of their love for you if they continue to see or have contact with the other parent when you are so distressed. All communication should lessen the emotional heartache. When there is silence, there is little hope of a solution, little hope of healing. If relationships have been strained before the break-up, you may develop a closer one with your teenager now. It is an opportunity, not an ideal one, but a second chance, something positive. Always look for the positive.

You may be shocked if your teenager wants to leave home; he/she is looking for reassurance from you; she needs to feel wanted. Try not to be angry. She is showing you that she is not happy at home. Reassure her. Look out for signs of increased sexual activity; this too is a way of showing her distress.

"I bend but I do not break."
(Jean de la Fontaine)

Be calm, be consistent and make your intentions and wishes clear. You may be rejected at first but do not give up. If there are problems regarding the family's finances and the legalities of the separation, you could try to work things out, to offer a compromise, to show willing. It may be difficult for your teenager to be stuck in the middle. He/she probably has enough worries of her own without worrying about these adult concerns. These are your concerns. Take care to notice her concerns, to discuss them and to communicate with the other parent. If you can show that you value your spouse, your child will feel better. Any attack on a parent naturally inflicts pain on the child. She feels bad about herself and could stop sharing.

This is not the time for recriminations. Search out adult company. When we turn our back on the other and offer a wall of silence, the family will take longer to heal and to move on.

"There are only two lasting bequests we can hope to give our children. One of these is roots; the other is wings." (Hodding Carter)

You may understand how your teenager is feeling by reading the Teenagers section. If he/she has not already seen this, why not leave him/her a note about it, saying that you could talk afterwards?

Adult children

Many parents forget about grown-up children when they are separating. Not surprisingly, their pain is also acutely felt. What they believed to have been a happy family, the memories they hold, the home they thought that would always be there, has gone. Shock can set in here too. If you have waited until your child was going to college, leaving home or getting married, the emotions are, unfortunately, still the same. The only difference is that his emotions are sometimes overlooked. But was the childhood real or imagined? Was the family happy or just pretending? Did the child cause you to stay together?

As with younger children, your child will ask for an explanation, and some comfort. Reassuring words are needed, especially if he has just started a college course and is away from home for the first time. Student life is demanding for most people and family conflict may make this more difficult. Again, do not expect him to take sides and encourage him to see the other parent. If your separation coincides with a family wedding or other important occasion, it would be advisable to check with your child about his wishes or concerns. You may have got used to the separation but others may still need some time to adjust.

Although they are adults, you should not overburden them with your problems. Seek out other help. Try to remember the good family times which you have shared together. For older parents, there is much information about living alone. Check out Age Concern at or phone free on 0800 009966

A book is available for older women called " Separation and Divorce" (ISBN086242173X) by Tobe Aleksander. Special price £3.95 , as some of the details may be out of date but still contains good advice. Current legal advice should be sought.
Used copies are available via Amazon for 1p plus postage.

Also check out Help The Aged at Their free help and advice line is 0800 269626 There are many good links to both sites.

"The childhood shows the man, As morning shows the day."
John Milton, Paradise Regained

"Perhaps I may record here my protest against the efforts, so often made, to shield children and young people from all that has to do with sorrow, to give them a good time at all hazards on the assumption that the ills of life will come soon enough. Young people themselves often resent this attitude on the part of their elders; they feel set aside and belittled as if they were denied the common human experiences.
(Jane Addams. American social worker. 1910)

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