4 Things to Consider When Telling Your Kids You Are Separating
By Dr. Kofi-Len Belfon
This part of your life did not come with a manual! We get instruction for everything else…. You get legal advice for the separation. Friends and family have so much to say about your decisions and your ex-partner. But, you just get blank stares when you are looking for support in telling your kids that their parents are separating. Those who had so much to say, now shrug their shoulders and say, “you should consult a professional.” Sadly, I have had far more experience with this lately than I would like. Referrals regarding how to speak to children about separations have always been high in my practice, in part, because approximately 4 in 10 first marriages end in divorce in Canada. While this article is no substitute for getting that sage “professional” advice that Aunt Betty annoyingly recommended, I am hoping it can give you 4 useful things to consider while you embark upon this difficult journey.
1. You might be feeling lost, confused, angry, frustrated, depressed, scared, or all the above. However, when it comes to your kids, the most common thing I hear is that you are worried. Worried about saying the wrong thing, worried that they won’t be able to cope, worried about their futures, worried about your relationship with your kids, and worried about how you are going to be able to support them – financially or otherwise. Although they don’t feel “good,” all these emotions are natural and normal reactions to a difficult circumstance. Remember that you are not going crazy.
2. This is not your fault. Resist the urge – do not subscribe to the notion that you are “selfish” or that you have “traumatized” your kids. You did not ask for this. You would have never married in the first place if you knew it was going to have this end. You are not clairvoyant and could not have predicted this outcome. Thinking this way is just hindsight bias and contributes to more guilt. You have enough of those feelings already. Don’t pile on to it. You made decisions based on the information you had available to you at that time. Decisions are neither good nor bad until after the fact. And after the fact, you can insert whatever cliché you would like – Hindsight is 20/20, etc… I wish you had all the information, but you didn’t, so be gentle with yourself.
3. You will never feel ready to tell your kids. So, you just need to do it. If you and your ex-partner are cordial, tell the kids together. Don’t beat around the bush. It creates more anxiety for kids. They probably already know something is wrong. Their antenna is the size of the CN tower. Just come out and say it and don’t over-explain. Then, they will likely have an array of questions. These are usually concrete questions to start. Why? Where are we going to live? What about school? Where will I keep my PlayStation? Can I still play Fortnite with Johnny? Try to prepare yourself with answers in advance, but only give information that you are asked.
4. Confusion regarding answers to these questions, sometimes leads to children filling in blanks themselves in two ways. First, they might make overgeneralizations (e.g., I can’t trust anyone). Kids will begin jumping to negative conclusions without having an appropriately informed picture of what has occurred. This does not mean that they should have information that should be protected for adults. Rather, inaccuracies should be challenged, and kids should be given a developmentally appropriate explanation for what is happening in their family. Second, they might make excessive use of blame (e.g., I wasn’t a good enough kid). When kids blame themselves, they feel guilty and own adult problems. When they blame adults, they feel angry, which can push you away. The latter can also lead to splitting of parents and can disrupt attempts at co-parenting. That is, colluding with your children’s accusations toward your ex-partner, while perhaps tempting, is not effective. It just leads to them worrying about choosing sides and increases anxiety. For the sake of your child’s emotional wellbeing, you will need to avoid the urge to blame your ex-partner, and refrain from saying negative things about them.
The commonality amongst these points is that you must try to preserve your own emotional wellness first and do the best you can to manage the messaging to your kids and their emotional responses second. This is not a comprehensive guide toward managing separation and divorce. You will likely face many challenges, and your children are not robots - they will be affected by this too. This is expected. Your job is not to protect them from all things, it is to do the best that you can with the resources you have available to maintain emotional wellness during this challenging time of transition.
All the best on this journey.