Telling Children About Separation

08 October 2022

How to tell your children about separation

The decision to separate is final. But the question remains: how do you tell your children about it?

The early days of separation are often the most difficult. It is hard because people are freshly grieving the ending of a relationship. It has also been described with such emotions as blame, fear and mistrust.

Telling your children about the separation is a genuinely delicate matter. It needs to be planned carefully so that the children understand what is happening, why, and how things will change in their lives.

Tell them with both parents present, if possible

Having both parents present is vital as the child might blame the parent that is not present. When children see their parents working together to have a conversation like this, it tells them that both are still their parents. It is helpful when telling children about the separation that they know this aspect won’t change.

Children can see when you are working together, and that will help them through the process. You will also want to keep the information about the separation very general. Sharing details about the process can confuse your children.

Try telling them that adult relationships are complicated and that the decision to live in different houses could be beneficial. Try not to place blame for the separation on one parent as this could make the child feel like they have to pick sides.

Provide assurance

Child on Stairs

Above all else, children need to hear that they are not to blame for the separation. You also need to remind them that both of you love them. If you have come to parenting arrangements, share that information with them. Having a calendar can be a helpful tool for telling children about separation as well.

If you don’t have the details of a shared parenting plan yet, make sure to assure them that you are working together. Let them know that they will be cared for and that you will both get to spend time with them.

Another question that may come up is if they can stay at the same school or if they’ll have to move. It is wise not to make any promises about this, especially if you are having financial difficulties. Tell them that you don’t know at this point, but that you will let them know when you know more.

People can become attached to the family home even if they are no longer in a position to afford it. It might come from a place of good intention, but if you can’t afford it, don’t risk a deep financial burden that could be harder on you and your children.

Their sense of security and comfort comes from knowing that you are okay. Reassure your kids about any routines when you can. Things like, “Dad will continue to take you to hockey.” This can be reassuring for your child.

Older children might need to be told separately

Parents telling older girl about separation

While telling your kids about separation can be somewhat straightforward, older children are a different story. If you have children with a big age difference, consider telling them separately. Older children often have more questions, and it might not be appropriate to answer those in front of younger children.

Make sure that you have a communication plan with your older children. Talk to them about keeping this news off of social media, that you need time to tell others, and you don’t want them to hear it through social media.

It is also important not to confide in older children about problems in the relationship. This can sway them to one side, and that is never a good thing.

The do’s and don’ts of telling children about your separation

Telling children about separation

  • Do not say: “Mommy doesn’t love daddy anymore,” or vice versa. Children might interpret love as something you stop doing. This might lead them to wonder if you will stop loving them as well.
  • Instead, try: “We don’t love each other in the same way that married people should. Sometimes, moms and dads have problems and they can’t fix them, so they decide to live in separate houses."
  • Don’t say: “Mommy/daddy is leaving us.” You don’t ever want to give your children the message that their parent is leaving them. Children often have uncertainty and fear about these situations, especially in the early days. Even using words like split and break up can leave children feeling afraid and anxious.
  • Try: “We will be living in different houses. We are going to make sure that you spend time in both houses and you can figure out what you want to have in your room at mom’s and at dad’s house.”
  • Don’t say: “Who do you want to live with?” There is a lot of misinformation about the age at which children can decide where they want to live. Asking them where they want to live is a lose-lose question. This can make children feel like they have been put in the middle and they might feel torn knowing one of you will be hurt.
  • Instead, try: “We wanted to check in to see how you feel about your schedule? What can we do to help?”

Other tips

If at all possible, stay in the house for a little while after they have been told. This can help to provide assurance to your children that you are both still there for them. It will also give them the chance to ask questions or express themselves once the news has set in.

Counselling can be a helpful tool for children, particularly early in the transition process. Some couples seek advice early on to help their children through the process.

This process also does not mean that you have to hate one another. Continue working towards positive communication. Pre-plan conversations with your children and you can help to ease some of those early challenges.