Talking to children about parental separation is a sensitive topic. My best advice is to be honest and consistent. Avoiding this inevitable discussion with children can often result in false promises or the risk of instilling hope that parents will get back together. All the research suggests, children typically want their parents to reunite. This supports my own experience working with families following relationship breakdown. I recently observed an eight-year-old girl ask her father directly, “Are you moving back home with us?” Children are an inspiration in this situation. In response, her father was anything but clear, stating “That’s still being discussed between myself and mummy, but we both love you”.
Clarity is essential for children experiencing parental separation. Mixed messages will only heighten confusion, frustration and anger. In my experience, both children and parents are visibly relieved when the truth has been told, when everyone is in the picture. In many cases, anger directed at parents subsides and children begin to settle into the new arrangements with greater insight and acceptance.
Discussing parental separation is best done in the privacy of the family home. It is best done with both parents and all children present. Parents are encouraged to monitor their own emotional reactions to avoid further impact on the children. Allow them to ask questions and use simple, one-word answers where possible. If the answer to your child’s question is no, say “No”. Don’t cast blame and avoid going into detail about the adult relationship. Focus on the impact the separation will have on the family. For example, talk through school pick-ups and drop-offs if both parents are involved or if arrangements have changed. Children are often hesitant about sleeping in unfamiliar settings for the first 3-6 months, depending on their age. In my opinion, it is best to keep the first family discussion about the separation relatively brief. Children may wish to process the information in their own space.
As the separation continues over time, children will typically test boundaries with both parents. Keeping a consistent set of rules of expectations around screen time, bed time and sibling rivalry is recommended. Family meetings are still recommended when parents are separated to highlight each child’s strengths and to focus on any particular issue. Address one issue at a time to avoid children feeling overloaded and to ensure your family meetings are positive. Give children extra one-to-one attention following parental separation and create more opportunities for physical closeness and nurturing.
Newly-separated couples are typically very sensitive to the needs of their children. In contrast, parents in the latter stages of divorce have been known to barge into their children’s sessions unannounced or cancel all appointments made by their partner on behalf of their children. As a result, the support networks for the children are eroded and psychological damage ensues. Regretfully, our service does not engage families when there is ongoing conflict. We prefer to work with both parents, in separate sessions if necessary, with a common goal of supporting the children.
How can parents help children adjust following separation?
According to the research, the four (4) best methods are:
1. Low inter-parental conflict (Kelly & Emery, 2003)
2. Effective conflict resolution (Shifflett-Simpson & Cummings, 1996)
3. Quality parent-child relationships (Davies & Cummings, 1994)
4. Good communication and cooperation (Hetherington & Stanley-Hagan, 1999).
My top recommend resources and support include:
- Dinosaur Divorce: A Guide for Changing Families. An old favorite book about parental separation especially developed for kids.
- Was It the Chocolate Pudding? A Story for Little Kids About Divorce.
- ‘Doing the Splits’ workshop: Making sense of parental separation. Our workshop is a non-threatening to navigate separation and divorce with kids.
Kimberley O'Brien is one of Australia's most trusted and recognized Child Psychologists with a knack for solving issues from the child's perspective. She is currently Principal Psychologist at the Quirky Kid Clinic in NSW.