How to Tell Your Kids about Your Trial Separation

family counseling

You have weighed the pros and cons and decided to try a trial separation. Now, how do you tell the kids?

Dr. Justin Coulson suggests these do’s and don’ts:

  • Don’t: lie, ask them to keep a secret from the other parent, be negative, blame the other parent, beg.
  • Do: tell the truth, keep it simple and age appropriate, be civil, assure them it has nothing to do with them, remain future focused, allow the kids to love both parents.

Relationship counselor and therapist Elisabeth Graham adds that before having the conversation with the kids, parents should practice together what they will say to the kids.

Dr. Gaies and Dr. Morris, in their book, Mindful Co-Parenting, offer some specific suggestions:

  • Tell the kids no sooner than 1 month before and no later than 2 weeks before one of the parents move out.
  • Most kids want 3 questions answered: What is happening? Is it my fault and can I fix it? Who is going to take care of me? Answer their questions.
  • Talk to the kids together, if possible.
  • Use a calm approach to explain the reasons and the plan going forward.
  • If both parents cannot do this together, then their messages should be the same with no blame cast on the other.
  • Keep the details minimal, non-specific and age appropriate.
  • Focus on the positives of having 2 homes.
  • Tell them what will stay the same in their lives: school, etc.
  • Reassure them that both parents will still take care of them and still take them to baseball, scouts, dance, soccer, etc.
  • Don’t dwell on what might happen at the end of the separation, just focus on now.
  • Seek counseling, if possible, for the kids to help them work through this change.
  • Watch for signs of distress and seek help for the child.
  • Tell them that you love them

John Hoffman for TodaysParent.com gives an age-specific guide for telling your children about your divorce or separation:

  • Babies and toddlers are totally dependent on their parents and really have no concept of the divorce nor can they express themselves. Preschoolers, however, have developmental skills that can affect how they react to the separation. They have started to develop skills of independence and can begin to express some of their feelings. They still have a limited ability to understand cause and effect, feel the world revolves around them, and cannot plan for future events. Three and four-year-olds can draw inaccurate conclusions regarding the separation. Since they are still self-centered, they can think that the missing parent has left them and not the other parent.
  • Parents need to be aware of behaviors in their preschoolers that might indicate they are struggling to cope with the separation: irritability, being clingier and whinier, changes in their sleeping patterns. Parents need to provide consistency and stability for their young children. They need to stick with their regular routine as much as possible, even when they are with the non-custodial parent. Explanations of the change in a living situation should be kept to a minimum, with simple answers and basic information.
  • Older children have more developmental skills. Six to eight-year-olds can talk more about their feelings, have developed outside relationships and can begin to be less egocentric. Nine to eleven-year-olds have even greater skills with language, expressing themselves, understanding things outside of their immediate world and have more outside social contacts. Children in this age group are able to show fear, anxiety, anger, and sadness about the situation. It is common for children in this age group to believe that the separation or divorce was their fault. They also believe that their parents will reconcile. Again, stability and consistency are important to children in this age group. It is important to keep their routine and schedule the same. Allowing them to talk about their feelings is another important approach for parents to take.
  • By the time children reach twelve to fourteen years of age, they have a greater ability to understand complex relationships, express themselves and ask pertinent questions about the separation or divorce. They also place increased importance on their outside social relationships and strive to be more independent. Children in this age group can show increased anger towards one or both parents. Their moods can be more irritable and unpredictable. Parents need to keep communication at the forefront. Children may appear to be disinterested in talking or interacting with their parents, but most want communication and attention from their parents.

The author suggests three key factors in telling your children at any age about an upcoming separation or divorce: establish a strong relationship with the other parent and with the children, use positive parenting approaches, keep conflict away from the children.

The parent-child relationship can suffer especially when the parent is struggling with the many issues of the separation and divorce. The non-custodial parent’s relationship often suffers because he/she has less daily contact with the children. Parents need to respect the role of the other parent and work hard to maintain open communication with their children.

Positive parenting skills can sometimes go by the wayside when the parent is suffering emotional issues related to the separation and divorce. Parents need to keep their personal issues with the divorce away from their children and only focus on the children and their best interests. Enrolling in parenting classes can also be a great step to improving your parenting skills.

Keeping conflict away from the children can be accomplished by not discussing adult issues in front of the children, not using the children as messengers, respecting the privacy of the other parent, exchange important information in writing and respect the time your ex spends with the children.

Dr. Gary Chapman stresses the need for the parents to not only tell the kids they love them, but to seek out ways to make the child actually feel loved by the parents. This might vary for each child, but it is important for them to feel loved in order to help the child through this difficult adjustment period.

Dr. Lisa Herrick encourages parents to have follow up conversations in the days and weeks following and to be attuned to behavioral issues, emotions, etc. It is best to keep a united front as parents, opting to deal with things together, if possible.

There are some really great articles that offer similar advice, some even offering guides per age group and scripts of what to say to your kids. Regardless of where you get your information, if you follow the advice of the experts, you should be more prepared and more comfortable in having this conversation with your kids.

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