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Our Favourite Ways to Discuss Divorce/Separation with Children

Not all relationships are meant to last, but when children are involved you also need to find the right time and the right way to approach the difficult conversations


No one enters a relationship expecting it to fail, or breakdown - but sometimes, things don't go to plan. When there are children involved it often takes longer to figure out what you are going to do and how you can make the split as amicable as possible for the children. There will be a multitude of reasons that relationships break down, but it's important for children to know that they are not the reason, and to help them understand what the change means for them.

There are many families today that have chosen not to get married, but separation in these relationships can be as difficult as divorce, and can alter the worlds of the children involved to similar levels. In all cases of separation and divorce, the children need to be a main point of discussion.

We spoke to Denise, a family and relationship counsellor at the charity Relate. Relate is a charity that supports individuals and families through a variety of difficult scenarios from bullying and domestic conflict to rebuilding relationships and listening when no one else seems to understand. We asked Denise how to talk to children about a significant change in your relationship and this was the advice she had to offer.

While some of this advice may seem difficult to action when you're in the situation, it is important to take a step outside and remember that, wherever possible, working as a unit will help children understand and move forwards more positively. In some situations, there are legal issues that may stop you from working as a team, but if this is not the case, do everything in your power to work together for a greater end result.

Separation and divorceWhen you're sure, you're sure

There are times when relationships are tense, but that doesn't mean that divorce or separation will be the ultimate result. Once the decision is made, it's time to tell the children. While you may think you've hidden the tension well - or managed not to fight in front of them - it's likely that your childrenwill have noticed something isn't the same. It might be that you've stopped doing things together as a family or that silence remains where conversations used to monopolise dinner time. When you know that reconciliation is no longer an option, it's time to tell the children.

Discuss everything in advance

Don't enter into conversations without thinking about the outcome you want and the outcomes that might evolve. Look at how you can shape the conversation and how you can be ready for whatever question is thrown your way. Decide if there are certain things you don't want to discuss or if there are parts of the conversation one of you is more comfortable with. This will help you reign in the emotions and feel more confident going into each discussion.

Work together as a unit

Where possible don't tell the children things on your own. Make sure both of you are there and have discussed how you want to position things with the children. Discuss beforehand how you see the future working, and think about how that will affect the children both emotionally and practically. This can be difficult to do when you're in the process f separating, but putting aside your differences and working to a common goal will make the situation a little easier to deal with in the long run.

Think about everyone it will affect?

When you're in the moment, it's easy to forget that your immediate family are the only people that will be affected. In most cases, there will be grandparents, close friends and - in some instances - neighbours. These people are your support network, but in a separation, people can take sides. You depended on these people in the past when you were together, so managing your separation in their eyes is important not just so that they are still there, but also so that they remain steady for your children.

It's easy to speak out in anger and blame your partner for the breakdown of your relationship, but in the spirit of keeping things solid for your children be mindful of what you say and who you say it to. Decide upfront how you want to tell both sets of grandparents, and if possible, tell them together. If you are both there to answer questions, it's easier for everyone to see things from both sides and to hear that you have made an effort to resolve things.

Remember that where step families are involved, there is an extra set of relationships that you need to consider between children and extended families who may not see each other all the time anyway. Consider how you will handle this in advance as it is bound to come up in the discussions and many children will want to know that they will not lose touch with step-siblings.

Use appropriate language

First and foremost, make sure that your children understand that they are not the reason you are splitting up and that you both love them, even if you can't live in the same house. This can be something that seems so simple but in the heat of the moment it's easy to forget.

You and your partner will know your children best, so you will know if they are more emotionally tuned or more practically tuned. As they get older there may be more of a mixture, but choosing age appropriate language is key. If your child is used to hearing "try harder to get along" when you talk to them about siblings, this is language they understand.

Be mindful in conversations that you take the responsibility for your own actions, rather than having your partner apportion it for you. For example, "I had an affair" is better than "*** had an affair".

Think practically

While you might be concentrating on the emotional side of things - and how your children will feel - don't be surprised if the first things they express are practicalities. Questions like - "will I still see mummy?", or "will I have to go to a different school?", or "will Teddy be able to come with me to your house?" are not uncommon. They will be thinking about how this will change their tomorrow, not their life.

You may also find with older children that they express relief - if the household has been noticeably tense, or filled with raised voices for a period of time.

Be honest

While children don't need to know all of the gory details, if they ask questions, be prepared to answer them honestly (remembering age appropriate language). If they ask a question you don't know the answer to, don't make something up on the spot. Tell them you don't know but you'll find out.

Telling lies, no matter how small can come back to haunt you later on, so stick to the facts and be careful not to let anger cloud your responses.

Lines of communication

Communicating with children

Regardless of what arrangement you come to in regards to where the children live, make sure that they know you are both there to talk to and let them know how to get in touch. If they are living with one parent, make sure that they know what phone they can use and how to call the other person. Make sure that they understand they can call any time - and don't need to ask permission. If you are the parent who is not living with the children, make sure that if they call, you are available or that you call back in a reasonable period of time. They need to know that 'out of site' doesn't 'mean out of mind'.

Note: If you or someone close to you is affected by separation or divorce and needs help, please visit www.relate.org.uk for more support.

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