Children and separation

Separation can be devastating for families. What’s the best way to break the news to young children, and how can you help them adjust? Is there an ideal custody arrangement? What do separated parents have to say? Here’s some advice to guide you.


How do you tell your child you’re separating?

Separation can be difficult for parents, but it can also be hard on young children. What’s the best way to help them get through this challenging time?

By Julie Leduc

Separation can be difficult for parents, but it can also be hard on young children. What’s the best way to help them get through this challenging time?

Before breaking the news to their children, parents should take the time to decide together how things are going to work in terms of custody, child support, and so forth. A mediator can help ensure that both sides make fair decisions.

“Research shows that it’s not their parents’ separation that’s traumatic for children, but the way that separation occurs," says social worker and family mediator Lorraine Filion. How parents conduct themselves has a major influence on how their children react.

Parents are entitled to five hours of free family mediation.

Since young children don’t yet have a firm grasp on the concept of time, it’s best not to announce a separation too far in advance. According to Filion, a week or two before one of the parents moves out is ideal. Here are a few tips:

  • If both parents are up to it, they should break the news together. As difficult as it may be, they should try to keep their emotions in check and be respectful to each other to keep from upsetting their child.
  • Use simple terms. For example: “Mommy and Daddy are not in love anymore, so we’re going to separate. But we still love you, and we’ll always love you.”
  • Explain what’s going to happen. For example: “Daddy will live here, and Mommy will live in another house. Sometimes you’ll live with Mommy, sometimes with Daddy.”
  • A few days before the move, remind your child that one parent will be leaving. It’s also a good idea to let kids see where the other parent is moving to.

“Parents should also reassure their children that they will always be there to take care of them,” says psychologist and family mediator Harry Timmermans. “Before the age of five, children need to know their parents will always be there for them. They need to spend time with them and see them getting along.”

Potential reactions

When you break the news to your child, your child may cry and say he doesn’t want it to happen, even in the days following the announcement. Filion suggests consoling him by saying: “I understand that this isn’t what you want. It’s hard for us too, but we think it’s for the best.”

At the beginning of a separation, if it makes things easier for the child, it’s okay to let him call the absent parent every day. “Even if it’s just to say: ‘Hi, I love you!’” says Filion. “Hearing the other parent’s voice lets the child know that that parent hasn’t disappeared.”

Parents should avoid shouting or arguing in front of their children, as this can be upsetting.

Separation can also cause children to regress. For instance, some may start wetting the bed again or talking like a baby. “This kind of reaction is normal,” says Timmermans. “The child is trying to go back to a time in his life when things were simpler.” It’s a coping mechanism. Some children may also become more aggressive and bad-tempered because they don’t know how to express their emotions.

These behaviours will last as long as it takes the child to adapt to his new family situation. “If one of the parents isn’t doing well, cries a lot, or feels extremely frustrated and angry, the child will have a stronger reaction,” says Filion. “That’s why it’s important for parents to get help.”

Managing the effects of a separation

To limit the negative effects that a separation can have on children, both parents should aim to be in regular contact with their children and spend quality time with them as much as possible. “When children are young, it’s more important for them to see their parents frequently than for long periods of time,” says psychologist and family mediator Harry Timmermans.

Parents should also try to maintain their children’s routines and do their best to talk to each other calmly and respectfully in front of them. When a parent criticizes or badmouths the other parent in front of their child, the child ends up feeling torn. “Children shouldn’t have to choose between their parents,” says Filion. “They have the right to love them both.”

You should also avoid telling your child that you’ll be lonely or sad when he goes to stay with your ex. Instead, tell him you hope he has fun. This will let him know it’s okay to enjoy himself and have a good time.

6 tips from separated parents

How do you stay good parents even after a separation? Parents share their advice.

How do you stay good parents even after a separation? Parents share their advice.

1. Communicate

“We text regularly to keep each other up to speed on important events in our daughter’s life. For instance, I might send my ex a picture of Sandrine because she just lost her first tooth. During changeovers, we also update each other on different topics. If I need to check something, I do it right away—I don’t let things pile up.”
- Anne-Marie Loiselle, separated for two years, mother of seven-year-old Sandrine

Some parents also keep a kind of custody journal. “A journal is a good idea,” says psychologist and family mediator Harry Timmermans. “But sometimes, when the situation is complex, writing doesn’t cut it.” Ideally, when parents are worried about their child, they should talk about the issue in person.

2. Be respectful when talking about your ex

“My ex-wife left me for someone else. Although I was frustrated at first, I never badmouthed her. I know how important she is to my kids. My parents separated when I was 11, and they weren’t on good terms. It was super stressful for me, and I didn’t want my kids to go through that. With me, no topics are off-limits. My kids can talk to me about their mother, her boyfriend, and what they do together—they know it won’t bother me.”
- Blaise Bélanger, separated for three years, father of five-year-old Olivia and three-and-a-half-year-old Benjamin

“It’s essential to always be respectful when talking about the other parent,” says Lorraine Filion. “If parents feel hurt or angry, they should talk to a friend, support group, or professional, not their child.” Children should also feel that it’s okay for them to like their parent’s new partner.

3. Ask for help

“We went to family mediation to settle the details of our separation. It allowed us to listen to each other and talk without shouting. But for mediation to work, you have to have good intentions. For us, our children’s well-being was the key. We decided to stay friends for them.”
- Steve Gollain, separated for three years, father of seven-year-old Coralie and ten-year-old Mathys

Family mediation can be very useful in helping parents decide on custody arrangements, clarify their roles after the breakup, and establish their responsibilities. “The sooner you go, the better,” says Timmermans. “It’s easier to come to an agreement when you haven’t let years of tension build up.”

4. Work as a team

 “All the money we receive from the government for our children goes into a joint account. We use it to pay for things like child care and school expenses. We go to school meetings together. And if I have to take one of our kids to the emergency room when they’re with me, I leave my other boy with his dad. We’re still full-time parents, and we help each other.”
- Catherine Langis, separated for two years, mother of four-year-old Ludovic and six-year-old Guillaume

“Parents can also decide in advance who will go to which appointments (e.g., doctor, dentist, daycare),” says social worker and family mediator Lorraine Filion. “The parent who goes to the appointment, however, should report back to the other one by email or phone.” This is important because decisions sometimes have to be made about medications, treatments, or interventions.

5. Stay in contact without invading the other’s privacy

“FaceTime lets me keep in touch with my daughter when she’s with her dad. If Kelly starts to miss me at bedtime, her dad sends me a text to see if we can video chat, and I always say yes! It takes two seconds, and it reassures my daughter. But we respect each other’s private lives, and we wait for Kelly to ask.”
- Tanya Crépeau, separated for three years, mother of four-and-a-half-year-old Kelly

“You and the other parent can agree ahead of time that you’ll call at seven o’clock to say good night, for example,” says Filion. However, make sure your child doesn’t stretch out bedtime by constantly asking for the other parent. Children can also keep a picture of their parents in both of their bedrooms. Some also bring an article of clothing with them that smells like their mom or dad, like a sweater, to help them get to sleep.

6. Accept that the other parent will do things differently

“At first, my ex-wife was upset that I had less of an eye for fashion. I don’t think it’s important for our daughter to be dressed to the nines. Now, we each have our own set of clothes for Victoria. Even if we don’t do everything the same way, the main thing is that our daughter is healthy and happy to stay with either parent.”
- Marc-André Balmir, separated for two years, father of three-year-old Victoria

“Parents are two different people even when they live together,” says Harry Timmermans. “Children are better off for their parents’ differences, and they’re capable of adapting to different ways of doing things.”

Separation: By the numbers
Parental separation is common in Quebec. Let’s take a closer look.

In Quebec, four in ten families undergo a separation. “More and more people are separating, and having children doesn’t prevent couples from splitting up,” says Marie-Christine Saint-Jacques, a professor at the School of Social Work and Criminology at Laval University. Saint-Jacques notes that parents are also separating earlier on, which is to say, when their children are young.

For instance, by age six, 22 percent of children born in 1997–1998 in an intact family saw their parents separate, according to an analysis conducted by the Institut de la statistique du Québec (ISQ) using data from the Québec Longitudinal Study of Child Development (QLSCD).

Even though shared custody is increasingly common, most children live under a different arrangement. “Based on the statistics, children tend to spend more time with their mother,” says Saint-Jacques. According to the same ISQ study, at the time of their parents’ separation, 40 percent of the children were living under shared custody, while 53 percent lived only with their mother. Among those, 35 percent saw their father on a regular basis (every month, every week, or every other week).

Which custody arrangement is best for your child?

It may not always be easy to agree on a custody arrangement with your ex, but it’s important to put your differences aside and focus on the needs of your child.

By Nathalie Vallerand

It may not always be easy to agree on a custody arrangement with your ex, but it’s important to put your differences aside and focus on the needs of your child.

Experts agree that, after a separation, children should continue to see both parents. First, because they love both parents. But also because parents complement each other in terms of what they can teach their child, and because it’s good for the child’s development.

The Divorce Act stipulates that children should have as much contact as possible with each parent. “This principle is very important in court,” says family law lawyer Claudia Prémont. “The judge takes it into account when making a decision in a child custody case.”

Access to a mediator

Parents are entitled to five hours of free mediation to agree on child custody and other issues. Social worker and family mediator Lorraine Filion highly recommends taking advantage of it. “During a breakup, emotions take over and it can be hard to talk to each other,” she explains.

A mediator helps parents communicate. “In addition to helping parents determine child custody, mediation can also help them sort out other details, such as who’s going to buy the clothes and who’s going to make the doctor and dentist appointments. What happens if your child is at Mom’s place on Father’s Day? Deciding on the small things in advance can help prevent arguments down the road,” says Filion.

When mediation isn’t enough

If the parents cannot find common ground, a judge will decide their custody arrangement for them. “The judge will base her decision on the child’s best interests,” says Prémont. “She will look at various factors, such as the child’s age, health, relationship with each parent, the parents’ schedules and parenting skills, and so forth, and come up with a custody arrangement based on the child’s particular situation.”

Whether or not a child is breastfed will also affect the judge’s decision. “The judge will take into account the fact that the child is breastfeeding,” says Prémont. “That said, a mother cannot use breastfeeding as a reason to keep the father from seeing his child.”

Prémont notes that some parents insist on putting their interests before those of their child. “It’s a shame, because nothing should come ahead of the child’s well-being.”

Shared or split custody?

 There are two types of custody: shared and split. With shared custody, children spend 40 to 60 percent of their time with each parent (146 to 219 days a year). With split custody, they spend more than 60 percent of the year (more than 219 days a year) with one parent.

Contrary to what many people believe, split custody isn’t limited to the traditional “every other weekend at Dad’s and the rest of the time at Mom’s.” Other options include five days with one parent and two days with the other.

Is either custody arrangement better than the other?

What does research say about how a child’s well-being is affected by the type of custody arrangement? “You can’t generalize, because every family’s situation is different,” says Amandine Baude, who reviewed multiple studies on the subject during her postdoctoral fellowship in psychology at Laval University.

According to Baude, the quality of both the relationship between ex-spouses and their parenting has a greater impact on their children’s well-being than the custody arrangement. “Children need parents who are there for them, who listen to their needs, who shelter them from their conflicts, and who support their relationship with the other parent,” says Baude.

Shared custody is becoming increasingly popular, but is it the best option for young children? It’s hard to say: studies on young children are rare, and the few that have been done offer contradictory results. Baude still thinks that shared custody can work if a child has developed a strong bond with both parents. “For a long time, people thought babies only formed this kind of bond with their mother. We now know that babies bond with both their mother and their father if both parents take good care of them.”

Whenever possible, young children should see both parents on a regular basis.

If shared custody is the chosen arrangement, young children shouldn’t be away from either parent for too long because they have no sense of time and their memory isn’t fully developed. “Before the age of three, alternating one week at Dad’s and one week at Mom’s is too long,” says Filion. “It’s better to alternate every two or three days.” This allows young children to grow closer to and create a lasting bond with both parents. In the case of split custody, it’s good for the children to see the other parent often, even if only for short periods.

Changing custody arrangements

As time passes, circumstances change, and children start school, custody arrangements can stop making sense. To establish a new custody agreement, parents are entitled to 2.5 hours of free mediation. If the parents are on the same page, the process is fairly simple. If not, it can get complicated, and they may need a judge to settle the matter for them.

“Amending a custody agreement in court is not easy,” stresses Prémont. There must be a significant change in one of the parents’ situations or in the child’s needs. Proof is also required that the new arrangement is in the child’s best interests—in other words, that it will have a positive effect on him. Things are much simpler when the parents can reach an agreement out of court!

When one parent refuses to be involved

Should you try to maintain the relationship between your ex and your child? It’s better to start by trying to understand why the other parent is bowing out, according to social worker and family mediator Lorraine Filion. For example, one parent may become discouraged and step away if the other has difficulty sharing time with the child or wants everything done a certain way. According to Filion, accepting differences in parenting may encourage the other parent to stick around.

Of course, a parent may refuse to be involved for other reasons. “Sometimes, inviting your ex to come play with your child from time to time can preserve the relationship,” says Francyne Tessier, a psychotherapist at Réseau d’aide aux familles en transition. “It’s important to present the opportunity as an invitation, not an obligation.” Keep in mind that, the more time passes, the harder parents may find it to reconnect with their child.

Helping children adapt to their new living arrangements

No matter the custody arrangement, your child’s day-to-day life will change. Here are some suggestions on how to make the transition easier.

No matter the custody arrangement, your child’s day-to-day life will change. Here are some suggestions on how to make the transition easier.

  • Encourage the relationship between your child and her other parent. In the early stages of a breakup, it’s normal to hold a grudge or not want to see your ex. But nothing has changed for your child, and she needs to see both her parents on a regular basis. “That’s why decisions that concern your child should be made based on her needs and not to spite your ex,” says Francyne Tessier, a psychotherapist at Réseau d’aide aux familles en transition. For instance, if your child is missing her other parent, feel free to let her call.
  • Remind your child of what’s going to happen. Reassure her by giving her concrete information using words she can understand. For example: “Tomorrow, you’re staying at Mom’s. You’ll get to sleep in your new bed!”
  • Try to create a positive atmosphere when switching from one home to the other. When changeovers go badly and parents argue, the child can end up feeling responsible for the separation. “When that happens, it’s better to make the changeovers in a neutral location,” suggests researcher Amandine Baude. For instance, one parent can drop the child off at daycare in the morning and the other can pick her up at the end of the day.
  • Set up similar routines. Routines provide young children with stability and security, so you should try to maintain them as much as possible. “Parents should agree on the broad strokes, without being inflexible,” advises social worker and family mediator Lorraine Filion. “So long as your child’s needs are met, you have to accept that the other person does certain things a different way.”
  • Resist the temptation to interrogate your child. What did you do on the weekend? What did you eat? Did anyone come over? “It’s not a good idea to ask your child a lot of questions to find out what she did with her other parent,” says Francyne Tessier. “It might stress her out, especially if she feels like what she says upsets you.”
  • Reassure your child during changeovers. If your little one has a favourite blankie or stuffed animal, be sure to pop it in her backpack when she’s switching homes. “You can tell her you put a lot of hugs in her stuffy,” says Tessier. “That way, the stuffed animal can give her a hug for you when she’s at her other house.” Showing and telling your child that you love her can make changeovers easier.


Naître et grandir

Source: Naître et grandir magazine, November 2018
Research and copywriting: Julie Leduc, Nathalie Vallerand
Scientific review: François St-Père, psychologist and family mediator


Photos : (in order) GettyImages/eclipse_images, Maxim Morin, Nicolas St-Germain, GettyImages/dariazu, Maxim Morin, GettyImages/vasyl_dolmatov