How do you tell your child you’re separating?

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?

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.


Photo: GettyImages/eclipse_images


Naître et grandir

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