Ask an expert: 'How do we tell the kids that we’re separated?'

Q: MY husband and I have decided to separate. For the last number of years, we have drifted apart. The reasons why, I will keep private.

We tried counselling last year and came to realise that we both wanted out of our relationship. So we are no longer a couple but we live in the same house. He moved out of our bedroom a few weeks ago and now sleeps in the spare room. Every morning we pretend to the kids that we share the same bed. We haven’t told them yet as we are still so uncertain of what the future holds. They are aged 12 and 10.

The problem is that, for the short term, neither of us can afford to move out. We haven’t discussed which one of us will stay in the house. It’s so stressful to think about the future. I never imagined I’d end up a divorced parent. I get so anxious sometimes that I can’t breathe or feel like I’m floating in the air. Every weekend I stay one night at my sister’s to get a break and it’s such a relief to be away from the house. I’m really worried how to explain all this to the children, who are still so young. I’m afraid it will break their hearts.

Answer: The process of ending a marriage is devastating for both partners. It impacts your social, financial and emotional life. The experience evokes grief, guilt, shame and anger. Staying in a demoralising relationship for the sake of the children does not work. Teenagers who come to me often say they are relieved that their parents separated because there was so much misery in the home.

The longer you and your partner stay in limbo, the longer you delay dealing with the difficult process of your marriage ending. You both need to make an appointment with a trained couples’ mediator who will help you explore the logistical, financial and practical aspects of the separation, including how to parent your children in a way that will cause them minimal disruption and conflict. Remember that they didn’t choose to separate from their parents so try to always keep their interests at the heart of the process.

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Once you have made definite decisions about who is living where and are certain that these plans will happen, it’ll be time to sit down and tell them. This is probably one of the most difficult parts of the process. I would recommend both of you telling each of them alone in their own home. This means that one sibling is not caretaking the other and has space for themselves.

You can gently prepare them by saying that you need to have an important talk. Make sure it’s not too close to bedtime as they’ll need time to process it in your company. The first questions children have about divorce are usually practical, such as “Who is moving? When? Where? When will we see you both? Can I stay in my school?” So I would recommend holding off on telling them until all those pieces are firmly in place. Be prepared for any reaction from a shrug to shock to an angry walkout. Don’t offer to buy them a new phone or a holiday as a bribe. This will only create confusion and overwhelm.

Because you are in the crisis phase of separation, you are living in fear, uncertainty and confusion. It is no surprise you are struggling with anxiety. You sound as if you are shocked at where your life is going. I would recommend you see a therapist so that you have somewhere to go to feel more in control of your future.

Often in a separation, one partner wants to leave more than the other. By having someone non-judgemental to talk to, you won’t end up dumping negative thoughts on your children.

I know you are concerned about how this will affect your children. Research shows that they do well in direct relation to how well their parents manage the separation process. Your children are now at the transition from childhood to adolescence. Their psychological maturity will make the experience of separation more complex for them.

They’ll be aware about divorce and know that it means the end of their parents’ relationship. Younger children can develop self-blaming beliefs and have frightening fantasies. Some children side with one parent against the other as a way to manage their divided interpersonal loyalties. It’s important that the parent who is in favour does not collude by becoming a parental alientor as this will only create further anxiety in the child.

READ MORE: Single parent’s teen survival guide

Older school children transform feelings of sadness and helplessness into anger as this is easier for them than feeling vulnerable. They can act out at school or against a sibling. Or their academic progress will stall. They can also appear emotionally detached from the whole divorce process as if it has nothing to do with them.

Parents and other adults may think that the child is doing well and is not being affected by the separation. She seems happy and helpful at home apart from getting into some trouble at school. Another way this age group can show their distress is through physical complaints such as stomach aches, headaches, etc. This is not melodrama or attention seeking. This is where silent, emotional pain replaces real, physical pain.

Children have the capacity to adapt and thrive in challenging family situations as long as one or both parents remain receptive and attuned. By understanding how separation affects young people, you can start to create a relationship where you can connect and support them through this turbulent transition.


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