How do we tell the children?

Telling children that you are splitting up is painful and difficult. You may have already worked your way along the difficult path to the decision to separate or divorce. Your children are only just starting out on a journey that you may have more or less completed. It will often come as a great shock to them, even if they have already suspected that it might happen.

What you have to do is extremely difficult for any parent and very painful for the whole family. In facing up to it, try to remember that many parents have had to do this before you. And, on a positive note, if this is done with love and care by the two of you together, the children can survive it without too much damage: as long as both follow it up with the same long-term love, care and consideration for your children as you did when you were partners.

You know your children best and are in the best position to think about their frame of mind and to look at what you both feel will be the most appropriate way of dealing with the situation. There are no hard and fast rules for how you should break the news. One of the difficulties is that you may hold very different views about the state of your relationship. It is, of course, very common for one of you to be clear that the relationship has broken down and the other to want reconciliation. Being sensitive to this with the children is one of the hardest challenges, but it is essential that they receive one clear explanation of the situation and are not asked to choose between competing views or judge who may be to blame. There are some important factors that are common to all children:

  • You need to consider their need for security; they need to know that you will both always be their parents.
  • They need the opportunity to express themselves and their feelings in whatever way they feel able. This could be anything from extreme anger to complete silence.
  • You will need to weigh up whether you tell each child on their own, all together or a combination. You need to make a joint decision as to which way both of you feel will be the best for your children and for you as their parents.

Telling the children together

If you can manage to speak to them together, this will give an opportunity to them to see you you’re not blaming each other, that they don’t have to take sides, and that you are both still there for them.

Think about your own emotions. Will you be able to do this without getting into further conflict between the two of you? If you feel you can, then try to think through together the sort of questions your children will be likely to ask. How will you answer them? Decide which questions you may not be able to answer and how you will explain that at the moment you do not know all the answers.

Even if it is not possible to speak to them together, try to agree a common form of words so that they can trust you are not undermining each other, or drawing them into any argument.

Where to do it?

At home is best if possible. It will feel safer for children and if they are upset they can show their emotions. If you are away from home, your task, and theirs, is much more difficult. Think about how you can make physical, emotional and practical space for children to show their emotions. Allow plenty of time so that you can cope with the immediate reactions, and remember to be available at all times for delayed reactions.

Be honest…

Don’t hedge and don’t retract what you have said because they’re upset. This will only cause more pain later by setting up false expectations that cannot be realised. It is important to be reassuring; but without making unrealistic promises. This is a very difficult task for parents, as we never want to feel that we have deliberately upset our children

?…But be realistic about what your children can understand

Think about what your children can understand at this stage. They are not adults and their perception and understanding are at a different stage. And remember: you are the people they love most and are closest to in their whole world. That won’t change for them. They do not need to hear from either of you the faults of the other.

Allow children to express their emotions

There may be tears, anger, pleading, promises of good behaviour, fear, bravado, denial. Don’t try and stop this. Simply tell the child that you understand and know that it hurts, but you will try to help them so that it hurts less. Make sure they understand that what has happened is not their fault and not because of anything they have done, but a decision made between their two parents.

Give them information – but not too much

Give them details of future arrangements if these have been decided. Probable timing of events can be helpful for older children, but do not overwhelm them with too much information at first. Keep information to what you judge they can take in initially. Think about the age of each child and your own close knowledge of their level of understanding and be guided by that.

You can tell them, if you wish, that you’re going to see people to work out what is best for all of you and that you will tell them as soon as you know anything, if this is appropriate. Be specific, but don’t over-explain. Try not to involve them in the solution or decision-making unless they are old enough, and even then be aware that many children still prefer their parents to be arbiters of what is best for them.

If one of you is moving out

It can help to involve the children in the move. Show them around your new home, and where their room will be when they visit you. Children worry a lot about the parent who is moving. Will he or she have enough to eat? Will they be all right? Involving them can reassure them and make sure that the worries are minimised. Of course, it may not be possible to do this, if for example, the parent is moving away. If this is the case tell them together what the visiting arrangements are if you know them so that they feel reassured that they will be seeing you regularly.

Talking it over

It can be helpful for children to talk to their friends. They may well have parents who have separated and can be reassuring. Watch out if your child tells no one and be prepared to reassure them yourself that what is happening often happens in other families too. Ask them if they know anybody in the same situation. Tell them that you understand that sometimes it’s difficult to talk.

When your children talk to you, don’t be surprised if they tell each of you quite different things about the same situation. They will want to show their love and loyalties to you both, and also, sometimes how cross they are or how unhappy. If you can manage as adults to keep talking to each other through this, it will help the children to understand that you remain, as their parents, united in your concern for them.

Reassure the children

Reassure children that you will both go on being their parents. The fact you and your partner are unable to get on well together any more does not in any way alter your feelings for them. Make sure you tell them that you will be always be their mother and father, and that your love for them will always remain the same.

In mediation we can talk about this important issue of what you should say to the children when you separate. Contact Frances or Charles at Progressive Mediation 0117 924 3880 or

The happy medium

When your relationship has crumbled, and you want to cut your ties as soon as possible, it seems easy to head straight to a divorce solicitor. But there is another way.

Mediation is a calmer and cheaper way forward. As part of a radical rethink in the way that divorces are handled in this country mediation is being promoted as the first port of call for anyone considering separation. The Family Justice Review which was published on the 3rd November 2011 has recommended the creation of a Family Justice Service to include increased provision of mediation at an early stage to prevent cases going to court unnecessarily.

Anyone considering making an application to the court to sort out arrangements for children or finances following separation will be required to attend an initial Mediation Information and Assessment Meeting(MIAM) with a mediator so that an assessment can be made on the most appropriate way forward, for instance by working through a parenting agreement in mediation. If there are children involved the parents will have to attend a Separated Parent Information Programme (SPIP) to discuss ways of minimising conflict and increasing communication between parents, with the expectation they will then attend mediation after. It is only after they have attended a MIAM and SPIP that they can make an application to the court. There is concern not only about the huge amount of public money that is spent on divorce and separation but also about the long-term effect on children and society of separating couples who remain in conflict for years after their separation.

A family mediator will sit down, and work out with a separating couple how to divide any assets up in a practical, realistic and fair way. We start by setting out certain guidelines, neither party is allowed to interrupt or speak over the other person for example, it is important that people listen to each other. A major goal is to make sure children’s views are taken into account and that they are listened to. There is increasing evidence that children’s needs will be met by minimising conflict between their parents and assisting parents to communicate in a constructive way together about their children.

Research shows that 12 years after separation, couples who have gone through the mediation process are still reaping the rewards with a much happier outcome and an ability to communicate as parents in the interests of their children.

Family affairs

Sally and Brian came to see me recently. They were still living in the same house. Sally wanted to stay in the family home with their two children, a six-year-old boy and an eight-year-old girl. Tension was rising because Brian was refusing to move out of the house. Brian told me he was terrified he was going to lose the children and that is why he wouldn’t move out. He said he did not want to be a ‘Saturday’ parent. Putting legal terminology aside, such as custody, access, residence and contact we spent the session focusing on the reality of their day-to-day lives and what arrangements were possible. Using a flip chart, we worked out a schedule of arrangements for the children which suited both parents working patterns and the children’s activities.

A sense of equality

Sarah and Tom came to mediation. They wanted to separate and reach a financial settlement and work through the idea of a shared arrangement for their two-year-old daughter.

The couple spent the sessions looking into the practical side of how 50-50 shared care pattern would work in reality. They talked about nurseries, bedtimes, dropping off plans, birthdays, holidays extended families and telephone calls.

Splitting the sessions in half, Sarah and Tom were able to work through financial issues too and reach an agreement to move them both forward, enabling them both to buy a new property.

If you think family mediation might help you or anyone you know look at my website and get in touch.