Maybe you saw it coming, maybe you’re in shock. Either way, a separation is extraordinarily painful, even if it’s also a relief.
Sanity and loss aside, your worries will quickly turn to your kids – How will they cope? How will this affect their future relationships? Will they hate you or your spouse? Perhaps themselves? How will things change financially? How will things change … period?
When, and What to Tell Your Kids
Honesty and simplicity always works best. Tell your kids as a couple (if possible) as soon as you can. If your partner has left suddenly, then it’s important to tell your kids before they hear it from someone else.
The ‘what’ is a lot more complex. I am a believer in transparency, honesty and plain simple language. Maybe start with something similar to, “Your father (or mother) and I have decided to separate, which means we won’t all be living together anymore. We still love you. That will never change.” Age appropriateness is important of course.
You must not forget that you are the expert when it comes to your child!! Your trust in yourself might be shaky now, but try to access that instinct as you look into their faces. Trust that you know deep down, underneath the layers of hurt and bitterness, what is right for them to hear.
See how this fits with your own wisdom: generally speaking, with all things ‘tricky’, give your children as much information as they ask for, and no more. You might find that you give information in bite size pieces, over days, maybe weeks. This is OK. Ensure that they know this separation is about you and your partner, not them, not a third party; no blame.
How Might They First React?
The first thing ‘tweens’ and teens often feel when parents announce that they are breaking up is rage. Rage at you for not ‘fixing’ it, for the timing (there isn’t a right time, no matter how hard you try or how long you wait…) for not considering their feelings, for ‘allowing’ things to get this bad. Rage at you for creating a situation where they will suffer. And there will be rage that they cannot hope to control what happens next.
And rage = sad + fear in scary-porcupine-shaped disguise.
Fear of what happens to the family home – who will live where? Will there be money? How often will each parent get to see each child, who decides? Kids will wonder about their friends and whether they’ll still be near them. Whether or not its OK to talk to them about what’s happening.
Sad that all as it was, is lost.
It will be harder right now to give your full attention to what’s important to your kids – like school, friends, period cramps, that as&^ole bully who has ramped up their hate campaign having sniffed vulnerability from a thousand paces.
With all of these things going on it’s easy for your kids to start believing that you don’t care as much as you used. Even though every day you are out of your mind trying to figure out how to get them through this. Even though you are likely demented from it all.
All of these concerns might start to express themselves externally over the next few weeks/months – you may see an increase in anxiety, defiance, mood swings, sleep disturbance, and far less often, self -harm. If these things happen, they are normal, they are not evidence that you are a bad parent. They are evidence that what happened really happened. Please remember that. And then seek well-deserved help.
Here are some things you could teach your kids during this nightmarish time (‘cos let’s call a spade a spade!)
It’s Ok to be sad, angry, upset. Your family, your world has just changed. Feelings are never wrong.
Your child might feel responsible. Kids often feel that they are somehow to blame. Especially if they knew something before you did. They probably won’t volunteer this to you, they will more likely suffer in silence in the belief that they are protecting you from further pain. So I always encourage a conversation around this – ask the question outright to create the space and then reassure.
Assure them it’s OK to be more angry at one parent than the other. Time has the potential to make it all change. This can be tricky. People split up for many reasons. The main one is usually trust. Somehow, it’s been broken. Perhaps one of you was unfaithful, or was abusive or even assaulted the other. Your kids may or may not forgive some day, but that choice is entirely theirs. I encourage you to name that choice, don’t demand understanding or forgiveness. Your child will need time to assess their own feelings and moral stance on whatever has happened – and they are entitled to do that.
Now, this bit might be hard: In the absence of outright abuse or violence, try to avoid nudging your child away from your ex-partner. You need an ally of course. But it’s crucial to source one elsewhere. If you don’t, you may dump on your kids, albeit unintentionally! Your child has enough to deal with without also feeling disloyal to one or both of you.
Remind your child that your job is still to look after them, not the other way around. You might be vulnerable, fragile, and even lonely. When we’re this way, it’s perfectly normal to lean on people we wouldn’t otherwise turn to for support. Because our kids are usually around us the most, we may be tempted to lean on them more than we should.
Even the most capable and empathic of kids are often not ready for this level of contact. This is why it’s very important to remain in your parental role. Again, it may be tricky and I’m not saying don’t fall apart on front of them because that’s pretty much unavoidable. Plus, it’s sometimes good to express you pain and let them know that it’s normal to have these feelings and expressing it is healthy. Use your ‘fall-apart’ to teach them that you’re willing to access outside, adult support in the form of friendships, or therapists.
Which leaves you available for them to lean on you.
Offer them the chance to also talk to someone outside the family, in confidence. This teaches them that you value their need for privacy and that you consider the need for support to be normal and healthy. Because it is!
Try to keep your routine. Whatever you normally do, even though you’re tired and upset and may want to be alone more than usual, it’s a good idea to keep doing as many things as you can. Now is a time where you might be tempted to drink more or take drugs but this won’t help, you know it – and it’s not a super good message to teach your kids.
Keep talking to your (trusted) friends, if you have some. Let people know what you’re going through – they may not know, and they may not know how to bring it up. Talking to them might help you get the support you need.
Make plans as soon as you can bring yourself to make civilized contact with your ex, do what you can to make the best plans possible regarding your children. These plans will be around school plays, games, money, access, overnights, transport, money, money and money.
Remember, the key is to talk to your partner when you can both talk to each other in a civilized manner. When emotions are high, more disagreements are likely to happen, causing more potential tension than ever. Crying might be possible, but remember that your main concern is about finding balance for the kids.
Get legal advice, even if things feel amicable. It’s another way of keeping boundaries tidy and reducing your workload.
You have now entered into a world of new compromises. Everything has changed. And soon, gradually, it will change again. My wish for you is that next change will be better. So if you are reading this because of your separation I’m sorry about that. Take good care of yourself, these are tough times indeed and you deserve care.
Hang in there!