Making sense of separation: Explaining a break-up to your child
The break-up of a marriage will always be tough on the children, but if parents handle it well it can make all the difference.
Everybody knows that breaking up is hard to do. But however painful it is for the adults involved, their children often feel it even more as they helplessly watch their family unit crumble.
So when a relationship has irrevocably broken down, it is essential for parents to consider how their children are coping and, crucially, to reassure them that everything will be alright.
Sarah McCarthy* separated from her husband two years ago after a 16-year marriage. She had two children and says that, while the youngest was undeniably upset, it was her silent teenager who caused her the most angst.
“My eight-year-old daughter was devastated when her dad and I broke up, but she was pacified by our reassurance of our love for her,” she says. “But my 13-year-old son was a totally different story, and while he pretended he wasn’t bothered, I knew it was eating him up inside. So both my ex-husband and I devoted a lot of time to him, which made him realise that while his parents were no longer in love with each other, our love for him never changed.
“Two years later, I am really proud of how we handled the situation because we are all civil to each other and the children seem very well adjusted – and this, I believe is all down to communication.”
Karen Kiernan, CEO of One Family, says separation or divorce is never easy for children, but that if the topic is broached sensitively, it can help them to adjust.
“It is really important for parents to be comfortable about what they are going to say before they tell their children they are separating,” she says. “They should be honest and clear in their delivery and also age-appropriate, and they may need to go over the same thing several times in order for the children to fully grasp the situation.
“Where possible it is advisable for both parents to come to a mutual decision on how to explain the situation to their children. [Children] can fantasise and worry unnecessarily, so it is crucial that they know it is not their fault.
“In short, they should be informed of the facts but also made to feel safe, secure and loved by both parents.”
Child psychologist David Carey agrees, and says being truthful is always the best policy.
“Unfortunately, marriage and romantic partnerships sometimes break apart and when there are children involved it becomes complicated,” he says. “The best way to approach the subject is with delicate honesty. Don’t lay blame on either partner and do not in any way imply that the children are part of the issues that led to separation.
“Assure the children that both mother and father love them, want them and will care for them even though they are not getting on well and have decided to live apart.
“Almost all children these days know someone whose parents don’t live together. Once they are assured of the continuing love of both parents they will feel safe and secure. Of course there will always be anxiety and stress so it’s important to listen, reassure and watch for signs of distress.”
The Dublin-based psychologist says there is no ‘good age’ to talk to children about separation or divorce but while younger children may be more demonstrative about their feelings, teenagers who appear nonchalant could be masking several emotions and parents must ensure they keep arguments to themselves.
“Older children and teenagers often don’t wish to discuss emotionally-laden topics with parents,” he says. “The only way you can tell if your child is distressed is to watch and listen to them and be constantly aware of any significant changes. Some may experience academic trouble at school, some will become withdrawn, others will engage in behaviours that are risky. Every child is different.
“The most important thing is to keep children of every age out of it. Never put your partner down in front of them or make nasty remarks about your partner or their family.
“Keep your distress to yourself; share with friends or your own family. Children of all ages need to know that their parents respect one another whether they live together or not. Arguing should be done in private when the children are out of the house. Little ears hear everything. If the non-custodial parent has access to the children, the transition time should be kept polite and the location neutral.”
* not her real name
Mother & Babies