Thursday 19 April 2018

Dear David: 'How do I tell my children their dad has left me?'

Clinical psychologist David Coleman offers advice on how to tell children that their dad has left.
Clinical psychologist David Coleman offers advice on how to tell children that their dad has left.
David Coleman

David Coleman

Advice from clinical psychologist David Coleman on how to tell children that their dad has left.

Q. My husband has recently left me. He just walked out on our marriage. I didn't want, or expect, this to happen. He has also, physically, left our family home, but for the time being our young children believe he is working away (which is not unusual for him). I realise we need to tell them the truth but I have no idea how to go about it, particularly as the decision to separate was entirely my husband's and I am devastated. Any advice you can offer me on how best to handle this would be so very gratefully received.

David replies: What a difficult situation you find yourself in. Whatever the difficulties in your relationship with your husband, it sounds like you didn't think they were so bad that you needed to separate.

Your own shock at what has happened is probably the first thing to try to address.

I am a big believer that we need to mind ourselves, as parents, as the first priority, if we are to successfully be in a position to mind our children.

I think most parents will accept that when they are in good form, feeling able and confident, they do a much more effective job in rearing their children. Most of the mistakes we make come when we are under pressure, upset, stressed or exhausted ourselves.

So, in preparation for talking with your children (which, you are correct, you will have to do) make sure you mind yourself, to help cope with the shock of your husband's departure.

Reach out to family or friends, if only to be able to talk about how shocking and upsetting the situation is. Nobody will be able to "fix" it, but you may find great relief and comfort from just talking about things.

There is truth to the old saying, "a problem shared is a problem halved". Being heard, and understood, by someone else, when we are distressed is incredibly supportive, even if there is nothing that can be done to change your circumstances.

Aside from minding yourself, you also need to talk to your husband about what information you will share with the children and when. In an ideal world, you will be able to tell them together and sooner rather than later.

Your first step is simply to tell them the truth of the "what?", which is that their dad has moved out of the family home, as opposed to being just away with work. Do you know yet how permanent a move that is?

You need to be very clear, for the children's sake, of whatever you tell them. It needs to be true and accurate as best you know for the time being. So, if he has left, with no plan to ever come back, then that is what you tell them.

If he is gone, but only temporarily, while you work stuff out and try to reconcile and resolve the issues in your relationship, then it is fine to tell the children that too. They may want a timeframe, but it is okay to say you don't know how long it will take, if you don't know how long it will take.

The second thing that you and your husband need to agree is an explanation of "why?". This may be even harder to achieve, since it sounds like you, yourself, are still looking for an explanation of why your husband left.

I do think that, if he made a unilateral decision to leave, he needs to take responsibility for that. He may feel that there were extenuating circumstances, but it still sounds like he chose to go.

The third thing you need to consider, when you tell the children the first time, is what arrangements you both have made for them to see and spend time with their dad. This is likely to be an immediate concern for them and it will help if you have thought the issue through in advance.

The language you use, will, of course, have to fit with the ages of your children. Don't be surprised if they don't take everything in the first time you talk to them. You may have to repeat elements of it again and again.

In my experience, telling children about parental separation tends to be more of a process than an event. So, whatever you say the first time is the bedrock and you can always flesh it out or explain it further as time goes by.

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