There’s already a plethora of (super helpful) information on the Internet about how to tell kids that their parents are getting a divorce. However, I noticed recently that there’s a lack of advice for parents who are planning to separate temporarily, and then either come back together or “see where it goes.” This situation is incredibly difficult in its own unique way! How do you help kids cope with an uncertain outcome? When does reasonable optimism (after all, it’s possible Mom and Dad WILL get back together) cross the line into giving false hope?
None of this easy, but know that being supportive of your child’s feelings during a challenging time is HUGE. Below are some tips for handling this conversation honestly but delicately:
Talk to the children together
If at all possible, both parents should break the news of the separation together. Beforehand, work together to discuss what words you want to use and what the “logistics” will look like during the separation, so that you have as much information as possible when your kids ask questions.
If there’s a safety concern or high conflict that prevents a “team effort,” it’s best to do it solo. Either way, keep in mind the next point…
Don’t play the blame game
Your anger and hurt with your partner is valid, but this conversation is not the place to air your frustrations. Children aren’t helped by hearing the nitty gritty details. If older kids press for more information, it’s okay to set gentle limits.
Examples of breaking the news respectfully: “You’ve probably noticed that we’ve been arguing a lot. We’re going to see if getting some space from each other helps us feel better.” / “We still care about each other, but we’re having a hard time fixing our problems. We’ve decided Mommy will leave the house for a few weeks while we keep trying.“
Example of setting limits with detail-seeking kids: “I understand you want more information, and it’s okay to ask questions. Some things are between Mama and me, but I’ll answer what I can. It’s okay to be frustrated with us about that.”
Do your best to keep the conversation respectful of each other and on neutral terms. That said…
Acknowledge difficult truths
This point may seem to contradict the previous thought, but I want to acknowledge that not all details realistically can be kept in private, no matter how badly we want them to be. Sometimes children overhear things said during a conflict, or can be direct witnesses of a parent’s frightening or confusing behavior. In these situations, it doesn’t benefit kids for us to sweep things under the rug or pretend they never happened.
For example, there’s no reason to tell kids that there’s been a marital affair… but it’s not unheard of for kids to have *accidentally* found out on their own. If that’s the unfortunate case in your family, there’s no point in lying about it.
Similarly, if the separation is happening because of substance abuse, mental illness, or domestic violence, please acknowledge that. Children deserve to have a safe adult validate the confusing things they’ve observed and be reassured that they’re safe.
Example of acknowledging affair – only if child accidentally found out: “I made a big mistake when I had the affair. I hurt Mom and our family, and I’m so sorry about that.” (Parent who had the affair should say this, if possible.)
Example of acknowledging substance abuse / mental illness / DV: “Mama Kay has been acting in ways that aren’t safe for us. She’s going to stay at Grandpa’s while she gets some help.”
Prepare them for the changes coming
Let your kids know what will change in the coming days and weeks. Which parent will leave the house? Where will they be staying? When will the kids get to see them? Who will take them to soccer practice? Again, try to have the logistics determined before making the announcement! If a question arises that you don’t know the answer to, (such as, “when is Daddy going to come back home?”), don’t make something up. It’s okay to say you don’t know – and then validate the frustration that comes up with that.
Emphasize what will stay the same
When a child’s world is being rocked by an announcement like this, it helps to remember what is remaining safe and stable. This is especially true when the future is uncertain, as it often is with a separation. Identify what will stay the same in your children’s lives – their school, extracurricular activities, Sunday lunch at Grandma’s house, etc.
It’s *extremely* common for kids to blame themselves for the parents’ separation, even if you’ve given them no reason to do so. A child’s brain is thinking, “I got a bad grade last week and my parents fought about what to do. Therefore, I am the cause of their unhappiness.” Please don’t assume they’re not feeling it or thinking it just because they’re not talking about it! Address this one head on.
Example: “Sometimes kids worry that it’s their fault their parents are separating. It’s NEVER the kid’s fault! Daddy and Papa are having a hard time working on their feelings, and it’s up to US to work that out.”
Validate all feelings
It’s okay for your child to experience confusion, anger, or hurt. This is an upsetting and scary event, and their reactions may be quite big. It’s hugely important that you remain empathetic and not take their emotional reactions personally, even if it stings. Reassure them that you can be an impartial listening ear during this time.
Be prepared for a lack of reaction, too! Some kids need awhile to process what they’ve heard – and some may actually be relieved by the decision if they’ve overheard a great deal of conflict and tension.
Don’t give false hope
It hurts to see your child in pain, so it’s tempting to try to present things as more positive than they actually are – but that ends up hurting them more down the line if a trial separation becomes a more permanent divorce. It’s okay to offer some realistic positivity, but make sure it’s balanced with honesty.
Example: “Daddy and I are going to live separately for now while we try to work on our problems. We hope that we can work things out and Daddy can move back in. However, it’s possible Daddy and I may decide we can’t be married to each other anymore.”