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How to talk to your children about separation: Striking a balance between reality and reassurance

It’s okay for the parent start the conversation and if a child doesn’t want to talk, don’t make them

For parents who have made the decision to separate or divorce, knowing how to address the issue with their children can be really difficult. Not all relationships end amicably, but even for those that do, parents can find it challenging to strike the right balance between representing a child’s new reality and ensuring that the child feels secure in spite of the change.

So, when is the best time to address relationship break-ups with children?

And what is the best way parents can approach the conversation to result in minimal upset?

Psychotherapist and founder of the Calm Parenting Club, Bethan O’Riordan, says “parents should tell children the relationship is breaking up when they know for definite that it is. So maybe when the parents have gone for some sort of couples counselling or some sort of mediation or something – where they know that, concretely, the relationship will end”.


The reality, however, is that not all relationships end in a mutually agreed fashion.

So, how much detail should parents go into?

Sometimes abuse may have been a factor and there may social-work involvement, O’Riordan explains. “In this situation, there are age-appropriate ways to tell the children. But if it was an affair or anything that didn’t bring danger to either parent, it’s better for the children just to know that the parents don’t love each other any more in that way. But that they totally love the children, just like they always have done before.

“In this type of situation, or in any situation, it’s really important that either parent doesn’t confide in the child or children, and doesn’t share any of the adult content or material with them.

“I’ve worked with many adults now who found it a total burden and a huge emotional drain when the parents started talking to them and offloading to the child as if it was an equal adult.”

And what about the temptation to overpromise while attempting to reassure?

“Parents shouldn’t make any false hopes, promises or expectations,” O’Riordan insists. “This is a real example of helping children to sit with the unknown.

“It’s okay to say to a child, ‘we don’t know exactly what’s going to happen, but we know that we’re going to be okay and that we’re going to look after you’. The best thing a parent can do is to reassure a child if they have any questions.”

However, she cautions that parents need to “be the detective” to observe how their child assimilates the information over the coming days, weeks, months and possibly even years. “The essential reassurances are that this child is going to be looked after, but this really only happens through how the parents respond and react with their behaviour. Rather than just the adult logic of being told ‘I’m going to look after you’, children need to feel that they’re being looked after too,” O’Riordan explains.

Are these initial conversations something that need to be revisited in time?

Possibly, O’Riordan thinks, but says “sometimes parents can push their anxiety on to children by sitting down and saying ‘okay guys, we’re going to talk about this now. Has anyone got any questions’, when sometimes we know that children may have questions. It’s okay to start a conversation by saying what you think they may be thinking.

“You have to start somewhere and it’s okay to say ‘I’m wondering if you’re thinking about if you’re still going to see your friends? Where you’re going to live? What we’ll do on Christmas Day? What we’ll do for birthday parties?’. It’s okay to start the conversation and if a child doesn’t want to talk, don’t make them.”

And if a child becomes particularly distressed at the idea, what should a parent do?

“Like any situation if a child becomes very distressed, the parent is there to look after them,” O’Riordan says. “The number one thing a parent must learn to do is to not jump in and fix things. Children are like us adults. We feel our feelings and then often we come down at the end of it and we can be okay.

“A child might have a huge big explosion to this and be really deeply upset. That’s okay. A parent must use their empathy to let them know that they get that this is really hard for them. It’s really important if a child does get distressed that the parents don’t panic, because you are the anchor for the child.”

Is there anything parents can do to continue supporting their child?

“The best way to support a child, in the aftermath of a separation or divorce, if the parents are civil, is if the two parents can meet outside of the children being there, and check in with each other, [ask] ‘how do you find this is going?’ Remember children aren’t sneaky or manipulative or any of those things. Children need help and they need really clear guidance.

“We know how a child is through their behaviour. All behaviour is communication. Behind every behaviour is a feeling. And behind the feeling there’s a need. The parents’ role is to help the child figure out what they need in any given situation. It’s totally possible to parent on the same page while parenting apart.”

How to talk to your children about...

Jen Hogan

Jen Hogan

Jen Hogan, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about health and family