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How to help the children not feel blame for your divorce or separation

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Divorce and separation are never easy and is further complicated when children are involved. There are often bad feelings between separating couples and children often pick up on this, which causes confusion, upset, and can lead to them blaming themselves for the break-up. This article aims to set out the ways parents can support children during divorce or separation so that the risk is minimised.

Why you should be open about the divorce or separation with your children

There are many ways to make the whole situation a bit less painful when talking to children about divorce or separation and parents taking a child centred approach certainly helps.  Every parent wants their children to grow up in a safe, loving environment and become confident, happy adults. But there may be times when you need to explain something that might upset them. As their parent, it is up to you to talk to them and share news or information that will affect their life in a way they can understand.

While divorcing parents know that their choice to separate is not down to anything their children have done or not done, children almost always feel as though they are to blame. It is common for children to worry that they did something to cause their parent’s divorce, particularly younger children. This is only natural, because, in their minds, they can begin to find a way to help fix their parents’ relationship. So even if you think they understand it, make sure you explicitly tell them it’s not their fault.

Where do I start telling my children about the divorce?

It is a good idea to consider where and when it is best to talk. If you’re only talking to one child, think about how private the time and place are. It may be best to chat at a time when other children are not around to distract or interrupt. Whether your child is an early-riser or has a better attention span in the evenings, make sure you are talk when you both have the emotional bandwidth and energy for the conversation.

There are several things you can do to help avoid your child feeling to blame for the divorce. When you and your partner first tell your child about the impending divorce, keep in mind their perspective:

  • Make the conversation relevant to them – perhaps you could reference a TV show or movie they know that addresses a similar topic. Bring up the storyline and ask them what they think about it.
  • Depending on their age, break it down into a few shorter conversations – one long conversation for younger children will be confusing and overwhelming.
  • Tell them explicitly it is not their fault – don’t assume they automatically know that. You don’t need to go into too much detail here, but tell them why the separation is happening, including telling them it is an adult problem.
  • Be clear about the reality of the separation, otherwise your child may begin to feel guilty and fantasise about bringing you back together.
  • Buy or borrow a book – there are many books specifically written to help adults broach difficult subjects with children, and divorce is one of them. After reading the story together, ask some gentle questions to check they’ve understood.
  • Build on school activities – they may have discussed something similar in class, you could ask them what they thought about the lesson.
  • Tell your children only what they need to know. Don’t discuss adult decisions or argue in front of the children. They should not be involved in any meetings you have with a solicitor or others involved in the divorce.

Encourage your children to talk openly about their feelings, listen carefully and try not to interrupt. It is perfectly normal for children to have difficulty expressing their feelings, so be patient whilst they process the news. It is important to let them be honest about their concerns and fears, and you should answer any questions as honestly as possible.

What can we do to make the transition easier?

The following suggestions may make your child’s understanding of the separation/divorce easier:

  • Discuss child arrangements with your ex before you suggest a plan to the children
  • Talk openly about the proposed living arrangements and how things will change. Be clear about who the children will live with and where. If you have older children, discuss living arrangements with them and be willing to respect their feelings about where and who they want to live with.
  • Keep routines as normal as possible. Divorce generally means some fundamental changes in routine which can make many children anxious. One way to ease the situation is to make it clear what they should expect. Work towards creating common routines that both households can follow.
  • Don’t speak negatively about the other parent to your children, extended family, or friends.
  • Children may feel as though they are the odd one out. If possible, find other families with “two homes” so that your child can see they aren’t the only one whose parents live apart.
  • Allow your child to speak to the other parent whenever they want to.
  • Don’t undermine the other parent’s authority or reverse any decision they have made. Discuss rules and discipline with your ex so that you can be seen as consistent and showing a united front.
  • Communicate directly with your ex and don’t expect children to act as a go-between or messenger. This can cause the child to keep secrets, tell lies, or engage in other underhand behaviours.
  • Keep other important adults in your child’s life, such as teachers, child care provider, etc., informed about what is happening so they can spot any warning signs that your child is having difficulty coping.

These are just some of the ways you can help your child come to terms with your separation. Divorce is painful, but by being open and patient with your child, you can help them understand and move forward.

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