Realising that your marriage is no longer working is heart-breaking, made even worse when you know there are kids who will have to bear the consequences for your decision to end it. Even if the marriage was toxic, with a fair amount of pain and abuse, you still have to face the guilt over being the reason your kids’ lives will be uprooted.
When I realised that my marriage was over, I tried to hide it from my partner and my kids in order to buy some time. The cracks started showing, but I want to believe that my kids were mostly oblivious.
The day I broke the news to my partner was the day we moved out of the house, and so I had to tell the kids. This was tough and heart wrenching – everything happened so fast and unexpectedly that I had no time to prepare the kids. I barely had time to pack.
Since my daughters are still young (then 2 and 4 years old), I struggled to know just how much to tell them, and which terms to use. They already knew their father was moving overseas, but I had to break the news that we would not be joining him.
When I did have the conversation with them, the eldest had questions, the younger only tears of uncertainty. Both were so confused, breaking into anger, sadness, guilt or worry as we started on this path to acceptance.
If I could do it all again, I would have done it so much differently. I would have taken time to plan how to tell them. In a perfect world, both their dad and myself would have been present to assure them that they are loved, and definitely not the cause.
But since I cannot have a do-over, and many moms reading this will also not be afforded the time needed to properly prepare, here are my tips to help your kids cope with the news no matter how or when they receive it:
- Reassure them that you still love them and that they are still the centre of your world
- Be very clear that they are not the reason for the breakup
- Encourage them to verbalise their feelings. If they are too small, you can help them by giving them prompts or even encouraging them to draw in the colour that they are feeling, etc.
- Find help
- Give them just enough details to make sense of the situation, and not too much that you confuse them
Then afterwards, you will have to help them cope with the transition. Easier said than done, but there are things that you can do to help them go through it easier:
- Never make suggestions or promises to the kids without first discussing it with the other parent. Things like saying “you will see him every second weekend” or “of course you can sleepover just when you want to”. You need to realise that your lives are changing, and that you cannot commit to something that might not be possible, practical, or even safe. Offering these kinds of “peace branches” to your kids will also only serve to drive them away if it does turn out to be impossible promises. You cannot start this new journey already a few lies in – distrust has a way of growing and will not help to make your kids feel safe and loved.
- Once all the details have been hashed out, discuss it openly with the kids, leaving room for their feelings. If possible, have your co-parent sit in on this meeting, so that the kids can see that even though you are breaking up, you are still committed to being their parents and will stand united when it comes to their happiness and health.
- At first, keep the routine as close to their previous normal as possible. After some time, when the kids are starting to accept the new normal, you can start to incorporate new routines and traditions, preferably with their input.
- Spend quality alone time with each child.
- Never bad mouth the other parent or family members, not even when you think your kids won’t be able to hear you.
- If possible, connect with other families in similar situations so that your kids can see that their new normal is possible, and not the end of the world – even if it feels like it at that moment.
- Be polite to the other parent whenever you have to have contact. Same with family members.
- Encourage your kids to cultivate a relationship with the other parent. Allow kids to contact them whenever they want to, even if not convenient.
- Don’t undermine the other parent’s authority – respect their rules and boundaries.
- Never use the kids as messengers. They should not be placed in the middle, not even for seemingly innocent or well-meaning messages.
- Give the kids lots of opportunities to see or contact or visit extended family.
- Inform adults who are actively involved in your kids’ live about the changes, and listen if they are concerned or if they think there are warning signs. Also, listen to your own gut.
- Keep the other parent in the loop with regards to milestones, medical issues, school progress, etc.
It will take time for your kids to adjust. Younger children might regress, older kids might become unmanageable. All kids can become clingy or avoiding. These are all normal reactions, and should disappear over time.
If they do not, and especially if they are coupled with the following, it can be warning signs that your child is having more serious trouble with these changes:
- Sadness and depression
- Changes in eating or sleeping habits
- Trouble at school
- Aggressive behaviour
If the behaviour continues or worsens, speak to a professional.
Kids are resilient, and although I do not wish this on any child, I can say that with the right support, patience and a lot of empathy, they will get through this. It is your responsibility as a parent to make sure that they not only survive, but thrive, no matter the circumstances. Help your kids to cope with the separation, help them be ok afterwards.
If you are newly separated or divorced, and unsure of what to do next, send me a message. Sometimes you just need someone to relate, listen, and be there.