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How to help children deal with separation

When parents separate, what is the best approach for the children?

Separation is going to be traumatic for children, the degree of trauma depends on the individual child and how well you handle it. Your objective is to use this experience for the benefit of the child. You want them to learn how to overcome adversity and adapt to change, even change they may not want.

The better the relationship between parents and their children, the better children will cope. If you are loving, self-confident, consistent and honest with your children, the children will feel self-confident and secure. This is the best foundation for change.

Timing is important. Of course, there is no perfect time to make your announcement. Eventually you will just have to bite the bullet, but some preparation is useful.

Are the children chugging along reasonably well or are they dealing with some other problems? You don’t want to overload them if they are already struggling. Wait until the present problems are sorted out. For example, a child nearing the end of year twelve might find news of the break-up very distracting. Best to wait until exams are over.

You want your children to feel safe and secure and breaking up can jeopardise this. Children get their feelings of security from you. If you feel safe and secure then your children will feel safe and secure, whether you are together or not. If you have any fears about separating such as loneliness, rejection, poverty, or ongoing acrimony, then you need to address these fears immediately. If you don’t heal them, you’ll pass them onto your children. Seek counseling to eliminate these fears for good.

How much do you tell your children about the reasons for the break-up?

If they ask a question, they are ready to know the answer. Be truthful. Adapt the words and delivery to fit their maturity.

Children blame themselves for any problems in the family. This is a survival strategy that has been conditioned over thousands of years. Your children are likely to blame themselves for a parent leaving. Give them the reasons for your decision and reassure them that it is nothing to do with them. Repeat this message as often as the topic comes up.

Allow your children to be upset. Do not take their reaction personally even if they are very angry. The more space you give them to express their emotions, the sooner they will recover. Remember, it is not a competition about whom they blame or whom they agree with. Your children love both their parents. The better two parents work together for the benefit of the children, the happier the children will be.

Give your children as much certainty as you can. They will want to know where they will be living, with whom, how often they’ll be seeing each parent and what other changes will be made to their life.

Reassure them that they’ll always be loved and taken care of. If they are unhappy about some of the arrangements, sympathise but don’t stress if these arrangements cannot be changed.

Remember you are helping your children become adaptable and resilient. It is by managing uncomfortable situations that these skills are built.

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