Helping your kids understand divorce & break-ups

When you’ve only been alive a few years, the chances are your world has stayed pretty much the same for most of your life; big changes during childhood can cause insecurity well into adult life, if they’re not handled well at the time. As a parent, you’ll be feeling sad and angry over your break-up, and it’s crucial to take care of yourself during such a stressful time, but your kids – however well they seem to be taking it on the surface – need careful attention too.

If your child reacts very badly to the situation, consult a professional relationship advice counsellor or GP; however, there are some general guidelines to follow, and, with a little self-awareness, you can definitely help your child come through the experience without any lasting damage.

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Be honest. A simple, frank explanation of why you and your partner can’t stay together anymore is key here, although be prepared to answer unexpected questions. If someone else was involved in the break up, it might be hard to avoid bitterness, but avoid it you must. Give simple information about practical changes, too – where’s your ex going to live, when your child is going to see them, who’s going to pick them up from school etc. – but keep it brief, as a litany of changes may sound overwhelming.

Tell them you love them, and let them express themselves

You’d be amazed how many children blame themselves for their parents breaking up – perhaps they’ve overheard a fight about them, or perhaps they know that money for their clothes and outings has caused strife. Sometimes children can cause tension in a relationship, notably if they have behavioural problems, but your break-up is still not their fault, and they should never be allowed to feel it was. Listen to their thoughts and feelings, look at their drawings, let them be honest (try not to show you’re upset if they touch a nerve) – and tell them (and show them) you love them.

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Avoid jealousy when they spend time away. Your parent-child bond may make the time you spend apart difficult; you’ll probably miss them and you may worry that their other parent is not following quite the routine you prefer. However, it’s normally best to encourage a child to develop relationships with both parents, and expressing jealousy will probably make your child feel like they must take sides, and be disloyal to their other parent. Keep yourself occupied while they’re away, and just show you missed them by being happy when they return.

Never use them as a messenger. Talk directly with your ex and don’t leave it up to your child to remember and pass on messages and arrangements.

Stay neutral when discussing your ex. Saying negative things about your ex can make your child feel like they have to take sides, in order to keep the peace when they’re around you, which is a very unfair situation to put them in. Likewise, don’t use them as a sounding board or person to vent your negative feelings with, like you would with a friend or counsellor. This is likely to make them feel helpless and very worried about you, or that you’re expecting them to take responsibility for the situation in some way.

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