Talking to your children about your divorce

Some things children need to hear from their parents:

  • While Mum and Dad’s feelings for each other have changed, we will never stop loving you
  • We know this will be hard for you and we are sorry
  • You can always love both Mum and Dad
  • What has happened between Mum and Dad is not your fault
  • Divorce is a grown-up problem between Mum and Dad that you cannot change
  • We will always be your Mum and Dad
  • You will always have a family. Instead of being a family in one home, you will have a family with Dad and a family with Mum

Here some tips to consider when telling your children about your divorce or separation.

  • If possible, both parents should be present. But if this will create tensions, have separate discussions.
  • Discuss what you will say beforehand. Children benefit from hearing similar messages from both parents. Keep explanations simple.
  • View things through your children’s eyes and avoid blaming each other. Children have a right to love both parents.
  • Think through how you will manage your feelings in front of the children.
  • Let children know how life will change, including major concerns such as how they will see each parent and where they will live. If they have questions you can’t answer, let them know that you are both working out the details.
  • Children can feel responsible when their parents split up. Make it clear that the split has nothing to do with them and also that they cannot change things.
  • Let children know that you understand this will be a difficult change for them, and that they can ask questions and talk about how they feel.
  • Keep discussions straightforward and age-appropriate.
  • Follow-up talks do not have to be formal or structured.

How to listen to your children

Truly listening is hard, especially when you are a parent. When our kids are having a difficult time, our tendency is to want to fix it and take the hurt away.

But one of the most helpful things you can do is listen and support their feelings. This helps children to learn how to identify, accept and feel comfortable about expressing their feelings. It builds self-belief that they can handle difficult situations.

Here are some tips:

  • Give children your full attention when they are talking to you. Sit down and make eye-to-eye contact. If you can’t stop what you are doing, let your child know that what they have to say is important and arrange a time when you can give them your undivided attention.
  • Listen to your child without trying to fix, judge, criticise or change their feelings. When children do not have chance to solve their problems or have their feelings acknowledged they are deprived of building self-esteem and self-confidence.
  • Try to understand your child’s feelings and perspective. Consider focusing on what your child is feeling and verbalising that for them through statements such as “It sounds like you are feeling…”
  • Remember what your children most need is for you to listen, not to solve their problems.
  • Keep your issues separate from your children’s feelings. If it is difficult, take some time to process what is going on and your feelings.
  • When necessary, get help or find professional support.
  • If your child doesn’t want to talk let them know you understand it is hard for them and that when they are ready to talk you will be there to listen.
  • One way to improve your listening skills is to ask simple questions and then just listen. You could ask: how did that make you feel? What did that mean to you? How would you like things to change?

Managing the negative impact of divorce for children

Experts suggest children need to hear approximately four positive statements for every negative comment to counterbalance the impact of negative comments. Using a 4 to 1 ratio of positive to negative statements with your children is a powerful yet simple way to counterbalance the negative impact of divorce for their children.

  • Remember that what we say to our children often stays with our children, positive or negative.
  • Be mindful of what you say to children and how you say it.
  • Offer descriptive praise rather than general praise. Instead of saying “great”, consider saying something like “You did a great job colouring that picture – you put a lot of work into it”.
  • You may not have control over everything your child hears, experiences or is told, but raising your awareness and implementing the 4 to 1 ratio can make a big difference.
  • Whenever possible praise your kids for the things they are doing right. Make your praise sincere; they will know when it isn’t.

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