What am I telling my daughter
Separation from my partner - how do I tell my children?
Why talking to the child is so important
Talking to your child is one of the most important things you can do to help them cope with all the changes that come with their parents' separation. In doing so, you counteract a feeling that many children of divorce are very troubled by: the feeling of being marginalized, not being taken seriously and being helplessly at the mercy of all developments. Beyond the content of the conversation, a conversation also means: “I am there for you, you are important to me”.
This applies to children of all ages. Parents of younger children sometimes believe that they do not need explanations because they cannot yet understand the complicated facts. Studies have shown, however, that young children who were not discussed about the events were particularly irritated and anxious.
When should we talk to the children about the breakup?
Older children often suspect that a separation will come before they are officially informed, as the family climate has changed noticeably and arguments or icy silence are the order of the day. But the reverse is also common. For adults, separation / divorce may seem logical because there is so much conflict. For your child, however, this may be inconceivable because he only knows his family and in his (young) worldview there is still no separation between parents and parents. In any case, children need to talk to both parents.
There is no rule for an optimal point in time. Try to put yourself in your child's shoes. Even if there is no talk of separation yet, the child may need the message that their parents are currently having problems, but that they are working on a solution. The time for a conversation has come at the latest when the final decision has been made and you have an idea of what changes will take place in the near future and what regulations (residence, childcare, visits, calls, etc.) initially should apply. The more specific the information about daily life you can give your children, the better they can adapt to it.
Before discussing your decision to end your marriage with your child, discuss with your partner what you are going to say and how you are going to say it.
How should we tell them?
If possible, do it together. The benefits are: This way your children know that it is a decision of both of you, that it is a decision that is a very serious one for you too, and you are conveying the message that you both care for the children's well-being and To take care of. The words you use to do this, of course, depend on the age of the child and the situation.
If the children are still young, limit yourself to the most important things first - children can absorb different amounts of information depending on their age.
However, under no circumstances should a quarrel break out between the parents on this occasion, and no mutual accusations should arise.
What should we say to the children?
It is not important to explain all the connections to the child; the children don't need to know every detail. First and foremost, it should be about what is important for the child. Many children worry about how their everyday life will look in the future, so they have very practical questions. But you also need to know how the parent who is going to move out is doing, where he is going to live, whether he has a bed and something to eat. It can be relieving for your child if you not only talk about what is going to change, but also mention some things that you know are important for the child and that will not change (e.g. the afternoon at grandparents, regular visits to the swimming pool with the parent moving out, etc.).
With all the relevant information, children now primarily need the credible message that they can no longer live together as a married couple, but that neither father nor mother will separate from the child and that they will remain parents - even if the family is no longer under one roof will live.
Be sincere: your words must be followed by appropriate actions. Be careful not to make false promises. For now, small lies or false promises may be a relief; however, the long-term consequence could be that the child no longer trusts you and becomes very insecure. Perhaps you do not yet have the answers to all questions yourself, then tell your child that too when they ask the relevant questions. In any case, make it clear that the responsibility for finding solutions rests with you, the adults, that the child is not to blame or has any responsibility.
How children react to the news
How children will react to the news also depends on their age and temperament. Expect to face your child's accumulated anger or, perhaps even more difficult to cope with, their grief and despair. As difficult as it may be at the moment, the child must be able to express his or her feelings. In the long term, the children are often worse off, who at first seem to be able to cope with everything so well and show no “abnormalities”, i.e. age-appropriate reactions. Please keep in mind that so-called behavioral problems can be a perfectly normal reaction to a situation that is abnormal for the children. Be attentive and seek help from appropriate advice centers if you need advice or if you feel overwhelmed.
Remember that even children can find it difficult to talk about subjects that are associated with such strong emotions. It may be that your child is still completely defensive at heart and is simply not yet ready to deal with the new situation. Or they are afraid of being overwhelmed by the bad feelings when they talk about them. Last but not least, it is also a question of temperament. Some children have their hearts on the tip of their tongue, others are more cautious, especially when it comes to expressing feelings.
Even if your child reacts violently or with withdrawal, keep up your offer to talk in any case, seek the conversation again when a certain calm has occurred. The first conversation about the difficult situation, which everyone involved has to deal with, should only be the opening of a dialogue between parents and children that has to be continued over and over again.
Continue the dialogue
You (this means both parents) will find that the one-time, basic, clarifying conversation is not enough. Children have to be able to reassure themselves again and again that they have noticed everything and have understood it correctly. What this means for you is that you will likely have to discuss and explain the same thing over and over again. Consider how profound and difficult things are, even for adults.
It doesn't always have to be lengthy, in-depth conversations. A few short sentences back and forth can satisfy the child's current need so that he can devote himself to his game or other activity. These short dialogues also give the child the feeling of an atmosphere of willingness to talk, which allows them to express their questions and fears at any time.
In addition to talking to your child, you also need to listen to them. Children have to be able to comment. They have to be able to say how they are doing, what they like and what they don't like. Children often make good suggestions about themselves and their situation and have ideas that adults do not easily come up with. Most of the time it is worth checking whether your ideas can be implemented. Sometimes it's just little things that children want differently, but which for them make the difference between “okay” and “I don't want to”. In this way, children gain the feeling that they are not at the mercy of what is happening, but that they also have some control over developments that affect them themselves.
If you are open to conversation, you will also understand your child's questions and fears: is it my fault? - Are you going to leave me too? - Do you still love me? When you know what moves your child, you can think about how you can counteract their fears so that new security arises.
If you have several children whose ages are a little further apart, you will find that the children deal with the topic very differently: They ask different questions, express different worries and wishes, express their grief and anger differently. This is related, for example, to the extent to which their skills are developed to understand relationships between other people and between themselves and other people. Or to what extent they are able to assess the consequences that may arise from certain events.
It is similar when a child gets older and the developmental progress enables him to see things differently. Then the need arises again to talk about the "old stories" that are now perhaps already “old”. But then other aspects come to the fore, questions that were never discussed before are suddenly important. In this way, your child will gain an increasingly mature understanding of divorce.
Another important note
In conversations with children, the (most important) adults they are talking about are father, mother, parents. It's not about the wife, the husband, the “ex”. Be careful in your choice of words and do not belittle the other when talking to the child. Your couple conflicts have no place in conversations with the children. If these intrude into parent-child conversations, there is a risk that you will use your child as a substitute for another adult interlocutor. Do not pour out your heart to the child, do not put them in the role of comforter. A child who sees himself in the role of the ally of the father or mother must suppress his own grief so as not to burden the adults even more.
The free brochure “Parents Stay Parents. Help for children in case of separation Divorce ”can be ordered from“ German Association for Youth and Marriage Counseling e.V. (DAJEB) or here.
A work that deals with all aspects of divorce and is aimed at professionals and parents: “The family after the family. Knowledge and help with parental separation and new relationships ”. Ed .: Helmut Mader Foundation. With contributions from W.E. Fthenakis, W. Griebel. R. Niesel, R. Oberndorfer and W. Walbiner. Munich. Publishing house C.H. Beck, 2008
Further contributions by the author can be found here in our family handbook
Renate Niesel, graduate psychologist,
former research assistant
at the State Institute for Early Education in Munich
Created on August 16, 2001, last changed on June 2, 2015
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