Text in which the author defends ideas and reaches conclusions based on his / her interpretation of facts and data

How to talk to kids about a separation or divorce

The end of a relationship can be hard for the children, but there are communication strategies that can help parents deal with these situations and minimize the negative impact

Separación Divorcio Niños
It is essential that parents talk openly and honestly with their children about their separation.Prasit photo (Getty Images)

A couple’s relationship has a profound impact on the life of their children. It influences their emotional stability, their daily routine and their sense of security. Consequently, separation or divorce can have the opposite effect, causing reactions of rage, anger and sadness that could affect their relationships with their peers, their academic performance and, in some cases, their leisure time and friendships. But the breakup is an adult matter, and if you are in charge of children, you have to be as mature as you can and keep your disputes away from them in order to maintain, as much as possible, the stability they need in their daily lives.

Family mediators recommend open and honest communication when facing a separation or divorce process. When the time comes in the sessions to talk about how to communicate the news to the children, how to manage the conversation, how to make joint decisions when you are already separated and have different lives, and even in situations in which a new partner has entered the picture, parents should know that it is essential to speak frankly with their children. There are several reasons for this, but three stand out:

· Children need to understand what is happening and receive clear answers to their questions.

· It is important to adapt the information to the age and level of understanding of each child, avoiding conflictive and negative discussions about the other parent.

· Parents should focus on transmitting a message of joint support and love, explaining clearly that the separation is no one’s fault and that both will continue to care for and love them.

The big problem with telling the children about the separation is that it is usually done as it is taking place, which means that the parents may be emotionally unstable, experiencing a lot of anxiety or even overcome by the circumstances. And it is a joint responsibility, as parents, to do it at a time when both can make as comfortable a situation as possible. A separation process will return to the children’s heads months, even years later, so laying the foundations of a good relationship and not having regrets or feeling guilty for having handled it poorly is essential. It is also a personal protection factor that paves the way for the future of the relationships with the children after the divorce.

How to do it

The talk should not be affected by your feelings; what you want is to instill a sense of confidence. This does not mean that you cannot cry or feel bad, but you do have to control your emotions so as not to project them onto them, make them pick sides or toy with their feelings. It is normal to cry or be sad, and sharing it is always a good thing when done from a place of sincerity and not seeking a personal benefit. Therefore, it is normal to feel and express, but not to manipulate their emotions as part of an unresolved conflict. Here are some guidelines on how to do it:

· Be brief and concise, focusing on maintaining the routine and stability, explaining that, obviously, there will be changes, but those changes will not affect their lives and they will be able to make their own decisions.

· Answer their questions, but without going into details that concern two adults who decided to go their separate ways.

· Be empathetic with their emotional process and let them express themselves freely.

In addition, keeping a clearly defined, predictable routine is crucial so that they feel safe during the entire process, especially if they are little, because this situation entails a lot of anxiety as they will not spend any more time with their parents together: just one or the other. Maintaining the same activities, their eating, sleeping and homework schedules, will provide them with a sense of stability and normality, helping them face the changes with greater confidence and resilience.

We must also encourage them to spend time with their other parent – unless the situation involves abuse or violence – and support their activities and visits so they maintain the bond with both, regardless of any unresolved conflicts or demands.

It is normal for children to experience a wide range of emotions during a separation or divorce, from sadness and anger to embarrassment, confusion and fear. How can parents deal with these concerns and insecurities? The best thing is to foster a safe environment, talking to them about their things instead of using them as a confessor; giving them space to talk and prioritizing their emotions above yours so that they can express and manage their feelings in a healthy way.

This can take a lot of effort, but actively listening, validating their feelings and offering comfort are key tools to help children and teenagers process their emotions and promote their emotional well-being after their parents’ divorce or separation. Marital breakups are challenging, destabilizing processes, both psychologically and emotionally, but with adequate care and support, children can cope with them in a healthy way.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more English-language news coverage from EL PAÍS USA Edition

More information

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS