Making plans: A guide to parenting arrangements after separation or divorce

Section 2: What your children may be feeling

As you separate or divorce, one of your main concerns will be your children. You may be asking yourself, "Will my kids be O.K.?"

This section talks about children's reactions to separation and divorce. Understanding what they're feeling can help you understand their questions and reactions. It will also help you support them.

Everybody makes mistakes. You may read something in this guide and think "Oh, I shouldn't have done that" or "I should've handled that situation differently." Nobody is perfect. You can always revisit issues with your children. This guide may help you think about different strategies to use in the future.

Your children may be grieving too

Just like you, your children may be grieving the loss of their family as they knew it. Children can feel loss when their parents separate or divorce. Because young children usually don't have the language skills or experience to explain what they're feeling, they often show their grief through their behaviour.

Children's specific reaction to separation and divorce generally depends on their age. You will find information about different age groups at Appendix A: How Children React at Different Ages and Stages.

Stages of Grief

Here are some of the things your children may be feeling as they work through their grief. They may go through all of these stages, or only some of them. Or they may go through them in a different order than listed here.
Denial
  • I don't believe this
  • Mom and Dad will get back together again
Anger
  • How can you ruin my life like this?
  • You're only thinking about yourselves!
  • How come my parents are getting divorced? Why does this have to happen to me?
Bargaining
  • If I behave better, maybe Mom and Dad will get back together
Depression
  • I feel so sad and alone
  • I don't want to talk to anyone about this—I just want to be by myself

In some cases, children may act out feelings of sadness as aggression.

Acceptance
  • I'm not happy about it, but I understand that Mom and Dad aren't getting back together
  • Mom and Dad don't live together anymore, but they both still love me

It takes time for your children to adjust to separation and divorce, just like it takes time for you to adjust. Before your children can accept it, you must accept it. They will take their lead from you.

What your children need to hear

When children find out that their parents are divorcing or separating, they're often unprepared. They can feel sad, lonely, and confused.

Your children need you to talk with them about how the separation or divorce will affect them. They need you to:

  • talk about what will change
  • listen to them talk about their feelings and worries
  • let them know they can be honest with you about their feelings

While you may not be able to solve all their problems or make them feel better right away, it can help them to know that you understand how they're feeling.

Remember … Your children need to know that this doesn't change how you feel about them.

It's important for you to tell your children the following:

  • My feelings for Mom/Dad may have changed, but I still love you and I think that it's important that you have a relationship with Mom/Dad.
  • You didn't do anything to cause us to separate or divorce. Nobody thinks you did anything wrong.
  • It's normal for you to have feelings about this and I want to know how you're feeling.
  • You don't need to take care of us. We're adults and it's our job to take care of you.
  • You don't need to choose between us. It's O.K. to love both of us.
  • You may hope that we'll get back together. This is something kids often want. We've thought about separating (or divorcing) really carefully and we are not going to change our minds about this. Things in all of our lives are going to change. I am going to work with your Mom/Dad to make this as easy on you as possible.

If a statement on this list isn't true in your case, don't say it. Also, if you're worried about your safety or the safety of your children, some of these statements may not be appropriate in your case.

Focusing on your children's needs can sometimes be hard, especially when you are dealing with your own emotions and challenges. You can get help focusing on your children's needs from support people like counsellors, mediators, elders or religious advisors.

Telling your children about the separation or divorce

If possible, it's a good idea for you and the other parent to show that you're still a parenting "team" and tell your children together. It's important that they hear consistent messages from the two of you.

While it's best if you can tell your children together, it may be better for each of you to speak to your children separately if:

  • there's a lot of conflict and anger between you and the other parent that you can't put aside in front of the children
  • there are safety issues

Whatever approach you decide is best, you need to think carefully about what you're going to say, and try and anticipate your children's questions.

It's important to give your children some basic information about your separation or divorce. The amount of information that you give them and how you explain it will depend on their age. But no matter what age your children are, they don't need to know the intimate details about why the relationship ended.

Preschoolers will not understand terms like separation or divorce, and will need to be told in more basic terms. You might tell a preschooler that mommy and daddy will not be living together anymore and will have separate homes. Older children will understand the more abstract concepts of separation or divorce.

For an older child, you might say:

We've thought and talked a lot about this. We've had problems and we've tried to work them out. But we think it would be better if we didn't live together anymore.

Be prepared to discuss practical issues that affect the child, like:

  • their living arrangements
  • their relationships with friends and other family members, like siblings and grandparents
  • how this will affect their school, activities and belongings, like toys

Don't make promises you can't keep. It's important to talk with the other parent before making promises to your children. For example, don't make promises about summer plans such as vacations or summer camps, before having discussed this with the other parent.

Early in a separation you may not know what all the practical arrangements will be. Tell your children what you know when you're speaking to them. Also let them know that as other arrangements are made, you'll give them more information. Your children may be afraid to ask questions. It's a good idea to give them as much information as you can, and let them know that it's ok to ask questions. When your children ask questions, it is important to listen to them and do your best to answer as truthfully as possible. But don't criticize the other parent. And don't give them details about what went wrong. Be brief and reassuring.

For example, if your child asks how you're doing, rather than saying "everything's good," it's O.K. to say:

I'm sad right now Honey, but that's normal and I'll get through this. You don't need to worry.

This will not be a one-time conversation. While you may have been thinking about the separation for some time, it may come as a surprise to your children. They may need time to understand what you're saying. They may ask more questions as time goes on. The Department of Justice Canada has a publication for children aged nine to twelve, entitled What happens next? Information for kids about separation and divorce.

What you should keep to yourself

Your children shouldn't hear about:

  • adult issues like money problems, an affair, or conflict between you and the other parent
  • why you think the other parent is to blame for the separation or divorce
  • negative things about the other parent

How is my child coping?

It's normal for children to have reactions to separation or divorce. This reaction will likely differ depending on their age. The questions below may help you determine how your child is doing. If you're able to effectively communicate with the other parent, you may want to discuss these questions with them to get a full picture of how your child is doing:

  1. What emotions related to grieving do you think your child is experiencing? Denial? Anger? Bargaining? Depression? Acceptance?
  2. Based on their age, how well do you think your child is handling the challenges of separation or divorce? (You may find it helpful to refer to Appendix A: How Children React at Different Ages and Stages.)
  3. Are there any issues of concern related to the separation or divorce?
  4. How are you helping your child with these issues? How are others helping your child?
  5. Who is there to support your child? Do you and your child make use of these sources of support?
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