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 "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.

How children react to separation and divorce generally depends on their age. You will find information about different age groups in the Department of Justice Canada’s “How children react at different ages and stages”.

Stages of Grief

Here are some examples of the things your children may be feeling as they grieve. 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.”

”My parents 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?”

“Why can’t we just be one happy family?”

Bargaining

“If I behave better, maybe my parents will get back together.”

“Maybe I can help my parents stay together.”

Depression

“I feel so sad and alone.”

“My parents are splitting up because of me.”

“My family would be better off without me.”

“I don't want to talk to anyone about this—I just want to be by myself.”

“I have no one to talk to about how I feel.”

In some cases, children may act out feelings of sadness as aggression. Be alert for self-harming activities, including drug and alcohol use. There are resources that offer 24/7 support, such as the Kids Help Phone (1-800-668-6868).

Acceptance

“I'm not happy about it, but I understand that my parents aren't getting back together.”

“It’s better for our family that my parents don’t live together anymore.”

“My parents don't live together anymore, but they both still love me.”

It can take time for your children to adjust to separation and divorce, just as 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. They may worry that because one parent is leaving the other, that parent might leave them too.

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
  • let them know you will always love them no matter what happens

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 are listening and that you understand how they're feeling.

Remember

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

Important things to tell your children

Here are some examples of things you can say to your children to engage them in a discussion and help them cope with the divorce or separation:

“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. Be truthful with your children. 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 doctors, counsellors, mediators, elders or religious advisers.

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 and concerns

Whatever approach you decide is best, you need to think carefully about what you're going to say and try to 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 details about why the relationship ended.

Preschoolers won’t understand terms like separation or divorce, and will need to be told in more basic terms. For example, you might tell a preschooler that you and the other parent won’t 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, such as:

  • 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 and clothes

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 them 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 O.K. 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, 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. Be sure to give your children the opportunity to express their thoughts and feelings about what is happening.

The Department of Justice Canada has a booklet for children called What happens next? Information for kids about separation and divorce. You can read this booklet with your children to help them understand what is happening. If your children are old enough, you could encourage them to read it themselves and have an open discussion about it afterwards.

The booklet is meant to help children learn some basic facts about family law and give them an idea of the processes that parents may go through when they split up. It is also meant to help children realize that it's normal for them to have an emotional response to their parents' divorce, and encourages them to voice their concerns to someone they trust.

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 your child coping?

It's normal for children to have reactions to separation or divorce. Their 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 fuller picture of how your child is doing:

  1. What emotions related to grief 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 consult the “How children react at different ages and stages” resource.
  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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