First of all, I want to reassure you - the end of your relationship or marriage itself isn’t necessarily going to have a negative effect on your children.
Your children may well recover from the breakup. However, their general well-being now and in the future does depend on your - and your ex’s - attitude, and your willingness and ability to compromise and solve problems.
Your decision to separate from your partner can even be of benefit to your children if your relationship is - or has been - peppered with endless rows, contempt and even abuse. Your children are more likely to have been affected by the conflict than they are by your separation and divorce.
Yes, I know that lots of studies have shown that divorce means dire outcomes for the children’s future. But what good does that do you in your situation right now? You’re likely to have gone way past the point that you can hang on for the sake of your kids.
So my aim here is to help you to do the best you can under the circumstances.
Let’s start with heightening your awareness - just in case...
Children who get caught in the middle of their parents' conflict(s) are all too often aware of their parents' confusion, hurt, stress, distress and anger, because:
Your family might be a ‘blended’ one, so adjust the advice below to fit your own situation. Regardless of the circumstances, what your children need most of all is reassurance, especially if the two of you are going to separate imminently.
Although you maybe feeling lousy at the moment, it's worthwhile remembering that some of the things you might feel like doing - however understandable perhaps - won't be all that helpful.
Here' a really powerful video about the impact of divorce on children...
It would be easy to assume that your children know you love them and that all will be well, regardless of what the future holds.
Their world too has been - or is about to be - turned upside down.
Therefore, you need to help them to understand what they can and cannot expect. That will go a long way towards helping them to feel safe and secure.
This is what you’ll need to spell out - often:
I really understand that comforting and reassuring your children can be ever so challenging if you are unsure of exactly where life will be taking you. On top of that, because of everything that’s happened, your self-confidence may have suffered and you too are likely to feel at a low ebb and perhaps very needy. That doesn’t put you in the best place to effectively and sensitively deal with the needs of your possibly fractious children.
Therefore, I've put together a list of strategies for you that'll help you to help your children feel more secure during your separation and divorce.
Here’s how you can best support your children and prevent them from being damaged by the whole process…
Significant changes - for example moving house or changing schools, or finding a new romantic partner - invariably mean losses, even if there are positive aspects.
A new partner, for example, could mean the loss of hope that mum and dad will get back together again. Whilst that is, in your opinion, not likely to happen, your brood needs time to come to that conclusion themselves. It won’t help you or them if they’re suddenly confronted with it.
Keep things as stable as possible.
That provides a familiar and comforting structure and sense of ‘normalness’. Don’t make any changes other than those that are unavoidable. Certainly don’t allow your children to get away with stuff you wouldn’t have let slide in the past either.
Play with them, watch them, cuddle them. Ideally it needs to be a time when you’re not giving them instructions, lessons or direction (if at all possible!). Simply be with them, join them and have some fun. Yes, I know it may be difficult to find the time. Heaven knows what you’ve already got on your plate, and the last thing I want to do is pile on the guilt. But, you know what? You need that time to relax too - it will make you more productive, and it’ll reduce any lurking feelings of guilt!
Do not ask them to choose between the two of you, or make disparaging remarks about your (ex)partner. Allow them to talk about how they've spent their time with the other parent. They may well be full of what they’ve done with mum/dad. I would understand if you’d rather not hear about it, but that would be putting your needs before theirs. They would also very quickly cotton on to the fact that they mustn’t say anything about the other parent, in case it hurts or angers you.
Ensure they don't feel they are letting you or your partner down. You may well feel disappointed by some of the choices they make, but don’t be tempted to let them know that you feel hurt because they want dad/mum to come to an event instead of you, for example.
Your children and members of your partner’s family may well have created their own unique bonds. Losing contact with much-loved grandparents, for example, would add insult to injury to all involved. Your children would suffer yet another significant loss if you stopped them from having contact with your partner’s family.
Your children need to be able to visit their friends as normal, and so do you. Your children are used to seeing certain people regularly and those contacts come with their own comforts.
You’re likely to be sharing concerns about the separation or divorce with friends and family. Make sure your children can’t overhear you. You may think that they don’t hear you talk, but under the circumstances they are finely attuned when it comes to certain types of conversations. So, your whispering becomes the cue to listen harder. When they’re ‘safely’ tucked up in bed, even if they can’t hear what you’re saying, they’ll hear the sound of your voice and its intonation and this could make them worry just before going to sleep.
You’re facing a tough time as a family. You may find this easier to deal with during a joint activity, particularly with older children. Make it possible for them to express their worries and concerns by openly inviting it, gently asking them questions and encouraging them to expand on their answers: “Can you tell me a little more about that?” If they can’t/won’t talk, they may want to make a drawing, or they may be happy to tell ‘a story’ of a girl or a boy of a similar age. Be creative!
Do make sure that when you make a promise you're able to keep it, as your children will see it as yet another let down if you don’t. They’ve already lost the unstated, taken for granted promise that the two of you will be together forever. I’m in no way saying that to pile on the guilt, but simply to help you understand - just in case.
I understand that your patience may be short, but shouting only encourages them to shout. I get it that you may ‘slip up’ under the circumstances. So, take yourself out of the situation for just a few minutes if you need to. Apologise if necessary, tell your children that you didn’t mean to shout, that you’re tired and just a bit grumpy. But seek help if you feel it’s all getting too much and ‘a bit grumpy’ starts not to describe what’s really going on for you.
Make sure that friends and family do the same! Give them as much information as you can - depending on their age. But… protect them from being drawn into the conflict.
Chances are your financial situation has, or will, come under considerable strain. This is not a time to ignore the letters on the doormat and pretend all is well. The sooner you take stock and actively manage your finances, the less likely your children are going suffer needlessly from a potentially downward spiral into poverty - a risk for all too many families post-divorce. The reality is, depending on your individual circumstances of course, that they can’t have what they used to have. When you can help them understand the situation calmly and confidently, they are less likely to become scared.
If you and your children are in the middle of a conflict over custody or residency issues and visitation rights, then please do also access professional help, if at all possible - for your sake and theirs.
You owe it to yourself and the children to look after yourself as best you can whilst you’re going through the process of separation and divorce. I know that can be a tall order when there are so many demands placed upon you. Make sure that, at the very least, you eat and rest well.
When you are coping, you'll have the ‘spare capacity’ to effectively deal with any challenging behaviour, to make time to support them and have some fun. However full your diary, it’ll be much easier to make your time with them count without a sense that it’s yet another chore. You’ll be able to help your children navigate their new reality with confidence.
Heeding the advice on this page and others will prevent your children feeling caught in the middle and responsible for their parents' upsets and well-being.
Possible Consequences of Divorce on Children
Essential Advice before You File for Divorce
How to End a Relationship
Dealing with Infidelity
Divorce Advice for Men
How to Find a Good Divorce Lawyer
Warning Signs of an Abusive Relationship
Don't Even Think about Revenge
My Partner's Children Don't Want to Know Me