Telling your children that you and your partner or spouse are separating is probably one of the hardest things you will ever have to do. As an experienced family lawyer I am often asked if it is possible to separate without your children being affected at all and the answer is probably yes, it is possible but it requires a lot of work by sensible and careful planning.
The most important thing to remember though is that, however painful it seems at the time that your relationship breaks down, things will improve, you will get through it and life will return to normal at some point.
So, what can you do to help your children through this difficult time? Here are some of the things that I recommend to my clients:
- How to break the news? - If your children are old enough to understand the concept, then explain to them that the relationship is over but that Mummy and Daddy still love them very much. Clearly a young child will need this explained in very different terms to a teenage child and remember being a teenager is hard enough without having additional emotional baggage to carry – so give them time and support.
- Try to get on with your ex – this is easier said than done but, from your children’s perspective, they still love you both and to see you not loving each other anymore is really tough. If you can calmly communicate with your ex partner or spouse and get on with them in front of your children than you will reduce the stress on your children. Emotional conflict between parents can have a lasting effect on children, impacting on their own relationships in the future. Obviously this is not going to be easy if your ex partner or spouse is violent or abusive but otherwise it will really assist your children if, as parents, you can try to remain on good terms.
- Try not to change things too much – children need routine and security. So, if they go to Cubs or Brownies on a Wednesday night, then stick with that. They will feel insecure enough handling the breakdown of their parents’ relationship without their own lives being changed in terms of their day to day arrangements. As separated parents your aim should be to try to agree a plan that enables your children to carry on as normal in their lives whilst sharing time with both parents. It requires a bit of work from you both but it is possible and the long term benefits for your children will be clear to see.
- Let them talk - but only if they want to! – of course you are going to be hurting and you may wish to talk about the breakdown of your relationship but you should only talk to your children if they want to discuss what is happening and in “children friendly” ways. So, for example, the “he said, she said” kind of conversation is not going to help but letting your children talk about how they feel and ask questions if they want to do so will help. Endeavour not to criticise your partner in front of them – however much you may feel you want to! It is simply not fair on them to deal with this.
- Work out a pattern of contact that works for them and make it work – it probably goes without saying that it took two of you to conceive your children and that, in most cases, both of you should be there to parent your children as they grow up. However, sadly in my job, what I often see is children being used as commodities and parents at war using their children as weapons. Broadly speaking most children will want to see the parent they are not living with every week or so and, unless there are safety concerns, try to agree a routine that reflects this.
- Don’t rule out seeking help – it is not always possible to work these sorts of things out on your own. Sometimes you need help and there are some really good resources out there that can help you, from paying for counselling if you are having trouble accepting the breakdown of your relationship to some of the excellent courses run by Relate including “Relateen for 10-25 year olds”, family counselling and the parenting courses they run.
I have recommended clients of mine go on the parenting courses and they have come back saying they made a real difference. They do not teach you how to parent your children, you already know that, but how to parent your children as separated parents which is totally different.
A relationship breakdown does not have to signify emotional distress for your children. Children who live with parents who are unhappy but stay together can be just as unhappy as children whose parents call it a day and separate. If you separate, yet are successful in working together, communicating (both with your children and each other) and putting your children first (not at the centre of your dispute but at the centre of your lives), you can minimise the disruption in their lives, and give them the best chance of your children handling your separation well - that should be your number one goal.
Sadly, in some cases, you will not be able to resolve issues affecting your children without legal assistance. In which case our specialist family law department can offer guidance and advice on all areas in relation to your separation or divorce and your children. We also have trained mediator lawyers here at Whitehead Monckton who can assist in appropriate cases.
If you wish to discuss any of the points raised in this article, please contact the Family Team.