We're separating - but how do we tell the kids?

Your children will need reassurance if you are separating, says Kirsten. Picture posed by a model
Your children will need reassurance if you are separating, says Kirsten. Picture posed by a model

Agony aunt Kirsten Antoncich advises on how to tell your kids that you’re separating

Dear Kirsten,

My partner and I are breaking up, we weren’t great before the lockdown and after spending so much time together we have decided to call it quits. It’s amicable now but for a while we did argue and it was heated. We tried to not do it in front of the kids but they might have noticed something wasn’t right. I have three kids, my oldest isn’t biologically my husband’s but he has viewed him as a dad for most of his life. I’ve caught my partner saying quite negative things about me to the kids and I feel like he is trying to pull them onto his side. I’m not sure how to talk to them about what is happening, my partner still lives at home but he will be moving out soon. How do I talk to them about us separating and getting a divorce?

Name supplied

Kirsten writes:

I’m sorry things have become difficult between you and your partner .

It’s really clear from your email that you are keen on making this as smooth and as easy as you can for your children. Trying to not argue in front of the kids is a good first step, children are very perceptive and it’s likely that will have picked up on subtle changes like tone of voice and body language between you and your partner. Here is my advice:

Present a united front if possible …

This might be easier said than done- having both parents singing from the same hymn sheet can be very soothing for children navigating a parental divorce. If your partner is trying to pull them on side by talking negatively about you this could be quite damaging for them. Talk to your partner and try to avoid the need to pull the children into an alliance with either one of you.

Keeping good parental relationships reassures children that even though you aren’t together, parts of your relationship still remain, this is important for children and helps them to feel safe. Talking through how you will coparent before speaking to your children is a good idea, children need to have clear, predictable routines that are agreed in advance by both parties.

Think about timing…

Try to show your child a calm exterior when you talk about the divorce, they will feel soothed and protected by this. It’s worthwhile spending sometime managing how you feel, making sure you have a good self care routine and a network of support. It goes without saying that a divorce can be extremely stressful, you need to take good care of yourself in order to be available for your children.

Keep it simple…

Offer your children simple, factual explanations. Highlight the difference between love that parents have for each other and love that parents have for their children, letting them know that you are always going to love them.

Sometimes when there is a divorce children can become anxious and worry about the stability of their other relationships. You might find for example that they have anxiety dreams that feature loss. By offering regular reassurance you can start to help them feel relationally safe again.

Make it ok to talk about it…

Talking about the divorce in a child centred way and making it ok to talk about feelings is important, giving space for them to talk about their worries and shielding from some of the more negative feelings you and your partner might have about each other can be helpful. Children can sometimes feel the split might be there fault, they might try to look for reasons as to why the split has happened- naming this and making sure that they know it isn’t anything to do with them is important.

Keep structure and routine …

Anxiety thrives on chaos so keeping to as much of your usual routine is important . Try to make the structure of the week explicit early on - so for example if they will be at dad’s next weekend, write down on a chart what they will be doing at dad’s. Include details that will be important to them - how will I get to school? Who will read me a bed time story? Will I still go swimming?

If they will be staying in an unfamiliar environment, pre plan with them about where it is, what it looks like, what there is to do near it.

Young Minds have some great resources for supporting children whilst going through a divorce. You can find them here . Gingerbread is a really great organisation that supports families going through divorce and also champions single parents, you can find them here .

For both parties, getting divorced involves some feelings of loss, try and make sure you are well supported and are looking after yourself.

All Best Wishes


Kirsten Antoncich

UKCP Psychotherapist and Neurofeedback Practitioner