Speaking to your children about divorce and separation

Last updated: 03/04/2020

Lots of parents contact us for advice about how to talk to their children about divorce and separation. This can be a difficult and emotional time for the whole family. We hope that you are getting the support you need to cope.

Children are generally more resilient and adaptable than we think, and often surprise us with how well they adjust to big changes in their lives.

Always speak with your children openly, using words that they can understand. Children often pick up on tension. Depending on their age, they are likely to know that something is wrong. If you avoid telling them about what’s going on, they may worry even more. When you speak with them, you may find that it’s a relief to them that things are out in the open.

There are things you can do to help them cope with, and adapt to, this change.

If you are not sure how to start or what to say, it can help to talk about fictional characters than your own family. Reading books or watching a film together, such as the films below, might help you all talk about difficult topics. OPFS also has a list of recommended books

Some children, especially teenagers, find it easier to talk if there’s no eye contact. They might find it easier to chat to you in the car, or if you go out for a walk. Trust your instinct on what is best for your child.

It can help if you let childcare providers and schools know of any family change so they understand any change in your child’s behaviour or schoolwork, and can offer support.

If you’re unsure about separating from your partner, or whether it’s safe for you to leave, you might find this Relate guide useful. If your partner is controlling and abusive, Women’s Aid has great videos explaining cohesive control, and information about domestic abuse and legal protection. Separation is a time when people experiencing domestic abuse are at increased risk. You might want to speak to a friend or a professional about these issues so you can plan for safety, before you tell your children.

Some tips for speaking to your children about divorce and separation

  • Plan ahead, and think about what you will say, how you will say it, when and where. It’s good if you and your partner are on the same page
  • If it’s safe, it’s best if both of you are there when you tell your children that you are separating
  • Think about what your children are likely to ask, so you can prepare your answers. For example, they might ask you why you are separating; about where they will live; when they will see both of you; what will happen about special occasions
  • Reassure your children that you both love them, and that the separation is not their fault. This is an adult situation and one that you both, as parents, will manage and cope with
  • Give a brief and truthful reason for the separation. As parents, avoid blaming one another. Give enough detail, not too much, and suitable for their age. If children don’t have a reason, or don’t believe your reason, they will make up their own. They may end up blaming themselves for the separation. This is something you want to avoid
  • Reassure your children that you and your partner are both OK, and that if you need support, you will get this from your friends/family/counsellor. It reassures children that they do not have to look after you, and are not responsible for you: you are the adult and the parent
  • Acknowledge your own feelings and emotions about the separation. This will help your children express theirs. For example, you could say, “I feel sad”. Let them know that you can cope with your own feelings and emotions, and that you can help them cope with theirs
  • Be specific about changes that will affect them, such as school, activities, clubs they go to, where they will live, and so on. Children tend to worry about such changes. If you don’t know, reassure them that you will sort these things out when you can, and that you will involve them in decisions
  • Let your children know that, even though you and your partner will be living separately, you want the family to adjust to the changes together
  • Encourage them to share any questions or worries. Answer their questions and listen to their worries. Take their worries seriously rather than dismissing them or telling them not to worry
  • Involve them in planning when they will spend time with each parent and extended family (if relevant and safe). Think about now but also think about the future – birthdays, family occasions and so on
  • Ask them if they would like you to speak to others on their behalf such as their guidance teacher, class teacher, parents of friends and so on. They may not want anyone to know, but you may have to speak to some people and prepare the ground for them, depending on their age and stage
  • Avoid criticising your partner in front of the children. It won’t do you or your children any good in the long run – and remember this is for the long run
  • But, if you’re finding things difficult, and are very angry and upset at your partner and how they are behaving, find someone to speak to about this: not your children. This could be a friend or a professional. Avoid sharing information that your children don’t need to know, for example intimate details about your relationship with your partner or someone else
  • Your children will need time to think about things and about what they want to know. They probably won’t take in everything you tell them all at once, especially if this comes as a shock to them. They need time to get over any shock and distress
  • It’s good to continue to check in with them, and to ask them if they have any questions, as time goes on and as you all adjust. Their feelings and questions are not one-off. They will change as they speak to friends, grow older and encounter more of life

Films

  • Mrs Doubtfire – comedy about a man who wants to see his children after separation.
  • Parent Trap – twins plot to get their parents back together.
  • The Squid and the Whale – semi-autobiographical story of two boys dealing with their parents’ divorce.
  • The Dumping Ground – CBBC TV programme based on Jaqueline Wilson’s book. It includes separation, foster care and social work involvement with families.
  • What Maisie Knew – for parents. A hard watch about the difficulties experienced by six-year-old Maisie during a custody battle involving her parents’ new partners.

Useful links

OPFS guide to Separation: practical issues, including welfare benefits and legal services. Our helpline staff can listen and offer advice and support by phone 0808 801 0323 or webchat.

Relationship Scotland: courses and mediation for parents wanting support.

Scottish Women’s Aid: links to local Women’s Aid groups for advice and support for women and children experiencing domestic abuse. Local Women’s Aid groups have specialist children’s workers.

Scotland’s Domestic Abuse and Forced Marriage Helpline: for anyone affected by domestic abuse. Phone: 0800 027 1234. Email helpline@sdafmh.org.uk. Webchat.  Open 24 hours with translation service to speak to you in your preferred language.

Amina Muslim Women’s Resource Centre: Helpline for Muslim women across Scotland. Phone: 0808 801 0301.

Parenting Plan: Scottish Government plan to help separated parents discuss and plan practical arrangements for their children.