Risk and Resilience for Children During a Family Breakup
The stress of the initial separation is the first opportunity parents have to make good decisions about taking care of children. Parents tend to either tell their children too little or tell their children too much.
Telling children too little can lead to confusion, sadness, and depression. Telling children too much can lead to anger, fear, acting out, and parentification when a parent attempts to emotionally manipulate the child to take a side.
Parents usually tell their children too little because they have no idea what to say. Parents usually tell their children too much because the parents are so angry or hurt that they want the children to choose sides with them against the other parent. Angry and hurt parents often justify telling children too much adult information by taking the moral high ground - I AM NOT GOING TO LIE TO MY CHILDREN.
So, if you want to do something helpful, ask this question: How do I find the amount of information that is just right?
Here are the messages children need to hear:
1 Mommy and Daddy aren't going to live together anymore.
2 We will each have our own home and you will live with both of us.
3 Mommy and Daddy will take good care of you.
4 Mommy and Daddy can still be friends but we need to live apart to be the very best parents we can be for you.
5 Mommy and Daddy will always love you.
If your children ask you a question and you don't know the answer, be honest. Tell them "I don't know, but Mommy and Daddy will figure it out and let you know as soon as we can."
If your children ask you a question that makes your blood pressure rise, or your heart break, tell them "that sounds like a really important question, sweetie, and I need some time to think about that. I will talk to you about that later." Then get some support for yourself, sort out your emotions, and practice an age-appropriate response.
Include your children as soon as you have made some decisions that are specific. Questions that need to be answered before you talk to your children?
Who is moving?
When is Mommy or Daddy moving out?
Will the children stay in the same school?
What will change and what will stay the same for the children?
If you are having fights in front of the children, then you are probably going to need to talk to them before all of those initial questions are answered. The problem is, if you are fighting in front of the children then you are already putting your children at risk. You probably know that you are hurting your children by fighting in front of them but you cannot stop yourself.
If you have already made mistakes or if you are afraid to talk to your children or you have no idea what to say, get some information. There are many great sources of information.
Transitions Family Program at Hannah's House offers consultation, coaching, and classes for parents who need help talking to their children about these important issues. Talk to someone as soon as you can because your children will fare much better if they have some basic information to help them understand what is happening.