How to Discuss Separation With Children

talking to children

I was recently posed the question “My wife and I have decided to separate, how do I tell our daughter?” The real answer is there is no perfect answer; but there are some guidelines you can follow to make the discussion positive and productive, even if it isn’t easy.

These same principles can be applied to any discussion you have with your child(ren) in the coming months of change regardless of the outcome. There are two basic paths that a separation can take, one leading to divorce, the other to reconciliation. Regardless of the path your family takes, make it a smoother ride for your children by following the S.M.I.L.E rule.

Stay Positive
Make time for talking
Include your spouse
Love comes first
Employ honesty

 Stay positive

– I’m sure you are experiencing a wide range of emotions, from grief, sadness and anxiety to relief and joy, all of which are normal and healthy to experience. As you involve your children in the discussions, remember that they are probably experiencing the same emotions, but without the maturity and reasoning skills you have developed as an adult. Their emotions and reactions may be unpredictable, what matters is they feel they have a safe place to express their concerns and feel those emotions without worrying about adding stress or tension to the situation.

You will be this safety net by staying positive. Reassure them that what they feel is okay, that they can talk to you about any feelings good or bad without consequences.And most importantly, NO bad talk about the other parent. Your negative feelings must be set aside, it will only damage your child’s relationship with both of you!

Make time for talking

– We all get busy; working, parenting, cooking, laundry, the list goes on and on, and now the added burden of being a single parent. It’s daunting, and the last thing that a parent wants to do at the end of a hard day is get bombarded by the emotions of a child. Unfortunately that’s the most common time for children, especially young children between 4 and 10 years old, to want to “unload” from their day.  Young children may throw tantrums and older children often want to talk. Seize the opportunity! Give them 10 minutes where they have as much of your attention as possible, and you’ll be surprised the things that come out! If you notice they have shut down and don’t seem to be dealing with issues, try asking questions like “What was the highlight of your day? What was the low point of your day?” and let the conversation take a natural course from there.

Include Your Spouse

– If at all possible, try to find time to include your spouse in conversations with your children. If they can see you working together as a unit, they will feel more secure in the changes to come. Understandably, this may not be a reality for many separations, so the next best thing you can do is let the other parent know what kind of questions, concerns and conversations are happening with your children. Keeping a journal or weekly email log of these conversations can be useful, especially if you feel seeking counseling would benefit your child.

Love comes first

– Even small children are aware when there is conflict or change in the home. Love is one of the first emotions children actively recognize, because it is central to human development.  Make sure they are told frequently that changes in the home are not a reflection of them, or either parent’s love for them. Staying positive and making time for talking are key to showing them they are loved, along with telling them. Have discussions like “We are still a family, and we still love you, that won’t ever change, we’ve just changed where mom/dad is living”.  Children’s books discussing divorce can help them normalize the adjustment and understand what it will be like to live in two homes or not see a parent daily. Visit our resource page for links to our favorites.

Employ honesty

– It may seem easier at first to shut down questions with things like “mom/dad is on a trip or out of town”, but eventually you will have to have a real conversation about where the other parent is, so far as it is age appropriate and a positive discussion. Use your judgement on how much your child can understand based on their age and maturity if a parent is incarcerated or in treatment.

Lying or giving half-truths can bite you in the rear when the truth can no longer be avoided, or your child learns the truth from someone else. By maintaining an honest dialog, you are opening a safe space for your child to be honest with you. This is especially important for teens and young adults. Puberty comes with questions about identity and self-worth, if they feel they are worthy of your honesty, they are less likely to look for that self-worth in dangerous situations (drugs, gangs, unsafe dating practices).

Please visit our resource page for links to books that can give more details on co-parenting and helping children adjust to separation and divorce. If you have a topic you would like to see a blog post on, or questions about the above post, you can send an email to Megan at

Megan, BSFSC