Guidance for parents on telling their children about separation – how a mediator may help
Telling your children that you are separating from their other parent is something which many parents view with dread. Being prepared for this together with a mediator can be helpful as the mediator will have time to focus on their children’s needs and characteristics and assist both parents in agreeing how to deal with the following when telling children about a separation:
A balance needs to be struck between telling the children too early, when either or both parents may be feeling too overwrought to manage their own emotions and when things are so unclear that it is not possible to give any firm guidance as to what would happen next. Too late, and the children have already picked up on something being amiss and they may be more frightened by the unknown than they would be by the truth. For instance they might think that one parent is about to die. Leaving it too late also runs the risk of the children raising the issue with one parent alone so that they are not told by both parents together. The right time depends on the age of the children, the level of their understanding, and the emotional state of the parents. A mediator can assist parents in reaching agreement about when to tell the children, to obtain a commitment not to breach this, and to think about practical, truthful and appropriate ways of answering children’s questions if they are not to be told immediately (eg why is Daddy crying? Why is Mummy sleeping in a different bedroom?).
The children need to be told somewhere where they are comfortable, when they will have time afterwards to ask questions and to express their emotions if they are upset.
Advice from experts is consistent – do not blame each other, reassure the children that they are loved and that this will never change, and make it clear that none of this is their fault. A mediator can help parents reach agreement on how much information to give children, and to help them focus on their children’s welfare rather than whose fault it is. It is difficult for a parent who feels betrayed, grief stricken and abandoned to give a neutral explanation of why they are parting and an experienced mediator will not underestimate this struggle. That parent’s family and friends may make unintentionally unhelpful comments along the lines of “the children need to know the truth about their father/mother”. Children will need age appropriate information as to what is to happen next. They will need to know that they will see both parents and that they will be supported in seeing the other parent. It is important that both parents listen to the children rather than imposing their own agenda. They should know that they are welcome to ask questions now or at any stage and that both parents will try to answer them.
Children may have fears about how a separation may affect them – they may worry about issues such as where they will go to school, where they will live, whether they will be able to go on holiday, where their pets will live or they may come out with what appear to be random questions such as whether they will still have to eat broccoli.
The value of mediation in these circumstances is to reach agreement in a neutral environment and to have a rough script so that both parents enter into a painful discussion with the confidence that they have done the best job that they can to prioritise their children’s welfare and to minimise the risk of harm to them. A mediator can assist in steering parents away from scoring points or the (often subconcious) quest for comfort by trying to get their children onside, which is likely to be damaging to them.