Talking to children about separation

Children need to be told that their parents are separating. They don’t usually need to know the reasons why the separation occurred. When you talk to your children about separation keep it simple, and keep it centred on the basic, objective facts.

Try to keep the discussions future focussed, describe the arrangements for future parenting, and explain how you think it might make things better. Reassure them about the love of both their parents. 

Research shows that the more exposure the children get to the separation issues, and the conflict between parents, the worse it is for children. When parents involve children in the negative details of their personal affairs it undermines their relationships with them and with their other parent. It also harms the child’s ability to function well. The less exposure children have to conflict and the details of their parents’ relationship breakdown, the better they do.

Tips for talking to children about separation

  • Make it easy for your kids to love both parents.
  • Tell them they are loved. 
  • Tell the truth.
  • Keep it simple.
  • Be civil - don’t criticise or belittle the other parent in front of the kids.
  • Reassure your children that the separation has nothing to do with them.
  • Stay future focused.

Things to avoid

Children are usually very loyal and trusting so it is important to look at the ways in which you behave with them to make sure you are not abusing their loyalty and trust. Here are some of the subtle ways in which parents can take advantage of their children.

'Messenger' – using your children as messengers between the two of you teaches children that adults cannot talk honestly or directly to each other.

'I Spy' – asking a child to report on the other parent is destructive – it is using a child for your own ends.

'Your father is an idiot'/'Your mother is stupid' – name calling and anger between parents has a destructive effect on children.

'Disneyland Daddy'/'Mummy Santa' – when visits are used just to give the child a good time, or outings and gifts take the place of normal parenting.

'I still love him but he doesn't love me' 'I want to keep the house for the kids but she wants to sell it' – this puts pressure on your children to take sides.

'You can go if you like ... but we are going on a picnic' – don't set up competing activities, it spoils children's pleasure in being with either parent.

Help for Parents after separation booklet

Questions and Answers about separation for children booklet

Rebecca is concerned that her daughter Emily is not coping with the breakdown of Rebecca and her husband Craig’s marriage a few months ago. Even though they have separated, Rebecca and Craig are still fighting about when Emily should stay with each of them.  Rebecca is finding it hard to act ‘normal’ in front of Emily. The school has rung Rebecca to say that Emily is acting out at school. 

Rebecca goes to the school and talks to the school principal, who has heard that Family Relationship Centres can help. Rebecca finds a Family Relationship Centre near her, and makes an appointment with them to do Family Dispute Resolution. During the session, Craig and Rebecca agree to suspend the fighting while they are developing a parenting plan. 

Related links

Making a Parenting Plan

Services for Children

Children and Safety

Children and Family Law

Family mediation and dispute resolution

Next steps

Ensure children’s safety.

Make a parenting agreement.

Make an appointment for family counselling or family mediation.

Find a service to help children with separation by using Find Local help or by calling the Family Relationship Advice Line.