When a couple reaches the point of separation, either to work on their relationship from a distance or as a first step toward divorce, the entire situation gets further complicated when children are involved. What’s a parent to tell a child? What’s a parent to do in this interim season of his or her marital relationship? Is it right to offer children hope when they’re hurting?
Dr. Gary Chapman coaches couples, “Tell children the truth about your separation and impending divorce. Don’t try to protect them by lying.” If a couple is going to separate, the ideal is for both parents to sit down with the children together. “Share with the children what you’re doing and why you’re doing it,” Dr. Chapman encourages. “Verbalize to the children, ‘It’s not your fault, it’s not something you did. Daddy’s not mad at you. Momma’s not mad at you. We just have some things we can’t resolve.'”
He emphasizes that children have a deep need to love and be loved, so it’s crucial that both parents reassure the children of their love for them. Don’t assume your children feel loved simply because you tell them that they’re loved; you’ll need to find out what makes each child feel loved and express your love in a way that speaks directly to him or her. Dr. Chapman cautions separated couples not to speak for each other with the children. If one parent doesn’t speak love to the child, there is nothing to be gained by the other parent offering verbal reassurance of the spouse’s love for the children.
Beyond assuring the children of your love, Dr. Chapman recommends that parents reassure children that the parents are not leaving the children. It’s best if a separated couple can be civil with each other in allowing the children to see both parents without badmouthing each other.
During the separation period, children still have a need for discipline. There’s security in clarifying boundaries and enforcing restrictions with children, and it’s best when parents can agree on the basics (such as acceptable patterns of conduct). If a couple is not in a situation where parents can agree on boundaries, then it becomes essential that they at least be consistent in their differences. Children have enough going on emotionally, so parents must be careful that they don’t keep changing the rules and cause further frustration.
Counseling is highly recommended for children of separation or divorce. Dr. Chapman explains that when a family falls apart, there’s a sense in which children are processing grief. And the best way to process grief is to talk. If children aren’t seeing a counselor with whom they can ask questions and honestly express emotions, that usually means no one is talking to them about their family grief. They are internally stuffing all the emotions, thoughts and questions that they are experiencing, and it will probably show up in their behavior because they have no other way to express their pain.
Amid that pain, how much hope should couples offer their children when they’re living with the uncertainty of a separated family situation? Again, Dr. Chapman advises that parents be honest with their kids. If it’s true that the parents haven’t given up hope on their marriage, then they can tell their children that they’re going to see a counselor to try to work on their relationship. He also counsels couples not to offer any guarantees like, “We’re gonna get this settled and we’ll be back together in a few weeks or a few months.”
If a couple is not going to work on reconciliation and one or both of them refuses to go to counseling, then be honest with that, too. Dr. Chapman recommends telling children something like: “You know, it looks like this might be the way we’re going to live now. Daddy’s going to live over there and we’re going to live over here, but you’re going to have a chance to live with both of us. We’re both going to do things together with you.” The more civil a couple can be with each other and with the children, the better it will be for everyone involved.
Pam Woody is the marriage editor for Thriving Family. Dr. Gary Chapman is a family counselor, radio host, associate pastor and author of several books, including The Five Love Languages and One More Try.