When Parents Are Separated

Learn how to help your kids cope when you and your spouse are going through a separation.

child watching parent's fight Getty

Breaking up is hard to do -- but it's even more challenging when you have a family. Perhaps your marriage counselor has suggested that your spouse and you need time apart. Maybe your spouse has made that decision on his or her own. Regardless of whose decision it was, or why, the time has come to share your plans with your children. Here's how to best navigate this difficult conversation.

Have a script. Before you talk to your kids, you and your spouse should agree on an explanation for your separation -- and then stick to it without making accusations.

Sit down as a family. It's important that your children hear from the two of you together. "This shows that even though you are separating as husband and wife, you will continue to work together as parents to make sure your children's needs are addressed," says family therapist Mikki Meyer, Ph.D., of New York City.

Let them know what it means for them. Talk to your children about this decision and how it will affect the family. Try to anticipate the sort of information they'll want, especially the "what-does-this-mean-to-me" factor. The following approach, suggested by Dr. Meyer, is good for kids of all ages: "Mommy and Daddy are having a hard time getting along right now. While we work on our problems, Daddy [or Mommy] is going to live somewhere else. But you will still get to talk to him [or her] every day." Let your children know where that other place is located, such as a nearby apartment complex or a relative's house. In these tough financial times, a physical separation to another residence isn't always possible. A move to the guest room might not seem as significant as a complete physical relocation, but inquisitive young minds will notice the change in the household. "You still need to explain that Mommy and Daddy are having trouble getting along and that while the two of you work out your differences, you're going to stay in separate rooms," Dr. Meyer says.

Don't underestimate the impact on young children. Your toddler or preschooler might not fully grasp exactly what a separation means, but he knows when his routine is changed. Anything that throws off a young child's schedule -- as when Daddy or Mommy can't tuck him in -- can be upsetting. You might explain to your child that even though you can't read bedtime stories in person every night, you can still wish him sweet dreams via a phone call, or even Facetime or Skype. Regardless of age, no child likes to have his world turned upside down. You and your spouse should try to keep disruptions to a minimum.

Offer ongoing reassurances. Continue to reassure your children that both parents love them and will always be there for them. Kids also need to hear that they aren't responsible for their parents needing a break. "Children may think that if they're better behaved -- if they're perfect -- then Mom and Dad won't fight," Dr. Meyer says. "Let them know that this is a grown-up problem that only adults can fix, and that they haven't done anything wrong."

Be honest. Kids are full of questions and a separation is sure to raise lots of them. How long will Daddy or Mommy be away? Why can't Daddy or Mommy stay here? Are you going to get divorced? Keep your answers truthful but brief. You most likely are as unsure about the outcome as they are -- and it's okay to say that, says Judith Ruskay Rabinor, Ph.D., author of Befriending Your Ex After Divorce: Making Life Better for You, Your Kids and Yes, Your Ex. You might say: "For right now, Mommy and Daddy can't live together. We don't know if we're going to get back together. We have a lot of things to work on, and we don't want to be fighting with each other while we do that. We will let you know as soon as we figure this out."

Give your child time. The separation announcement is just one step in the leaving process. Be sure to keep your kids informed about the moving plans. "You shouldn't tell your child that you're moving out on one day and then pack up the next," Dr. Rabinor says. Give your child time (a few days for a toddler or preschooler, a few weeks for a school-age child) to process the impending changes. That'll help make it easier on your child -- and on you.