At the heart of it, human beings are meaning-making creatures. Whether we are aware of it or not, as we go about our everyday lives, we’re revising our personal story. We add information from new experiences and reflect on past experiences to make sense of what is happening to us, around us, and what we see happening to others. In this way our life story is not a Wikipedia biography of the facts and events of our life, but rather the manner in which we interpret and integrate our experiences. This internal narrative becomes a form of identity in which the things we choose to include (or exclude) in our story, and the way we tell it to others, both reflect and shape who we are as a person.
Likewise, when we experience the breakdown of a serious relationship and divorce, we make sense of it in our own way. We develop a divorce story that contributes to our overall life story. This narrative likely includes an account of how our marriage came to fracture, the role we and our partner (or others) played in it, and we perhaps even assign roles of victims and/or villains.
Children, even young, non-verbal children or children with a limited vocabulary, are no different in terms of assigning meaning to what is happening around them. Parental separation is a significant life event that will form an integral part of their life story. How our children experience it, and come to understand it, will shape the way they view themselves as a child, as a teenager and later as an adult.
What is a separation story?
A separation story or divorce story is the ‘what’ children are told by their parents about the separation. It is a simple and reassuring story targeted to their age and stage of development. For younger children in particular, it gives concrete information to help them to make sense of their world and their feelings and emotions.
Importantly, a story of separation does not burden children with information that emotionally they are not equipped to handle. Nor does it give them information that undermines their relationships with either parent.
Now, obviously the story you tell a toddler will be different from what you might tell a school aged child or a teenager. But as your child grows and matures, the story you tell them (about the separation) is modified and updated in a way that makes sense to them, according to their expanding knowledge of the world and increasing capacity to understand.
For example, a toddler’s story of separation might be something along the lines of:
“Daddy and I will not live together anymore because we’ve decided to separate. We will be happier as a two-home family. This means you’ll see Daddy at his house and Mummy at her house. Even though Mummy and Daddy will not live in the one home, we will both always love you and take good care of you”.
As they get older, the story will expand and be modified. For example:
“We were not happy together anymore. We were fighting lots and we both wanted our arguing to stop. So, we decided it would better to live in different places”.
During adolescence this narrative continues to be updated. For example:
“Relationships are complex. We had lots of adult problems. We hoped this would never happen but as hard as we tried, we couldn’t seem to fix our relationship or find a way to make things any better. We stopped communicating with one another. We each made mistakes and we’re sorry that we caused you pain.”
(Please note, the story of separation told to children will differ in situations where there are issues of family violence and/or other safety concerns to consider).
Why is a story of separation important for children?
Children experience complex emotions just like adults. However, younger children have a limited ability to talk about how they are feeling and why. They also don’t have enough life experience to understand some of the elements involved in difficult issues such as divorce or to imagine the complexity of relationships. If they are not provided with an appropriate account of the separation and the changes that are happening in their family, they well may ask other people and get incorrect or unhelpful information. Alternatively, they might just draw their own conclusions about what has happened and why.
Because of their age and stage of development, younger children typically see things from their own perspective and struggle to see other’s viewpoints. In their minds, the most natural reason for their parents’ separation is them, that they have misbehaved, have some sort of a defect or did something to make a parent angry or upset. They tend to see themselves as the reason for a parent’s emotional state and for family turmoil. Without an appropriate account about what has happened they will likely blame themselves and/or come up with an explanation that negatively impacts on their adjustment, potentially leaving them feeling bad, guilty or even shameful. Bearing the heavy burden of such big and uncomfortable feelings can negatively impact on how they feel about themselves and their self-esteem. Being preoccupied by a belief that the separation is somehow their fault or that they need to “fix” it, can also distract a young child’s attention and energy away from more age-appropriate activities such as playing, learning to read, to write, to make friends etc.
Providing an appropriate story of separation also ensures that parents have opportunities to reassure children that the separation is not their fault and that their parents continue to love them. For example:
“We have some grown-up problems, which despite our best efforts we have not been able to fix. None of this is your fault. You did not cause our problems and you cannot fix them. We both love you very much. We will always be your parents and continue to love and take care of you.”
But I always tell my children the truth/I don’t want to lie to my children
A separation story is not a work of fiction nor is it not about lying to your child. It aims to protect them from things that they are not developmentally, cognitively or emotionally equipped to handle. It is about giving them an account of the separation that they can process and that assists them to make sense of their world as they move and live between their two homes. This is important whatever their age when parental separation occurs.
Research shows that the more exposure children get to parental conflict and “adult” problems, the worse it is for children. A separation story that contains inappropriate information (i.e., details about adult relationship issues, one that assigns blame etc.) risks undermining a child’s relationship with one or both of their parents which can also be detrimental to their wellbeing. So, the less nitty gritty details of the marriage breakdown you share with your children the better they are likely to do.
My child is very mature for their age, they can handle the “truth”
Even though your child may be very bright, come across as an “old soul” or seem mature beyond their years, they are still unlikely to be ready for an in-depth conversation about a parent’s flaws or the complexity of relationships in the way an adult can. You also don’t want to risk your children thinking it is their job to comfort a parent or leave them feeling caught in the middle of divorcing parents.
When it comes to your child’s wellbeing, the best separation stories are those that do not say whose “fault” the separation is. They also do not burden a child with a parent’s own unhappiness, anger or distress at what transpired in the marriage. For example, telling your child “Mum cheated on Dad with a guy from work” or that “Dad’s leaving us and is a good for nothing, selfish b#*^a*d” is not helpful and can be downright confusing for a child – especially if that child has only ever experienced that parent as fun or loving and/or caring.
Instead, telling them that “Mummy and Daddy are not happy together anymore. We have been arguing lots and have decided we will be happier living in two different homes” supports your child’s adjustment and helps them to understand what happened in a way that makes sense to them.
No matter how amicable your divorce is, your children are going to hurt. It’s a significant change in their lives. It therefore stands to reason that telling your children that you are separating may well be the most difficult conversation that you’ll ever have as a parent. But children, even young children, need to be told that their parents are separating. And what you tell or don’t tell them about the separation is important. After all, it is both the last chapter of one story (their life as the family you were) and the first chapter of the next (their life as the family you are becoming). It is a story that will leave a lasting legacy on their development and on the adult your child has yet to become. Make it a good one and, importantly, one that meets their needs.
 Kelly, J. (2012) Risk and protective factors associated with child and adolescent adjustment following separation and divorce: Social science applications, Chapter 3. In Eds. K. Kuehnle & L. Drozd. Parenting Plan Evaluations: Applied research for the family court, Oxford University Press, New York.