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The Separation Story

What is your child’s separation story?

Many children have no idea why their parents separated. Perhaps they were too young at the time to understand what was happening, maybe it was never discussed or possibly it was assumed that they knew what was going on in the family, and why. It could be that parents did not discuss it because they wished to protect their child from some harsh realities. Possibly it felt to too awkward, or embarrassing, for the parents to talk about it with their child.

The fact is, children need an age-appropriate separation story to make sense of their world.

When I ask parents about their separation story, two stories are never the same. Each partner in the couple has their own experience of the separation and their own version of reality. Hearing each parent’s account, it can sometimes seem as if the parents were in different marriages or relationships from each other!

Human beings are meaning-making creatures. Whether we are consciously aware of it or not, every day of our lives we revise our own story, adding information from new experiences and reviewing old experiences to make sense of our world. Everyone who has experienced a separation makes sense of it in their own way.  It may be as simple as, ‘We were just unsuited to one another’, to a very complicated story of betrayal and loss.

Parents need to tell their child an account of the separation, so that the child can make sense of his or her life as a child of separation or divorce. The explanation needs to be appropriate for the age of your child. Your child needs to hear the story at different stages of her life, so that it is continually updated in a way that makes sense, and also has an emotional truth to it.

Using the word ‘story’ does not imply that it is fiction or untrue.  Your child needs to be told a simplified version of the truth that will be helpful for him or her. For example, telling her that the other parent had an affair is not helpful for a child, and can be downright confusing, undermining the child’s relationship with that parent. Telling a child that Mummy and Daddy were not getting along, and so they thought they would be happier living in two different homes, is a version of your divorce story that does not blame either parent and helps your child understand what has happened in a way that they can relate to.

When do you tell your child the separation story?

The answer is ‘as early as possible’. Children need an explanation of what is happening in the family at the time of their parents’ separation. This can be difficult for parents, as it is usually a time of crisis, when parents may feel least able to reach outside themselves and meet their child’s needs.  However, children need to be told an age-appropriate version of what is going on. At the very same time they need reassurance that they are loved by both parents and that things will be OK. Keep it simple and free of blame. ‘Mummy and Daddy aren’t getting along right now, and we need to move to Nana’s for a little while’. If it’s a volatile situation you could add ‘where we will be safe.’  The reassurance part is, ‘But Mummy and Daddy still love you and we’re making sure that everything will be ok.’

What if your child is too young at the time of separation to be told a separations story?

Tell them anyway. Telling your child what is going on in a calm way will help both you and the child. Your child will be reassured by the reassuring tone of your voice.

Who can tell the separation story?

Ideally both parents will tell the separation story together, at the time of separation. In a planned and mutually agreed separation this is possible, but in the messiness of real life, when separation is usually a time of crisis, this rarely happens.  In an ideal world, where both parents put the child’s needs first, both parents will tell the child together. Both parents will offer the child reassurances.

In my experience as a family consultant and counsellor, the child is often told the separation story by the parent with whom she or he is living. This is for the obvious reason that the child is spending more time with this parent.

How often do you tell the separation story?

You can tell the separation story as often as you feel the child needs to hear it. Take the cue from your child. Tell the story during a quiet time.

The story will need to be updated at different times of the child’s development, according to your child’s growing awareness, her expanding knowledge of the world and increasing capacity to understand. Even though your child may be very bright or seem mature beyond his or her years, it must a child-focussed version of events. It should not burden a child.

I saw Rania, when I interviewed her for a Family Report, when she was eight years old. Her parents separated when Rania was eighteen months old, so she had no memory of living with her father. After the separation, Rania’s mother moved back to a loving, supportive and (says the husband) a controlling family.  Rania felt very loved and supported by three generations of the maternal family. She was a ‘girly’ girl and very close to her Mum. Mum and Rania loved to talk to one another, about all kinds of things, and from time to time the conversation would drift to why her parents separated. 

At first the mother, Tamara, protected Rania from knowledge about the negative aspects of her marriage, but as Rania became a little older, Tamara disclosed to Rania that Rania’s father had hit her when Tamara was pregnant, in a single incident, and had also had a fight with Rania’s grandfather and hit him at the time of separation. This made Rania sad. She loved her father and had trouble reconciling the loving father she knew and spent time with every second weekend, with the hitting husband who hurt her mother. Worse still, Tamara told Rania that Rania’s father had hit her ‘while Rania was in her tummy’. When Rania told me this, her eyes filled with tears.  I asked her which hurt most, that her father had hit her mother or hit Rania. Rania replied that she was sadder for her mother who had been the one who had been hurt. 

Do you think that this separation story is appropriate for eight-year old Rania?  The best test is to ask yourself, ‘Is it helpful for the child?’  Most parents will agree that it is definitely not a helpful story. No one should ever be hit, however the story burdens Rania with all kinds of information that she is too young to process. It has the potential to undermine her relationship with her father.  It is the kind of information that the mother should be telling another adult, like a counsellor or family friend, not a child. 

Rania’s father had his own separation story.  He said that during the marriage he felt continually undermined by his father-in-law and backed into a powerless corner. At first his wife took his side but as time went on, she become increasingly under the influence of the maternal family.  This caused an unbearable loyalty conflict and there was a rift in the marriage. He claimed that the instances of family violence were greatly exaggerated and were two isolated events only, one occurring at the time of separation when things were extremely volatile. He said he was not a violent man.  He said that, in fact, he abhorred violence. 

Rania’s father had not had occasion to discuss the separation with Rania, nor had she asked him about it. 

What could Rania’s parents have told her about the separation, that was true, but that also supported Rania’s psychological and emotional adjustment?

Julieanne Greenfield is a Clinical Social Worker and Consultant at the Family Clinic at The Resilience Centre in Sydney. Find out more about Julieanne by clicking here.


Julieanne Greenfield
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