Child Appropriate Explanations

Most children get upset when their parents separate. There are ways to support them to make this huge transition easier.

What should I tell my children about our separation? 

Children are curious and will always try to work out why things are happening around them. Without a carefully crafted explanation that is age appropriate they will blame themselves for unfortunate events. This is not because they are stupid but because they are children. They are by nature self-oriented and look for solutions that relate to their own actions or experience. They have not yet got a fully developed brain and understanding emotions is hard for them. Neither are they able to consider the implications of their actions for the future. That is because they have not yet developed the ability to empathise. In fact, it is one of the last emotions to develop in adults and the first to fade in elders. Just think about how selfish teenagers can be and how grumpy old people can be. 

What is empathy? 

It is the ability to put yourself into the other persons shoes and recognise and appreciate their behaviour, actions and reactions. It’s the ability to help people in need by modifying your own behaviour to help them through a difficult time. Children have limited empathy because they are naturally self-centred. They will tend to blame themselves for things going wrong around them and invent quite elaborate explanations based on their own behaviour. They may well blame themselves for their parents separation, their arguing or them having to move away from their friends. This can seriously affect children’s progress at school, how they treat the other parent and their future relationships. 

Children often secretly believe their other parent left their home because they were naughty or did something to make them angry. These illusions can easily lead to the acceptance of myths or allegations of bad behaviour made by their remaining parent. It's important to have the correct, truthful, age-appropriate narrative to help offset this behaviour. 

So, what approach should I adopt with my kids? 

First you need to coordinate your approach with your ex. In the heat of separation this is not an easy task but if you adopt the approach “Let's keep our badness away from the kids… lets agree together how we will help them through this” approach, you may manage to get a reasonable agreement. 

If you can’t get an agreement write down what you plan to do and send your ex a copy. Make it clear this is how you will help your child and stick to it. There is a daft at the end of this info sheet. It is based upon the fundamental needs of kids. Children must feel safe and sound, with their basic survival needs met - shelter, food, clothing, medical care and protection from harm, that they will always be loved by both parents and they must know that these things will always be provided for them. 


Stability comes from family and community. Ideally, a family remains together in a stable household, but when that's not possible, it's important to disrupt the child's life as little as possible. Kids and families should be a part of larger units, extended family, school, clubs etc. to give them a sense of belonging, family tradition and cultural continuity. Stability does not mean the same bedroom but the same safe adults who look after them and keep them from harm. 


No "good cop, bad cop." Parents should synchronize their parenting and make sure important values stay consistent. Write a parenting plan together. Include the behaviour standards, expectations, rewards, and consequences you plan to deliver. This is usually quite an eye-opener for both parents because in the past it was done on a daily, need to know basis. It is enormously helped by attendance at a Parenting Course.  

This plan can be produced together, or by one parent for comment and amendment by the other. It should always be a document that considers the parenting style of both parents and the needs of the child/ren. It could be a starting point for mediation or offered as a compromise in court.  

Emotional support 

Parents' words and actions should encourage children's trust, respect, self-esteem and, ultimately, independence. No disrespecting the other parent. 


Saying and showing you love your children can overcome almost any parenting "mistakes" you might make. Even when your children have disobeyed, angered, frustrated, and rebelled against you, show and tell them you love them and that you'll always love them. 


Make sure your children get the best possible education for their future. This includes school, of course, but it also includes the invaluable life lessons you provide during the time you spend together. Typically dads are best at the challenging, rough and tumble adventures which teach, confidence, problem solving, an adventurous spirit, teamwork, rules, self-control etc. Mums are best at caretaking, establishing emotional security, connectedness, calmness, nurturing and proceeding at the child's rate of progress'.  

Positive role models 

Parents are their kids' first and most important role models. Instill your values and teach children empathy by being the kind of person you want them to become. 


Rules, boundaries, consequences, and a good sense of humour: Without them, kids are forced to be adults before they are ready, and they lose respect for you and other adults. 

Specific further information on what to say to my children about my separation 

Remember: Your answers are designed to help your child/ren through the difficult emotional journey and understand why their parents live apart. They are not part of your own therapy! DO NOT inflict the trauma of your relationship with your ex or the reasons for your departure on your child. Only address these issues if they ask, and then only in an age-appropriate way and emphasising how much you both love them. Always do your best to answer questions without criticising them or their mother/father and make sure your answers help lift their confidence and self-esteem.  Here are some useful hints for answering difficult questions. 

  • Why did you go away? 
    • I wish I didn’t have to. I’ve missed out on you growing up of to be such a lovely child. I wasn’t ready to be a Dad/Mum. I would have done a terrible job, but I’m ready now and  I want to make it up to you. 
    • Mummy and I didn’t love each other anymore, but we still both love you to bits. 
  • Where have you been? Why have you come to see us? 
    • I was ill for quite some time and spent a while in hospital but I’m all right now ready to be a proper Dad/Mum again. 
    • I was living a long way away and it was difficult to make the journey home, but now it's easier and I can see you more. 
    • I was unhappy for a while and didn’t want you to see me like that, but now I’m back for more fun. 
    • I thought about you all the time I was away and wanted to see how you were and by the looks of things you’ve grown into a clever/strong/ healthy/happy young boy/girl. 
  • Can you move back with Mummy and me? 
    • That’s not possible I’m afraid, but you can visit me any time you want. We can go out together and you can even bring your friends. 
    • Mummy and I don't get on anymore, I'm sorry, but that doesn't mean you lose out. We both still love you and we will always be there for you. 
  • Did you leave because you didn’t love us? 
    • I always loved you and I always will. 
    • Mummy and I don’t love each other anymore but we both love you to bits. 
  • What do you want after all this time? 
    • I want to make up for the mistakes I made. I want to be a proper Dad. You could help me. What do you think a proper Dad/Mum should do? 
  • Give me some money/presents. 
    • I need to talk to Mummy/Daddy first. 
  • Mummy/Daddy says you were horrible to her/him and they hate you 
    • I know... I'm sorry about that and I'll try not to upset her/him anymore. Perhaps you could help me. 
    • We were probably horrible to each other but that's all in the past. I don't want to be horrible to anybody anymore, specially not you. 
  • Mummy/Daddy says you never gave her any money  
    • I know... I'm sorry about that, but for a while I didn’t have any money to give her/him but I’ve started to and I’ll try not to upset her. Perhaps you could help me. 
    • We were probably horrible to each other but that's all in the past. I don't want to be horrible to anybody anymore, specially not you. 

Will it work? 

This is not a magic button and it takes time, especially if the hard work you put in is destroyed by bad mouthing from the other parent, but if you are consistent and always follow through, your child will see the difference between the comfortable non-threatening home life you offer and why emotional blackmail, threats and badmouthing are bad. 

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