From what my clients have told me over the years, children tend to ask the same kinds of tough, wrenching questions about separation and divorce – sure, the words they use and their attitude will depend very much on the individual child and their circumstances (such as gender and age) but at essence it boils down to just three questions.
The good news is that, according to the counselors I speak to, parents don't have to have all the answers. Instead it’s about looking beyond the question and getting at what kids are really asking for – affirmation, comfort, and reassurance. Because, at the end of it all they want to be assured that you love them no matter what, it’s about being ready to listen and respond in a way that will help your kids get through this time.
Here are some tips on the three most common questions:
1. Why? From "why did you stop loving each other" to "why are you doing this," kids often ask about the big-picture reason behind your decision to separate. The counselors say that the reason behind this question is a fear that if Mum and Dad can stop loving each other, they might stop loving their kids, too. So you need to assure your child that love between parents is very different from a parent's love for their child. Your love for them is permanent and will never change. The answer to this question is not the details of why you're separating but instead, reassure your child that you are still a family, just a different kind of family.
2. Is this my fault? Young children, especially, are self-centered. This is not their fault – its biology. So they can't help wondering if they are somehow at fault for your split. Again, the most important thing here is to assure your child that your love for them is unconditional. They need to know their parents' complicated relationship has nothing to do with them -- they are not the cause of the divorce. They will always be loved and that will never change.
3. Where will I live? Make sure you have agreed on a plan - even a temporary one - before you break the news to the kids. Tell them where they will be, when, and for how long. In some circumstances it might be a good idea to tell them that they can express their feelings about these arrangements to you any time they need to. And always speak respectfully about your ex, their home and their extended family in your answers – while it can be tough to do, this is about giving the kids some reassurance not about how you might feel.
*The above does not necessarily apply to teenagers but it can – the questions and attitude is likely to be different but the need for reassurance is probably still at the root of it all.