Family matters: Explaining marriage break-up to a child

Family matters: Explaining marriage break-up to a child
FAMILY MATTERS: In language they understand, it’s important to explain to children why their parents have separated, and to allow them to express how they feel about it. Picture: iStock

Marriage breakup is never easy, and if there are children involved, it’ll take strength and sensitivity to ensure they don’t bear the brunt of it, writes Karen Murray.

Nobody walks up the aisle expecting it to end in tears but marriage, like anything else, comes with no guarantees, and marital breakdowns in Ireland are spiralling.

The total number of divorced people in Ireland has risen from 87,770 in 2011 to 103,895 in 2016.

According to Rainbows Ireland, a national organisation that offers help to children dealing with bereavement or separation, approximately one in every 10 marriages ends in separation or divorce.

The 2016 Census revealed that one in four families with children in Ireland is a one-parent family and there were 218,817 family units with children (of any age) headed by a lone parent — an increase of 3,500 since 2011.

Almost 90,000 were single, a further 50,496 were widowed and the remainder, 68,378, were separated or divorced.

Whatever reason behind the break-up, it is vital to keep children’s welfare at the forefront.

Obviously, children will be upset if one parent is no longer living in the family home, but it’s important parents do not inadvertently fuel this distress.

While emotions are understandably raw, particularly during the first few months of the break-up, it is important that the children do not blame themselves in any way.

And while a partner who has been left, and hurt, may feel the need to vent — this is where friends, sisters, mothers and the like come in. Children do not need to hear it.

Dr Vincent McDarby, a senior clinical psychologist based in Dublin, says you need to explain a break-up very carefully to a child, in a language they can understand depending on their age.

“Breaking the news is never easy but don’t put it off,” McDarby says.

They need to know the truth and that this is final, that you won’t be getting back together. Acknowledge that it’s upsetting and encourage the child to express their feelings. It’s OK for them to be sad — but explain to them this is the best way forward.

McDarby emphasises that children need reassurance from both parents and need to know that they not to blame.

“Young children often make connections that are not there,” he explains. “They think because they did something on a Monday, and you break up on the Tuesday that it may be their fault. You both need to reassure them that this is not the case.”

Staying civil in the course of a break-up is not always easy but he advises that in front of the children parents maintain as civil relationship as possible and don’t force the children to take sides. Don’t talk badly about the other partner in front of the children or ask them to be a spy or messenger.

“Adult issues — like money, access and anything acrimonious — should not be discussed in front of the children,” he says.

It’s OK for a parent to tell a child they are feeling sad — but don’t let them taste the bitterness as it will harm them in the long run.

Don’t let them taste the bitterness as it will harm them in the long run.
Don’t let them taste the bitterness as it will harm them in the long run.

Grainne Jordan, who works with wellness centre MyMind.org and is a member of the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, says in her work as a psychotherapist she has found how a child reacts to a separation is primarily down to how the parents deal with it.

“A break-up is devastating for everyone in the family,” she says. “It’s like a death. But it’s so important that we keep ‘adult choices’ away from the children. They have a right to love both parents, no matter what has happened in a marriage.

“If one parent speaks badly about another, the child can feel they are bad because they are a by-product of both parents. That harms them. Children do not need or want to put in the middle.

“Children need to know that they are loved, need to know they will be OK. Contact is all important — keep focused on what is in the best interest of the child. Where contact isn’t possible, encourage Skype calls.

“It’s OK to show emotion. Children need to know that parents are human beings as well. But don’t use kids to get information on an ex-spouse and avoid over-indulging them to compensate for a parent leaving. Let them miss the other parent and talk about it.”

Children need to know that they are loved, need to know they will be OK
Children need to know that they are loved, need to know they will be OK

Lucy’s story

We initially separated in 2013, for two years, before getting back together.

At the time, our children were 10, eight, and a year old. It was tough for us all, especially because the children were used to their dad being a huge part of their daily life.

We decided, with counselling, that we could give the marriage another try, but it failed, because there was no trust after infidelity and it ended up causing more fights and distress.

The children have been affected, no doubt — it’s understandable. We have tried to keep our feelings about the marriage problems separate from our parenting.

This mostly works — we exchange details regarding the children’s daily life, school, etc.

The way I like to approach our situation is children get two biological parents and it is important for them to see and hear us, respect each other as human beings.

Our eldest needed to be seen by a counsellor, as he would have witnessed and understood the reason behind the marriage ending.

We have a great routine now and our home is happier, now that both parents have decided that ending the marriage is a positive.

My advice to single parents would be do your best whatever that might be and forgive yourself. Start every

day with a clean slate — new day, new start — and to remember your children.

Seeing how you treat their other parent is what will shape them up in their adult relationships, so, as best we can, try to be amicable.

The children only get one childhood, so, if it’s possible to stay together and be happy, that’s great or to live apart and co-parent.

The important thing is to do what’s best for both adults and children involved.

Happy parents will reflect on the happiness of the children.

Name has been changed

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