Supporting your children through divorce and separation
Listening to your child’s voice after separation
There is a lot happening after separating from your partner. It can often be a time of high emotion and often high conflict.
While you might be doing your best to protect your child from the impact of separation, children will often pick up on many of these emotions and experiences and might need to talk about the situation. Children can feel caught in the middle between their parents.
With all that is happening during and after separation some parents may be focusing on the routine of day to day parenting without really listening to what their children are telling them.
This guidance is intended to help you, as a parent or carer, think about what you can do to listen carefully and be in the best position to respond to what your child says.
We have provide some simple steps you can take to listen and respond to your child, some of which you might find easier than others.
This is a longer version of the pages on listening to children included in the Parenting Plan and gives you a bit more detail. You might find it helpful to look at the Parenting Plan if you have not done so already.
Emotional readiness is acknowledging your own feelings and any negative thoughts about the other parent, and then being able to put them aside so that you can really hear your child’s feelings. Doing this helps you to understand your child better and respond in the ways that are most helpful for them.
Parents sometimes assume their children are experiencing the same things as they are, and also that their children see things from their – that is, the parents’ – own points of view. Also, unless their children are showing visible signs that they are distressed or are able to voice their own emotions clearly, parents often do not realise that their children may be experiencing things intensely.
In many cases, a parent’s own emotions are so overwhelming that, despite their best intentions, there is no space to recognise the feelings of others.
An important initial task for both parents is to understand and manage their own emotional states. Without doing so they cannot be ready to understand and help manage what their children are feeling.
Becoming emotionally ready starts with understanding and accepting that it is normal to have intense, emotional feelings when you and your partner are separating or going through the process of separating. Often these emotions can be overwhelming and may include feeling:
worried angry guilty jealous sad powerless betrayed shocked frustrated scared lonely insecure rejected mistrustful
The range and intensity of the emotions you feel will depend on a number of things, such as:
- whether ending the relationship has happened over a long period of time or whether it has been sudden;
- how easily you can communicate with the other parent;
- whether it has been your decision to end the relationship.
A big issue for parents when separating is how to listen and respond well to your children while you are also experiencing strong emotions.
How will emotional readiness help?
Putting aside your own emotions in relation to the other parent will help you to pick up on the signs that indicate what your children might be feeling, listen and respond helpfully to them.
There are three steps to help you become emotionally ready and communicate better with your child.
Step 1 – acknowledge your feelings
Acknowledging your emotions involves two important aspects:
- accepting your emotions
- managing your emotions.
During a separation it is very common to experience negative emotions that are sometimes overwhelming. Feelings don’t go away if you pretend they are not there – research has shown that sometimes ignoring your feelings can lead to them coming out in unpredictable ways.
Accept your own emotions – you may find it helps to write them down.
You will need to keep your feelings under control while listening to your child. Putting a label on how you feel can help you feel in control. This is the first step in the process of beginning to manage your feelings.
‘Managing your emotions’ means acknowledging that the feelings you have are there, but not letting them get in the way when you listen and respond to your children.
This will help you open up to thinking about things from your child’s point of view. Managing your emotions lets you move forward when listening to the needs, wishes, feelings and questions of your children.
How will I know when I’m emotionally ready? You will know you are emotionally ready when you can shift your focus from your own feelings about the relationship with the other parent to the wellbeing of your children.
This is not easy and will take both time and effort, as well as continuing to use the skills mentioned in step 2.
Step 2 – communicating with your child and the skills needed
This step is about communicating with your child and the skills you will need.
Staying calm will help you to keep your feelings in check; sometimes it is hard to realise when you are showing signs of distress or are in a state of heightened emotions.
There are some simple exercises that can be effective and help you to put your feelings to one side and to focus on listening to your child. You might find it helpful to repeat these several times.
- Relax your shoulders.
- Check that fingers and jaws are not tense or clenched. Shake out fingers if they are and relax your jaw.
- Check your breathing: you should be taking deep breaths from your diaphragm, rather than shallow and from your chest.
If necessary, take a break by walking around or outside, to change your focus and let go of your thoughts until you are ready to listen to your child.
Learning to listen. You can practice listening with your child whatever they are telling you, and you can do this with some of their day-to-day worries or triumphs before talking about the bigger things. ‘Listening’ means:
- Not thinking about your own reaction and/or a counter-argument, or explanation you might have in response, while your child is speaking. If you are preoccupied with your own response you cannot be hearing what your child is saying.
- Asking the other person whether you have actually understood or taken in what he or she has said: “Is this correct: I think you have said…”, and then it is best to repeat back as similarly as possible to your child exactly what you have heard your child say, rather than what you think it might mean. Your child then has a chance to correct you if you haven’t understood what he or she is trying to say.
‘Seeing things differently’ is about considering the situation the way your child does and keeping your own feelings about the other parent separate.
A really helpful tip when listening to your child is not to jump in too quickly with an answer – leave a little space and try to see your child’s point of view.
Step 3 – giving your child effective reassurance
Your child might feel out of control about what is happening so it is important to support and reassure them.
An essential aspect of giving your child reassurance is staying calm. This can be done using the skills as outlined in step 2 and truly listening.
Additionally, being able to see things from your child’s perspective and shifting the focus from how you’re seeing things will be helpful when reassuring your child.
Reassurance is essential. Not providing your child with reassurance could result in them experiencing feelings of worry, insecurity and anger, and as a result of these potentially rebelliousness, withdrawal from others or even silence, where the child’s true worries and emotions are hidden so they don’t add to the already worrying situation.
However, reassurance only works if it is:
- Possible – you only can reassure a child about what you know you can deliver on.
- A real example of how things will be and how it will work – make your explanation realistic and concrete (such as “Your Dad will be moving to X at X time and you will be seeing him on X day this week,” rather than: “Things will be fine and you will see your Dad soon, so don’t worry about it.”)
- Honest and ongoing: for those things you are not yet sure you can guarantee, children are best helped by you saying “We don’t know yet, but we will work on it” – and keeping them updated as and when you can give your child more information (such as you intend to move house to an area where they can still attend the same school, but you don’t know if that is possible yet. You will update them when you know.)
What should reassurance be about? Some guidelines for this are:
- Reassure your children as far as you honestly can about what they can rely on not to change: such as school, friends, routines, etc., or make clear what the changes will be and how you will help them through it.
- If known, reassure your children about how and when they will remain in contact with the parent they don’t live with and in what way (email, Skype, visits, etc.)
- Depending on their age and capacity, involve your child in making choices about the changes that will take place. Make sure that you deliver on what you have said will happen (such as when contact should take place; whether it is overnight; how their new bedrooms should be decorated; what the new routines will be like.)
What to say and what not to say
It is important to be accepting when communicating with your child rather than being dismissive. Below is a table of dismissing and accepting statements.
Dismissing (what not to say)
Accepting (what to say)
“You don’t need to be angry. There’s nothing to be scared about.” Children do feel angry and also scared when their parents split up. Acknowledge that this is how they feel. “Oh, come on. It’s not that bad. Look at all the fun we’re going to have together.
Loads of people go through this and they don’t feel like that: get over it!”
“It looks like you’re feeling worried. I’m happy to try talking about it with you – that might help.” “You’re overreacting.” “It sounds like this is really making you sad.” Don’t worry! There’s nothing to worry about. “I understand that. Which parts of [whatever the worry is centred on, such as the separation or a house move] do you think will be difficult?”
“No – that’s not the right way to think about it.”
“That’s an interesting thought. Can we try to see why you’d think that?” “You can’t possibly wish for that! “I can see why you might want that; let’s think about how you see that working, or not working.”
The accepting statements do not make a judgement. The dismissing statements make a judgement, put down, or minimise the child’s feelings and give the child the message that the feeling is not ok to have and should go away or be ignored.
It is important to be accepting in these circumstances even if the child’s wishes cannot in the end be met – at least they will have felt heard and understood.
By listening you are not promising anything except to understand better. This will:
- make it clearer for the child how to communicate effectively;
- takes into account the child feeling worried or scared;
- shows how to talk with acceptance rather than being dismissive.
Top tips for listening
This openness to hearing your child’s voice, even when your child might fear that what he or she has to voice might be hurtful or upsetting, is the necessary step for your child to know that it is acceptable and safe to feel all the upsetting, confusing, and worrying feelings that they may have.
Remember, sometimes what your child needs or feels isn’t obvious.
Children may or may not directly ask for what they need. They may, instead, hide their feelings and they may or may not realise they are doing this.
They may feel worried and insecure and not know how to label how they feel, and consequently may answer either shortly (such as “I’m fine”), or deny their feelings (such as “No, I’m not worried or angry”). Or, they may:
- Act out, become rebellious or change the way they normally play so that it is angrier, or begin to shift their social groups to people with whom they feel they have emotions in common, so they are in an angrier or rebellious group.
- Become more withdrawn, unwilling or unable to share thoughts and feelings.
- Become more helpful and ‘good’ so as not to disturb the atmosphere with either parent or to be so ‘good’ in the hope that perhaps the separation will mend.
Gender can be an important factor here, as can age.
In general, boys tend to ‘act out’ while girls tend to ‘withdraw’ or try to be more helpful, while the younger children might display their feelings through symbolic play, such as drawings or imaginative play, which may feature sadness or anger.
All children can benefit from their parents helping them to figure out what their feelings are so that these feelings don’t come out in ways that harm themselves or others.
Here are some ways children may express disturbing feelings indirectly:
Can’t think of anything else beyond the separation/divorce. Skip school. Can’t sleep. Oversocialise. Have nightmares. Drink too much. Get really mad at people for little things. Use drugs. Wet the bed. Break the law. Become babyish. Sexual promiscuity. Don’t want to be far from home. Decline in behaviour or results at school. Refuse to play with friends. Withdraw to their rooms more than usual. Are angry at parents. Are rude and angry to parents and adults. Destroy their own property (toys, for instance). Don’t sleep. Over or under eat.
How to open up a conversation with a child who is not expressing feelings directly? Use open-ended, non-judgemental questions: “It looks to me like you’ve been quieter than usual and I’m just wondering if you’re feeling sad? I can imagine you might be – I could be wrong though.”
Accompany this with assurances of how you will listen to the child’s answers to allow children to feel open in their answers. With younger children making a drawing of the family and talking about it can help.
How to communicate with your child when they aren’t telling you how they feel
Here are a few tips about talking to your child about how they feel:
- Try to move from the general to the specific, such as “What is it about us moving house that is worrying you?”
- Stay calm using the skills outlined in step 2.
- Try not to jump in with what you think too quickly – listen and wait until your child has finished speaking before giving them your views.
- It might be that your child has had time to think but hasn’t been able to pinpoint why they’re feeling sad, angry or worried. It’s ok for you to offer some suggestions if you have an idea why they might be feeling like that, such as “Do you think you are worried because you will miss having your own room?”
- There is a chance that your child may not want to talk about it but giving them the invitation to talk and open up will help, even if they haven’t done so.
- Non-verbal communication is good too – a hug can go a long way.
- If and when you have uncovered an issue (such as worries about moving house) it might help to do some problem-solving together. You could do this by thinking of some solutions with your child helping you to come up with a practical plan together.
While listening to your child plays an important part in helping you reach wise and safe decisions for them, remember that you are the adult.
Children should never be put in the position of having their word be the final one, but their voices do need to be heard and understood, most of all by their parents.
Parents, as adults, are the people who need to take responsibility for making final decisions, and where they are not able to do this independently, the courts, in the place of adults, will be make the decisions.
It is important to remember that it is damaging for children to be put in the middle, in the position of judge, spy, or parent.
You need to take care that your child does not get caught in the middle or feels pressured into taking sides. This can be very upsetting for children and can damage their relationship with both parents, both of which can very often be obvious to professionals working with you.
Except in the unusual circumstances in which their welfare and/or safety is in jeopardy, children should be able to preserve and maintain consistent, loyal, and loving relationships with both parents. Unless there is a risk of harm, the adults’ decision to separate should not put the child’s continuing relationship with both parents at risk.
Helpful tips to avoid ‘coaching’ or pressurising a child are:
- Making sure that you understand your feelings and have been able to ‘park’ them (see ‘Being emotionally ready’) before talking to your child.
- Making sure that your child knows that both parents are listening, and are talking to each other about what they are hearing.
The importance of listening to your children
No matter how hard you try, children usually pick up on the negative feelings expressed by parents during their separation. This can make your child feel anxious or distressed. It is important that you listen to your child to ease as much of their worry as possible.
Before you sit down with your child, it is important to acknowledge the negative feelings you have towards your partner and set them aside. This way you can understand your child’s feelings better and respond in the best way for them.
Here are three easy steps to help your child feel as comfortable as possible when talking about your separation:
Talking to your child about your ex-partner, before you understand how you feel, can be counterproductive. One way you can process your feelings is by writing them down, which can help you feel more in control.
Another way could be having a conversation with a friend, family member, or professional. Remember that having negative feelings is normal, but you don’t want to influence the way your child thinks about their mum or dad.
Staying calm is one of the most important things to remember when talking to your child. You don’t want them to feel like they can’t talk to you, or that they are part of the problem.
Keeping your shoulders relaxed and breathing deeply can help. Keep in mind that your child might have a different viewpoint to you, and that you need to respect this.
If they say something you don’t expect, try to react as little as possible, as responding negatively can stop them from talking about their worries or problems in the future.
Try and let them talk as much as possible and help them by asking questions in response.
Try to keep questions as neutral as possible. e.g. “Would you like to spend equal time with mummy and daddy?”, rather than, “You’d rather spend more time with me, wouldn’t you?”
The final step is to end the conversation by reassuring your child. It is good to prepare what to say in advance, so that you don’t promise something you can’t deliver.
Try to reassure them on things that you know will stay the same. For example, if they are worried that they might have to change school, but you know they won’t have to, use this as a reassurance.
However, if spending lots of family time with both parents isn’t a possibility, don’t give them false hope.
Useful tips to spot how your child is feeling
It is important to be accepting when communicating with your child rather than being dismissive.
Question Tip Does their body language give any clues about how they’re feeling? Your child’s body language can offer you a better idea of how they’re feeling. For example, if they’re finding it difficult to look at you, they might be feeling nervous. When you’re having a conversation with them about your separation, keep an eye on any changes in body language, like crossed arms, to identify if your child is struggling. Have they been acting differently, for example, misbehaving at school, or falling out with friends? This might mean that they’re finding it difficult to express distressing feelings about your separation. If you notice these changes in behaviour, it might be helpful to have a conversation with your child, and reassure them about how much you love them. Are they avoiding conversations about your separation? Again, this might be a clue that your child is not finding it easy to process your separation and might need some help in expressing their feelings. Are they not responding to you? This is normal. Sometimes children want to talk to an independent person about their feelings, to avoid upsetting you. Contacting your GP, your child’s school counsellor, or other health professionals, can help if you think this might be the case.
Remember to use open-ended, non-judgemental questions and accompany this with assurances of how you will listen to your child’s answers.
Low self-esteem in children
Children go through a wide range of emotions when their parents are separating. They may experience periods of unhappiness and low self-esteem, and many will have behavioural problems.
Low self-esteem is often connected to feelings of sadness or anxiety and could lead some children to withdraw socially. Children with low self-esteem may focus on the negative, worry about the way they treat others, find it difficult to accept compliments, and feel reluctant to do things.
The impact of conflict on children
Being in the presence of conflict can have a negative effect on a child’s feelings of self-worth and self-esteem. It is always best for your child if you and your ex-partner can keep any residual conflict away from the children.
What’s the solution?
Most children of separated parents find it easier to settle back into a normal pattern of development when their parents maintain a good relationship and communicate well with each other.
You can take steps towards improving communication with your ex-partner with our free online parenting plan.
However, it’s important to note that other factors, such as the child’s temperament or external stresses, may make things harder for the child to settle back into their routine.
Talking to your child
If you’re worried about how your child is coping with the separation, make some time to talk to them. Find out how your child is feeling and reassure them that they are not to blame for the breakdown between you and your ex-partner.