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When the marriage ship is sinking, save the children first | Anne-Bénédicte Damon MSc., Clinical Psychologist

Since the 1970s, more and more marriages end in divorce, although it seems this trend is changing amongst younger generations, who also get married later. A separation is always an upheaval for the family – it’s considered the second most traumatic event after the death of a spouse, but there are ways of making it less traumatic for the children.

Here’s an A to Z of separation/divorce:


It’s always better for the children for a separation to take place when you’re arguing too much. “Staying together for the children” is an obsolete and unproven idea. Even if you think you only argue behind closed doors or sotto voce. Remember that “little pitchers have big ears.” Children always know.


Babies won’t understand the situation, but they will feel the tension. Although you can, of course, explain what is happening, the most important for them will be to maintain their normal routine of sleep and feeding hours, and to offer plenty of contact and cuddles.


The more communication between the parents, the better. Especially with regard to the children’s schedules if there’s shared custody. No one likes to be forgotten at the school gates, or to miss a football game or a ballet class.

Done deal

You need to know what you’re going to tell them, because they will have questions, the first being “Why?”, and the second, probably “Where am I going to live?”. You need to have the answers before you speak to them. You also have to be sure – there’s no point in telling a child that “Mom and Dad are thinking about maybe not living together anymore.” That’s your problem, and your decision, and one you have to take before talking to the children.


Most of the time, children won’t want to talk about what’s happening, mainly because they have trouble expressing what they’re feeling. You can help them identify their emotions by naming them. There are a number of resources to guide you here:  a) the emotion wheel Free Feelings Wheel Printable for Kids (; b) asking them to draw their emotions, validating them and helping them cope. There are several books on that subject – for example “How Do You Feel?” by Lizzy Rockwell or “In My Heart: A Book of Feelings” by Jo Witek,  “When Sadness Is At Your Door” or “Anh’s Anger” by Gail Silver. Plus  (9 Simple Ways to Help Children Handle Their Big Feelings – Raised Good )


Children need to hear that even though their parents are separating, they remain their parents.  Parents do not divorce their children and they will always belong to the same family.


Some children may think it’s their fault, and need to know that the cause of the separation is not their bad grades or behaviour.

Holidays and holy days  

“We’ll spend Christmas together because it’s important for the children”. “We’ll spend part of the holidays together.” This is possible only if the separation is amicable, of course, but it’s also very confusing for the children, and will need even more explanations. Things have to be very clear, otherwise they’ll start to think there’s a chance their parents will get back together. It’s better to wait a few years after the separation to do that. It’s also important to try and share them equally between the parents.

“I heard that”

Don’t criticise the other parent in front of your children, even if you think they’re not listening. They are.

Joint custody

There are several types of joint custody: 50/50 split with a week with one parent and a week with the other, which usually works when the parents are living close to each other. Or two weekends a month and half the holidays, 2-2-5-5, as in two days, two days, then five days and five days. The thing to keep in mind is that the more changes and movements, the more unsettling it is for the child.

 Keeping the home

The family home is important, and if one parent can remain in it, it will help the children feel safer.

Living together apart

For economic reasons, it can be difficult for a couple to separate and find new homes. Another reason for staying together under the same roof can be the need to take care of a handicapped or sick child, or just a choice. This implies the place is big enough for each ex-partner to have their space, and that they still get on relatively well.


Your children will have classmates with divorced parents. You know a lot of divorcees. But for your children, it’s still an upheaval – a big change in their lives. If you say that the separation is nothing, that life will go on just as before, that it’s not a big thing, no need to make a mountain out of a molehill, your children will think they don’t have the right to be upset by a molehill, and will stifle their feelings to please you.


You are not asking your children to take sides. This is why it is usually better if both parents can be there to talk about it. You are not accusing the other parent of not being good enough, or of having had an affair, or whatever else. The children don’t have to know that. The only thing they need to know is that it’s not either parent’s fault, but that they just can’t live together anymore, because they don’t love each other like they did before.


If they are under 18 (the age of majority in SA), you don’t ask them for their opinion. They cannot take decisions such as where they’ll be staying and with whom. It doesn’t empower them, it’s not positive parenting, it only makes them insecure. They are not old enough to take that kind of decision.


There are two periods in a child’s life when a divorce can be more difficult to accept. During the Oedipus stage, around three to six, the child becomes overly attached to one parent, possessive and hostile to the other parent. If a divorce occurs during that period, the child may think their wishes have been fulfilled and make them feel omnipotent. These feelings can also resurface during adolescence, a time of emotional upheaval.


This is essential – you need to be able to talk about a separation without ranting and raving against your partner, especially if he or she is the children’s other parent. It’s also important to make the announcement at home, so they can retreat into their room if necessary. Avoid doing it in a restaurant or another public place. 


Establishing new rituals – meals, outings, games nights… – helps reinforce the ties between parents and children, and thus ensure the children regain a feeling of stability and safety.


Siblings should not be separated. There is no way a child can understand that their sibling is going to live with the other parent and they’re not. It’s different when they are older teenagers and can make a decision, but otherwise a parent cannot choose to keep one child and not another – I know it seems unlikely, but it happens, unfortunately.


Don’t try to say that the other parent is going away for work – they won’t believe you. Don’t say “It’s great, because you’ll have two bedrooms/twice as many presents/ new friends…” It’s not great, it just is.


Children from the age of nine or ten understand that their parents should be separating, but that they are staying together for their sake. This will give them a skewed view of what a married couple should be like, and will not encourage them to grow up and find a partner. It can also make them feel they’re the one in charge, and they can become little dictators.


Unfortunately, some separations happen because one of the partners is abusive. It is important to explain clearly that this is not okay, and that everyone deserves a safe space to live. It is also important to explain that a child can still love an abusive parent, even if they understand his or her behaviour cannot be tolerated.


You have to choose the right words according to their age. “Love” is a very abstract concept before the age of six/seven. You can explain that Mum and Dad don’t kiss each other anymore, don’t cuddle anymore, don’t sleep together anymore.  


Don’t introduce potential new partners to your children too soon after the separation. Wait until things have stabilised, and any new relationship is serious enough to be sure that it can be sustained. Even then, children may react negatively to a new partner, so it is best to introduce them gradually as a friend before presenting them as a romantic partner. Your children go into the same relationships as you, after all.


Despite how you may feel- hurt, angry, resentful or just overwhelmed with sadness, the situation is not just about you. Where children are involved, it is important to provide them with as much stability as possible in the transition phase. Try to keep any excesses of emotion to your private time and focus on maintaining a routine the children are familiar with.


Children need emotional stability to thrive, therefore establishing clear zones for time with each parent is essential. Set boundaries- stick to them. Let children form their own relationship with the other parent  and, unless they are at risk in any way, try not to interfere.


Divorce – Sesame Workshop

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