How do I answer my children’s questions about my separation

Do you still love daddy?

Will you get back together again?

Why can’t I stay with you tonight?

Mummy lets me eat in my bedroom, why can’t I do it here?

Can you imagine your children asking you any of those questions?

How would it feel? What would you say?

A common and understandable reaction would be a pang of guilt followed by a scramble to look for an answer that would hopefully make it better for the children. Deliver the answer and hope that this question will never come up again.

If you can relate, I would like to invite you to explore a different approach

When children ask questions after separation, it is a good thing, an invitation to connect. They are opening the doors into their world. They might be sharing their confusion, upset, asking for reassurance…

Think of your children’s question as the tip of the iceberg – often, there is more to it. Here are a couple of examples of what children might be trying to express with their questions:

Do you still love daddy? – Will you love me no matter what?

Will you get back together again? – I desperately want you to get back together and I’m struggling to accept that this is happening. I feel stuck and confused.

Why can’t I stay with you tonight? – There have been too many changes in my world recently. I feel lost. I need a break.

Mummy lets me eat in my bedroom, why can’t I do it here? – Please show me that you can take charge of this situation here in a thoughtful way so that I can feel safe with you.

When we look for the answer to the first question that comes, we might miss what the children are really asking for

Today I will share some listening tips that can help you shift your focus from answering the questions to embracing this opportunity to connect with your children. Approaching children’s questions this way can help you to:

  • Let go of the pressure to come up with an answer
  • Help your children trust their own gut instincts, feelings and judgements (especially if they might be are hearing confusing, contradicting messages)
  • Avoid oversharing
  • Feel confident in your parenting
  • Feel that what you are doing for your children is enough
  • Get to know how your children are feeling, thinking, what they are hoping for, what is important or challenging for them
  • Relax into knowing that you can figure out the answers together

Listening is a skill. It means that anyone can get better at it with practice.

The exercises I am sharing with you can help you to:

  • Find your inner stillness and prepare to listen to your children
  • Stay present with what your children are communicating
  • Respond in a way that invites your children to share a little bit more

Tip 1: Remember to breathe during the conversation

Slowing down the pace of the conversation can help you give your child more space to explore what is going on for them. So often, we know what we want to say to our children before they even finished speaking. Next time wait until they stop talking, and instead of offering your perspective straight away, take a breath or two. Take in what they just said, notice how it lands before you say anything. When you leave that gap, your child might say something else, something they would not have done if you started speaking as soon as they have stopped talking.

Happy father with son and daughter

Tip 2: Repeat what your child just said

Repeating what your child just said in almost the exact words will help you both stay with your child’s story, encourage them to explore and share a little more of what is going for them. It will help you to hold back from explaining your point of view or giving them advice.

Once you repeated what they just said, take a few breaths to give your child time to connect with what is going on for them. Here are a few examples of how it could sound:

  • The teacher asked you to put your book away before you finished the task.
  • You seemed quite excited about your first swimming lesson at home, and now you don’t feel like joining in.
  • You are not sure if your time with daddy will be the same after his wedding.

Repeating what your child said will let them know that you are present, interested and listening and will prompt them to carry on thinking and talking about their experience.

Tip 3: Encourage your child to share more by asking some open questions

I like starting with some open questions, like:​

  • Interesting, can you tell me more about it?
  • What was it like for you?
  • How do you feel about it?

Sometimes it feels right to ask more directing questions:​

  • What do you find difficult about it?
  • What do you like about it?
  • How would you like it to be?

I hope you are excited to put these ideas into practice.

You might notice that by the time you slowed down, took in what your children were saying, asked them a few questions, they might have found their own answer.

If they still want an answer from you – you don’t have to have it ready straight away. You can always say something like: “Look, I hear this is important to you. I don’t have an answer to your question just yet. I’ll think about it and come back to you.”

Una Archer is a founder of Parenting after Separation. She uses her expertise in children’s emotional security to help parents soften the impact of separation on their children and resolve behaviour or emotional issues that might have cropped up. For more inspiration and support, subscribe to her 7 tips to help children thrive after separation

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