By Raising Children Network
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Dad with his arm around young daughter
When a family breaks down, children need to adapt. Talk honestly with your children about the changes. You might also need to adjust family routines and make special time for your children.

Talking to your children about the change

When a family breaks down, children might find it difficult to deal with their emotions. You might also see some behaviour you don’t like. You can reassure your children by letting them know that this is a tough time for everyone. It’s OK for them to feel upset.

Here are some tips for talking with your children about the changes that family breakdown brings.

  • Keep it simple . Long complicated explanations can confuse young children. Children don’t need all the details. Be clear and simple: ‘We both love you, and we’re going to take care of you. But it works best for our family if your dad and I live apart’.
  • Find out what your child knows already . If your child asks you a difficult question, you might simply ask, ‘What have you heard?’ This helps you find out what your child has understood – or misunderstood.
  • Be honest . First and foremost, children need to know things will be OK. But they also have a right to know what’s happening. Make sure you explain in terms they can understand.
  • Read between the lines. Your children’s questions might be motivated by specific worries. Ask your children what they are worrying about, and reassure them with simple words that show you care.
  • Keep the conversation going. Be prepared to answer questions more than once. Your child might keep thinking about an issue after you’ve finished talking.
  • Talk about feelings. Your children will probably see you feeling sad, angry or upset. It’s important to let them know that you love them and that your feelings are not their fault. Let them know that things will get better. Also, let your children express their feelings, and reflect back what you think they are feeling. You can say things like, ‘I can see you’re upset’ or ‘I understand this makes you feel sad.’ It might be difficult to hear about their hurt or anger, but they need to talk too.
  • Have a regular time to talk. Make a regular time for talking, such as at family meetings or on the way home from school. This will give your kids a chance to discuss their concerns. You can also let them know about new developments.
  • Take your time with big questions . Sometimes you won’t know how to answer a tough question. Give yourself time to think. If you can’t answer straight away, tell your children that you’ll get back to them. Perhaps consult other single parents, friends or family members. Sometimes children might ask you questions about your ex-partner. It’s good to encourage your child to talk to your ex-partner about these questions rather then getting involved in answering them yourself. If you have good communications with your ex-partner, you might also want to flag the questions with him or her.
  • Suggest someone else to talk to. Sometimes it’s easier for kids to share feelings and thoughts with someone other than their parents. Encourage them to talk to another trusted adult – a friend, a teacher, an aunt/uncle/cousin or a grandparent. The important thing is that they have a chance to talk.
  • Get help and advice. Remember, you don’t have to deal with everything on your own. A wide range of professionals can advise and help you. You can talk to maternal and child health nurses, school nurses, general practitioners, counsellors and mental health professionals.
The effects of family violence can continue, even after a relationship is over. Family violence can also start or get worse when parents separate. Family violence of any kind is not acceptable. If you or anybody you know is experiencing family violence, seek help, perhaps by talking to a professional or calling a hotline.

Other ways to help kids cope

Keep familiar routines and rituals
Keeping up routines and rituals can help children cope with changes. Routines help children feel secure. Try to identify small routines that really matter to them, such as a regular play day with a friend or a book before bed. Let your kids know that these things won’t change.

It’s also good to maintain rituals. The way you wake your children in the morning or what you say to them at bedtime are reassuring rituals that you can easily keep up.

You can always create new routines and adapt rituals. This might need to happen if there are changes to child care arrangements or your income. If your children are old enough, try working out some new routines together.

Let children make decisions
Involve your kids in small day-to-day decisions such as how to arrange their rooms or what to serve for dinner. Consult with older children about how much time they would like to spend with you or their other parent.

Involve kids in chores
Getting children involved in chores can help to reduce stress in families. Even young children can take on some household tasks like packing away toys, clearing plates or putting clothes away. Involve everyone in discussions about dividing up the chores.

Create family times
Take time out to have some fun, even if it’s just putting on some music and dancing together. Regular family meetings can be a good way to discuss more serious issues and talk about how things are going.

Plan ahead for sick days and emergencies
Have a backup plan in case your children need to stay home from child care or school. That might mean talking to your ex-partner about how they can help out or to your employer about flexible work arrangements. You might need to find a neighbour, friend or family member you can call on to help. Talk to your kids ahead of time so that they know what will happen if they, or you, get sick.

Video Single parents

In this short video, single parents talk about their experiences of raising children alone. Parents share strategies for coping, being good role models, and getting support and reassurance from family and friends. Your parenting circumstances are less important than your ability to be there for your child.
  • Last updated or reviewed 05-08-2015
  • Acknowledgements

    Article developed in collaboration with Elly Robinson, Australian Institute of Family Studies, and in collaboration with Dr Richard Fletcher, Leader, Fathers and Families Research Program.

    Based on material produced for Single Mothers: A resource for parenting solo, a publication produced by the Parenting Research Centre in collaboration with the Council of Single Mothers and funded by the Victorian Government Department of Education and Early Childhood Development.