What makes GAM want a breakup

Separation: Children want to know what happens next

“Several years after the parents separated, we could not see any general disadvantages in children of divorce compared to their peers who grew up in traditional nuclear families,” says Professor Sabine Walper. The psychologist from Munich accompanied a study for six years in which children from all over Germany were interviewed in different family constellations. Based on this, she developed the “Children in Sight” course. It is intended to sensitize parents to the needs of their offspring during a separation. We asked the expert what was important.

Wouldn't it be better for children if their parents stayed together?

It is actually mostly the case that children suffer (even) more from the separation of their parents than the parents themselves. Nevertheless, it would not be better for the children under all circumstances if the parents stayed together. Because a family life that is only a facade, behind which there is intense fighting, puts a lot of strain on the little ones. What is part of life, on the other hand, and is also not a problem for children, are occasional arguments. But they must have an end and a reconciliation. Constant nagging, criticizing rum and arguing from mom and dad - children can't handle that.

Does that mean children can cope better with a clear cut?

Yes, but only if she is not completely unprepared for the parents' decision. You must have already felt that everything is no longer working harmoniously with mom and dad. A long-term study from the USA has shown that separation is more stressful for children in the long term if it has not been announced.

When is the best time to tell your child that mom and dad will split up?

Only when the two have discussed it with each other and are in agreement. The two partners do not always assess the situation identically. A one-sided separation impulse should not be given lightly in front of the child until the separation is seriously decided. A couple - especially with a child or children - should of course never jeopardize their relationship lightly, but always ask themselves: Where do we stand? Can we still change something for the better, or do we no longer have a chance? Only when it is clear that the separation will take place should the children also be initiated. But not at the last minute either. There should still be enough time in which the child can get an idea of ​​what his future with the separated parents will look like by talking to the parents. For good workmanship, it is crucial that the child does not feel completely helpless by surprise.

In concrete terms: How do I teach a four-year-old child that the parents separate?

The most important thing is always that you - if at all possible - talk to the little one. Tell him how everything will go on. Children need a lot of care and attention during these difficult times. You need someone who has the courage to address whatever the child may come up with. Many parents find that difficult. A breakup often leaves you speechless. Most of those affected just manage to tame their own feelings. The most important thing for children at that moment is that someone sits down with them and says: "We have thought about it one way and another, you don't need to be afraid." Because a separation always triggers fears in children. You ask yourself: "What will become of me?" Especially with children, there are also feelings of guilt and stressful thoughts such as: "Am I no longer important to my mom when she leaves us?" Parents speak to their child now.

What is to be considered?

Parents should never unilaterally blame. This not only puts a strain on the child's relationship with the accused parent. Often times the tables are reversed and the allegations work back on whoever made them. A second important point: make it clear to the child that it is not the cause of the breakup. This message is very important, especially for small children, as they often see themselves as a problem for their parents and blame them for the separation.

Should you include your children in the considerations of how things can go on?

In any case. Even with small children, parents can easily discuss what their needs are. However, they need clearly formulated alternatives. For example, they should ask: “Do you only want to visit dad on the weekend or also during the week?” Or “Do you want to leave your handicrafts with mom or dad?” From kindergarten age onwards, the little ones should be allowed to have a say in how they make contact with want to shape the other parent. If children have resistance and if they don't want to see the mother or father at first, one should accept that. Then it is better not to exert pressure, but to be patient.

How do parents manage not to neglect their child despite the problems?

Most of them do not manage to do this easily, because you need a lot of mental strength for yourself during this stressful time. If you notice that your head is not clear enough for the child, it may be possible to ask another person you trust to keep an eye on the child. So you can take care of yourself so that you can keep an eye on the child. You should also always take the time to experience something nice with your offspring. This is good for the child, the parent and their relationship with the child. But even that is not always easy when the grief and disappointment are still too fresh, because parents have to withdraw themselves for the well-being of the child and, for example, swallow the anger about the ex-partner from time to time.

So that also means that parents should continue to work together?

If that can be done without provoking new arguments and mutual injuries: yes. The aim of the ex-partners should be to build a stable cooperation that makes it easier for both to continue to perform their duties as parents. It helps a lot when both of them appreciate each other as parents. This is usually very difficult, especially at the beginning of the separation phase, because there have usually been injuries. It is all too easy to tend to see the other only negatively. How couples manage to leave this time of argument and, in the worst case, escalation behind them, depends on the participants themselves and on the type of injuries that have occurred (on both sides). It is important that the two find their way back to proper communication, because you need that in order to be able to continue to raise the child together. But the attitude of the parents to one another is also important for the children. I wish all children that their parents can get along with each other as easily as possible. It shouldn't get to the point where a child later has to decide who to invite to their wedding, the mother or the father.

What tips do you give parents so that communication can work again?

Respect, discipline and benevolence help. If a parent has a concern, he or she should stick to this one concern instead of “putting everything on the table” and keeping the allegations as low as possible. It is best to talk about your own needs and send so-called I messages, such as "I can't handle it ..." instead of "You have it again ...". It is particularly helpful when you can show your appreciation to the other when he has done something good - it is a valuable “currency” in relationships, especially in this difficult time of transition.

A separation often means that one parent moves away: How can you keep in touch with the child?

A spatial separation is always associated with financial and time expenditure. The ex-partners must therefore clarify which arrangement is possible. For example, if the child is still very young, the simplest solution would be for the parent who has moved away to visit. The prerequisite for this, however, is that the ex-partners can endure so much contact. Otherwise it must be clarified how the child gets to the other parent. If children are older, they can be expected to commute between their parents, depending on the distance and travel options. The parents should always discuss beforehand what the child needs at the moment or perhaps also needs to do, such as homework. Such a stay with the other parent should be mixed with everyday life and obligations, this signals normality to the child.

How long does it take children to overcome the separation of their parents?

That cannot be said clearly. Most of them have found a new equilibrium after about two to three years. They then come to terms with the fact that the parents have separated - even if the parents have adjusted to the changed situation and have managed to resolve their conflicts.


Revised version of an interview by Barbara Weichs, Baby und Familie / GesundheitPro

Further contributions by the author can be found here in our family handbook


Professor Dr. Sabine Walper researched and taught at the Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich until 2012. Since then she has been active as research director at the German Youth Institute in Munich. Together with Familiennotruf München e.V., she developed the “Children at a Glance” course. This was awarded the 2007 Prevention Prize of the German League for Children.



Created on July 23, 2008, last changed on May 8, 2014