Listening to your child's experience of the separation can be difficult. Seeing their sadness and anxiety can leave you feeling guilty and many parents choose to ignore it or simply put on a happy face, offer a few comforting words and then move on to something else as quickly as possible.
However, not allowing your children to talk about how they are feeling is likely to delay or even prevent them from coming to terms with the changes that are taking place. It can allow them to create their own narrative about what is happening – for example that they are to blame for the separation. Giving your children the space and the time to talk about their feelings means that they won't be still trying to deal with them later on in their childhood or even later and into adulthood.
Here are a few things to bear in mind when talking and listening to your children:
Don't hide from their distress
Separated parents often say that their children aren't affected by the separation and are just fine. This is rarely the case. All children will be affected by family separation and will almost always need the opportunity to be able to be able to express how they feel.
Be aware that children hide their true feelings
Children are very good at gauging the emotional temperature around them. Children who see their mum and dad in distress will try to make sure that they don't make things any worse. It's up to you to reassure them that talking about their feelings is okay.
Help your children to open up
Some children will find it easy to talk about what's going on for them but others will find it much more difficult. If you think that your child is burying their own experience, try giving them the signal that it's okay to talk. Say something like 'I'm feeling pretty sad today, how are you feeling?' If they don't seem ready to talk, don't force it, but try again at a later date.
Validate their experience
It's important that you validate a child's feelings and experiences. If they tell you that they're feeling sad, don't try to persuade them that they don't. Acknowledge how they're feeling and invite them to tell you more about it.
No one likes feeling like they are being interrogated. Try to be sensitive to your child's experience and gently invite them to talk. Instead of saying 'tell me what's the matter', try something like 'you seem sad today'.
Use open questions
Younger children will often find it difficult to put their experiencing into words. Try using 'open' questions to get them to go a little further. Try phrases like 'what do you think has made you feel like that' or 'tell me about how that makes you feel'.
Keep the opportunities open
Family separation is a series of transitions rather than a one off event. Don't be in a hurry to close down the opportunities to talk. Give your child permission to keep exploring and expressing what's going on for them.
Help young children to describe their feelings
Young children often don't have the vocabulary or skills to tell you what they're feeling. You can help them to express themselves through play and drawing. Small children will often simply draw the immediate world around them. Get them to tell you about their picture and work from there.
Take care with older boys
Older boys, particularly, can find it difficult to talk about their experiences and feelings. Try talking about things while you're doing something else. Talking side by side without eye contact will feel much more comfortable for him and probably for you too.
Lastly, be prepared to feel hurt, they may well tell you that it's your fault that they're feeling unhappy. Just let them say it.