The Family Conference

The family conference—coming together and discussing the coming changes for the family—is a scary and unpredictable time. Every member of the family will bring their own particular vulnerabilities to the discussion, which makes it all the more important that you as parents feel as prepared as possible.

There is, in our view, a parenting obligation to do a script and for both parents to participate in talking to the children. The parties do not need to be together in the room. One can follow the other in talking to the children. The common script for ‘difficult’ situations can be done with the help of a family counsellor and they can provide additional support or context in the conference. Intimate partner abuse, child abuse allegations and mental health concerns are a few situations that may require additional support in this phase.

Preparing a script for navigating the family conference

  • Remember the no-fault approach
  • Each parent should assess the challenges facing each child prior to the conference. Consider their age, childhood stage, uniqueness of each child, relationship with each parent or sibling, etc. There is an impact on every child in every stage of life.
  • Parents can then compare their thoughts prior to a family conference. This will allow them to begin the process of creating an appropriate interim parenting plan and the groundwork for a long-term plan.
  • Decide on an interim parenting plan prior to the family conference. Practical questions need to be answered and explained. A parent that suddenly disappears does not support shared parenting. An interim parenting arrangement should maximize parent-child engagement in the now changing family. In some ways this is a trial agreement. Be flexible based on the feedback from the children.
  • The agreement should be initialed by each parent and witnessed. If this is too formal, it is perhaps a good idea to inform parents or good friends of your initial plan. You may need an outside support to help you live with the agreement in the short run.

The Family Conference Dynamics

  • If possible, do the conference together, and take as much time as necessary. You have developed a script using the no-fault plan and have anticipated possible questions. The key and most difficult question is why you are separating. There are of course many difficult explanations where one partner feels aggrieved by the other partner. There are ways to do an explanation that follow the no-fault concept.
  • If possible do the explanation conference at a minimum of 2-3 days ahead of either parent leaving the family home.
  • Children at different ages, stages, gender, special needs and attachments may have very different reactions. Your preparation may still fall short. Remember the framework that you and your child’s other parent developed.
  • Often your sense of personal unhappiness and damage to the family is not the child’s view of their world. Children only know their family’s dynamics i.e. they understand their family and have no real comparison. Children generally choose an intact family over separation.
  • Some children (usually over age 10) have a distorted view of one parent and have already entered this family conference with their own judgment of blame or blamelessness. The separating had begun months earlier by one parent and this had the consequence of isolating one parent from the children. Both parents have an important challenge in this situation. The blamed parent must not be thrown off and hurt; the favoured parent has a responsibility for the child’s sake to gently move the child to a healthier place.
  • At the conference it is possible to remind the children that the family continues on in a changed form. Both parents are going to continue to be part of the child’s activities and school life, etc. Don’t minimize the change but don’t exaggerate the complete separateness of the children from either parent or extended family.
  • The atmosphere that you create in the meeting hopefully allows the children to express their feelings of anger and sadness; anger and sadness are natural emotions here. It provides an opportunity to be reassuring. Be the best listener. It is a valuable skill going forward.
  • If the children are quiet (very possible) anticipate questions that are unasked.
  • Plan a second meeting with a specific time i.e. two weeks later. It is easy to let it go because it is so uncomfortable for you as parents. Some of this discussion will simply be a blur to children. It is likely that the on-ground changes will prompt more questions and a need to review and even adjust the original plan.
  • Take a moment to assess the meeting and don’t be afraid to compliment the other parent for the way they managed the meeting. This is laying the groundwork for future success as separated parents.
  • Do your own post meeting assessment- a parent feedback session. Keep it civil.
  • Small successes need to be recognized. This is very tough ‘stuff’. Your interactions are observed by your children. They see and hear everything in their changing world. They can become a caretaker for one or both parents or isolate themselves from both parents. Neither option is healthy. Many children have friends that are from two homes and may appear accepting of this dramatic change. There is likely much more going on inside the child.

Telling the Children

Our experience working with over 600 parents finds that telling the children about the breaking up in a meaningful and purposeful way is rarely done. Parents find many excuses for NOT doing so:

  • they hate tough conversations
  • they worry it may lead to tears or fighting
  • they are feeling a sense of failure
  • they wish to avoid open parental conflict
  • they assume the children probably know
  • they feel ill prepared
  • etc., etc.

Stumbling about is not an effective parenting strategy, and not talking to your child(ren) is a serious misstep in the long term. As parents you want to mitigate their fears, insecurity and uncertainty as best as you can. To do this, you need to work together to  prepare a plan for how to inform your children while also anticipating their fears and questions.

The joint concepts of a no-fault divorce and family renewal are valuable tools as you enter the unfamiliar world of separation. Together, you can use these concepts to prepare a script to help you navigate the emotional and often unpredictable family conference with a common goal: helping your family to heal and grow through the changes to come.

Common Questions by Children:

  1. Where will we kids live?
  2. Where will mom live? Where will dad live?
  3. Who will keep me safe?
  4. Will we go to the same school?
  5. Who gets the dog?
  6. Will we see grandma and grandpa?
  7. Will we be poor?
  8. Who will take care of me when I am sick?
  9. Who will take me to piano lessons?
  10. When will I see mom or dad?
  11. Who will sign my permission slips and my report card?

Older children may be more pointed!

  1. Why?
  2. Why can’t you work it out?
  3. How could you just stop loving her/him?
  4. How am I going to be able to go to university?

Explaining the reason for separating is often very difficult.

There are so many possibilities and for the listener some may seem to be simply a lame excuse and for others perfectly acceptable. Perhaps the most difficult explanation could be infidelity. Do you ignore the question or rip the other parent? The following is offered by Judith Wallerstein: What About the Kids.

‘If you have the courage to do so simply tell them that their mom or dad loves another person more and they cannot live together anymore. Leave out details like, “they have been sleeping with someone else”.

Finding an acceptable framework for explaining the separating is helpful in the long-term. It allows you to confine your anger or guilt so that it doesn’t damage your day to day parenting. An explanation that I found helpful is that as intimate partners we stopped taking care of each other over a prolonged period of time. This is what I call the mutual no-fault explanation or the mutual both parties at fault explanation. Good people, good parents, who tried their best together; and hopefully will do their best as parents going forward. My experience is that my children appreciated my approach in the long-run.

Is it Ever Too Late to Tell the Children?

It is never too late to tell the children with the no-fault approach.

This is your opportunity to be the parent you wish to be at a time when you may feel like a failure as a parent. It is the first and most important step toward family renewal for your now changing family!

Open Letter: Personal Recovery


Where are you on road to recovery? What does the choice to separate feel like? Does it feel like a necessary, but difficult choice? Does it feel like a weight has been taken off your shoulders now that your unhappiness is in the open? Are you feeling overwhelmed or paralyzed by the decisions that have to be made? Do you feel like a failure as a parent, intimate partner and provider? Are you surprised by your partner’s reaction? How did the children react to the news? Did each child react very differently and as such display different parenting issues? Are your extended family and friends supportive or judgmental? The questions about personal recovery are never-ending, but important.

A Personal Story

I thought that I was prepared for the separation. My children’s mother and I had a civil conversation about the separating process and how we would tell our parents and friends in a no-fault explanation. I had agreed (for no reason other than caretaking) to leave the matrimonial home for a room in a friend’s parents’ home.

As soon as I started the 30-minute drive to my new place, I became desperate, lonely and overwhelmed with grief and loss.

I would describe myself normally as a rock, but the next day as I drove past a swamp on my left it took everything not to swerve off the road. It was the first time in my life that I had such dark thoughts. That troubled moment has remained in my memory for 30 years.

Separating and separating by leaving your children and family home is an experience that we are ill prepared for no matter our gender or our position on separating.

I offer this anecdote because it is a common experience.

It is important that a plan is in place for future, sharing/spending time with your children before leaving the home. DO NOT ASSUME that it will all be worked out . . . eventually. Recovery is more difficult for a parent who is not seeing or assured that they will be with their children on a predictable, regular schedule, sooner than later. Consider a mediator or another suitable professional to work out an interim parenting plan prior to anyone leaving the family home, if possible.

In this site’s resources there are readings that may meet where you are in the separating process. Dealing with the different stages of grief—similar to the death of a loved one—may be the best starting point. Many authors focus on the journey that most separated parents go through in some way.


Your resilience is perhaps the most important gift that you can showcase to your children. Resilience will serve you well. Included in the readings are research on the prevalence of depression for fathers and mothers going through a separation. Remember, for many parents the separation often follows many months, even years, of feeling low or worse. Many parents experience what is called situational depression depression directly triggered by the separation and the many negative outcomes that are directly related.

The most significant of these outcomes are almost always connected to the challenges faced in every important relationship.

Going Forward

Included among our resources are book recommendations and personal stories that our 600+ clients found to be supportive in their journey to personal survival and even family renewal. Please take time to consider the resources on mental health and depression, as these things can have direct consequences upon your children and your workplace. Many of the resources available on this site are intended to inspire or to awaken us to the changes taking place in every intimate, family relationship. There is going to be a great deal on your plate for some time, and many will be parenting or relationship problems you have never before encountered. Support groups or educational seminars may provide similar understanding and a sense of comradery with fellow travelers on this journey of separation.

Books and resources can provide an understanding of what was going on in the chaos of your family’s life. I considered those books I encountered in my own journey to be lifesaving, for they provided insight that cut through the chaos and restored some form of equilibrium. I found comfort in learning that those things that were happening in my life had happened to many others. It didn’t always solve the specific issues, but it removed doubt about my own sanity and what I was facing going forward. That was very important!

Older Children and Separation

The Forgotten Children in a Family Separation

Older children are a growing and somewhat forgotten age group. Many separating parents wait until their children grow to a certain age (late-adolescence or early 20s) to make the separation a reality. They expect their ‘adult’ child to be able to accept and manage the separation. After all, these young people are rarely at home and often appear remarkably independent.

I would advise separating parents to take a few moments and make a list of all the disruptions and concerns that your child will likely have to accept or endure from your separation. Below are a few possibilities, though they don’t exhaust the reactions of this group. Recognize that the optics of the separation may play an important part in their reaction , such as who appears responsible for causing the separation and who is the ‘victim’. The concept of ‘no-fault’ divorce is unlikely to find quiet acceptance here.

A family unit that has only known being intact, even through considerable parental unhappiness, is all that the children have known. For some parents at this stage there is a defiant ‘I have been unhappy long enough by remaining in a loveless marriage, it is my time to find happiness’ position. That is not an unreasonable feeling but one also needs to be sensitive to where your children are on this parental ‘failure’. Otherwise your search for personal happiness may be cut short by guilt and loss.

Anticipating Challenges

A parental split rarely if ever goes as planned in what I would call an ‘adult’ or ‘no-fault ‘way. In addition there is the added likelihood that families with two or more mid-adolescent children may see the children live with different parents. The intact family can often become the ‘splintered family’ with many unintended outcomes that can become too long-lasting. Regaining an enduring life-long parenting relationship may have to be accomplished within limited, reduced opportunities with your child. Different perspectives among older children can cause serious rifts that can be long-lasting.

This is a reminder that every relationship is tested by the way parents separate. Unintended negative outcomes are more likely to endure when older children are no longer under the same roof because there is less together time to repair the damage and to work it through. In addition each sibling relationship within the intact family has its own history based on age, personality, parental connection, etc.

Planning to Tell the Older Children

Below is a partial list of reactions. Please compile your own list for each child and if possible bring those lists together as parents prior to a more formal separating conversation with your child. Reactions are very individual and may include many mixed reactions:

  • Older children often believe in ‘rescuing’ the ‘wronged’ parent.
  • Older children often blame one parent and see the other parent as being abandoned.
  • Older children may also decide to live their life separate from one or both parents.

When discussing the plan to separate with your older children, please consider these points:

  • Offer older children a grown-up, age-appropriate explanation that is honest without defamation.
  • Let your grown children know that they are not expected to take sides in the separation process.
  • Let your children know that the shared history you have built together as a family will not be forgotten or dismissed.
  • Find ways to manage family events and include extended family and grandparents.
  • Plan in advance how matters such as inheritance, education, and financial support will be managed so that any practical questions can be answered.