Telling Your Children
Many parents who are in the process of separation and divorce struggle with the questions of how, when and what to say to their children. Here are some guidelines to assist you.
Generally it is best if parents can sit together with their children to tell them about the decision to divorce. This demonstrates that, while you will no longer be husband and wife, you will still be parents together. Also, everyone is a part of the initial conversation at the same time and, hopefully, hears the same things.
On the other hand, if parents cannot have this conversation together with their children in a manner that meets the children’s needs for assurance and empathy, it is probably better if each parent speaks with the children separately.
Either way,this conversation is an opportunity to support and reassure your children during a difficult time. It is not a time for mutual blaming, finger pointing, rehashing past perceived wrongs done to a parent, or addressing adult issues.
Children need to hear that this is not their fault and that they will continue to be loved and cared for by both of you. While you are divorcing each other, you are not divorcing them. It is important to reassure them that this is an adult solution to an adult problem. They didn’t cause this to happen and they can’t fix it. It is also important to acknowledge and normalize children’s feelings and reactions to this news.
Parents must also realize that this is probably the first of many conversations they will have with their children about this decision. As children grow and mature and reach milestones in their own lives, they will ask questions they may not have asked when they first heard the news. It is best if parents can view these questions as opportunities to help children understand the situation more fully.
Parents frequently ask what is and is not appropriate to tell their children. Our overall view is that “less is more”. The less you tell them, the more they are prevented from undo stress. It is best not to give them the adult details about the reasons for the divorce. This potentially places children in an untenable position of being a parent’s peer or confidante and might make them feel as if they need to side with one parent against the other parent. It is best to give them an age appropriate, general explanation, which can then be expanded upon over time.
It is best if parents frame their explanation in such a way that takes into account the children’s ages, level of cognitive development, and prior exposure to parental disagreements. A younger child such as a two-year old may not understand the word ‘divorce.’ However, he/she can understand that mommy and daddy will be living in two houses—mommy’s house and daddy’s house. A slightly older child, say a five year old, may have friends whose parents are divorced. Parents can say that this is called being divorced and that he/she will spend time at each parent’s home. Younger children may also benefit from having a color-coded calendar at each parent’s home, which visually delineates the child’s time with each parent. Older children of about seven or eight certainly will have heard the word ‘divorce’ and will likely have friends whose parents are divorced. This will make the conversation easier and more difficult at the same time. Easier because the child has a cognitive and experiential understanding of divorce; more difficult because the child better understands the implications of this decision on his or her life.
There is no ideal time to have the initial conversation. Certainly, you want to have it prior to any physical separation. There are two opposing considerations to take into account in deciding about the timing. On one hand, the earlier the better. On the other hand, it can be helpful to wait until you have more details to give them about when they will see each parent, and what is and is not going to change for them.
In the end, parents want to make sure they go about the process of telling their children about the decision to divorce in a manner which is sensitive to their needs and feelings and minimizes their level of distress and worry.