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Telling the Kids

Telling the Kids

Probably the only thing more painful than the recognition that your marriage is over is the thought of having to tell the children that their parents are separating.  While reconciliation may be possible, children need to be informed that one of their parents will be moving out of the marital home and be psychologically prepared for the likelihood of a divorce. It’s natural for parents to feel uncertain and anxious about talking to their children about divorce, so it’s best to prepare in advance what you will tell them.  The way in which you and your spouse break the news to the children now will set the tone for how well the kids will deal with the divorce down the road, so knowing what can be said and done to make things easier on the children is essential.

When should you tell your child about divorce?

If it’s at all possible, you should consult with your spouse before speaking to the children in order to agree upon what exactly you will tell them.  Your children need to understand why their parents are divorcing and what will happen to them.  Failure to give your children this information may lead to their confusion, anxiety, and loss of trust.  Do not underestimate the importance of this discussion.

While things may be tense between you and your spouse at this time, if you do not have this conversation before talking to the kids, you may wind up having it in front of them, so it would be a good idea to put your feelings aside in order to make joint decisions regarding the details you’ll need to tell your children.  If you and your spouse are not on speaking terms, you may want to consider consulting a counselor or mediator to help the two of you work out the details.

Ideally, you and your spouse should break the news to the children together. Telling the children about the divorce together sends an important message to the kids that both of their parents are on the same page and are going to work together to take care of the family.  Make an attempt to incorporate the word “we” into your discussion with the children to reinforce the notion of parental agreement.

You should have a discussion with all of the children at the same time so that each child hears the same story from mom and dad, and not a secondhand story from a sibling.  The explanation for the divorce should be appropriate to the age and intellectual and emotional development of your children.  When children are young, they can become confused with too many details.

While it’s not necessary, or even appropriate, to share with the kids the specific details underlying the reasons for the divorce, older children usually have a more realistic understanding of their parent’s marriage and will often want a more detailed explanation than the younger children, so be prepared.  If your children are different ages, share only the basic information initially, and then you can follow up with the older children later if you feel it’s appropriate.

It’s vitally important that you and your spouse remain calm during this conversation.  Always try to resist the temptation to place blame or discuss who’s at fault in the situation.  Parents should take a tone of respect for one another.

Since it’s not unusual for children to blame themselves for their parent’s divorce, make a specific point of repeatedly reinforcing to the children that your decision to divorce has nothing to do with them, is not their fault, and they are still deeply loved by both parents. Reassure the kids that although you and their other parent can no longer remain married, you both will continue to take care of and support them.

Mommy and Daddy still love you

Another concern that children often express is the concern that the departing parent no longer loves them or is abandoning them. Keep it simple and generic.  Reassure the child both parents still love them.  Blaming the other parent should never be an option.  If you do, the child will feel he or she must choose to emotionally support the parent who is more of a victim.  Never share your deeply personal story.  In the opinion of many, even if a child seems emotionally mature, children can’t process complex adult relationships. Almost anything a parent says can be interpreted unreasonably and inaccurately.

Children are not your therapist

When children are caught in the middle of the divorce experience, they can find themselves at a crossroads in their life without much choice in where they are forced to turn. Many learn so much about the marital problems of their parents that they feel just as invested to one side or another as a divorcing member of the union itself.

Some believe that there is a value in sharing truths, and while they may be children and the actions or arguments of parents may needed to be edited for the audience, they may be the right person to share this information with.

Those parents that believe in sharing this information may feel victimized during or after the divorce and feel hurt or angry about the events that have transpired. Those parents want their child to carry the same opinion as them, in order to feel validated in their own beliefs.

They may want their child to know specific events, framed in a specific context that paints the opposite parent in a negative light. For example, if one parent drank too much or went on too many extravagant spending sprees, that parent may feel the need to inform the child, in order to get them on their side.

While some parents may hold the belief that this is acceptable and justified behavior, it also is a form of parental alienation and is incredibly harmful for the child. It can cause lasting damage and prevent a child from ever having a functional relationship with the alienated parent.

This is why it is important for you, as a parent, to set up boundaries and never turn your child into a confidant for you to spill all of your woes and troubles, involving your ex-spouse/co-parent. It can be a damaging behavior for your child and cause the roles of parent and child to be blurred.