Preparing Children for Separation and Divorce

You and your spouse have decided that it’s time to end your marriage. Now it’s time for “the talk.” What can parents tell their children about divorce or separation that will make the situation easier for them to accept? The news will certainly be painful to hear – even if everyone “has seen it coming” for some time.  The breakup of a family is a true trauma in a child’s life no matter how “well” it goes. But there are things parents can do to help their kids adjust better.

Consider the following:

Do Have That Talk
First, it’s important that parents communicate to their children what has happened, what is happening and what will happen. Some couples fear that by raising the issue of divorce or separation to their children, they will just cause panic and pain. However, children – even the really young ones – are very sensitive. They may not say it, but they can always sense if something is not right. It’s actually better to keep kids in the loop, rather than leaving things to their imagination.

So set a date for that heartfelt family conversation. Have the meeting in a quiet, private and conducive place, at a time when the kids are not tired, sleepy or stressed from other activities. As much as possible, both you and your (ex) spouse should be present; it helps if parents present a united front when they deliver the news.

Talk to Your Children About the Divorce or Separation in a Manner Appropriate to their Age
It’s your children’s right to know what is happening in the family. In fact, ideally, they should be consulted as soon as the decision to divorce or separate has been finalized, and certainly several weeks before anyone has to leave the family home. This is not a conversation that should happen “the night of” or even “the night before.” You’ve had a long time to work this through; children also need time to adjust to the idea. Knowing about it a few weeks before anything happens does not add more pain; the situation is usually painful from the child’s point of view no matter how it is accomplished (except in cases where the separation/divorce will put an end to terrifying situations such as violence in the home).

What You Tell Your Children Depends on How Old They Are
The younger the children are, the more difficult it is for them to understand abstract concepts like irreconcilable differences, marital problems or even difficulties getting along. In fact, children under six can barely understand anything about marriage. Tell this group the truth: “You are too young to understand why Mommy and Daddy can’t live together anymore. You just have to understand that we have decided that this is the best choice for our family and we will both still take care of all of you.”

For children old enough to understand a little bit about relationships (the 6 – 10 year old crowd) you can add a little more detail: “Mommy and Daddy have had marriage problems for quite awhile now. We have tried to work them out in many ways. Nothing is helping. We have decided that the best thing for us to do is live apart. We will both still take care of you but at different times and in our different houses.”

For tweens and teens, even more information can be provided but keep in mind that children of any age do not understand adult marital problems. Moreover, you have no obligation to tell them the details that have led to your decision to divorce. Whether your partner’s verbal abuse, internet addiction, alcohol problem or boring personality has contributed to the end of your marriage, it is not your child’s business. Instead, you can tell this age group that “Mommy and Daddy have been dealing with many difficult issues for a long time and have decided that it is best to live apart from now on. Our relationship has become strained to the point where we can no longer live our lives together. We need to move on. We will continue to be your parents forever, and look after you as usual, except in our own separate homes.” If one parent is already in a relationship with another person, this information should be shared at this time since discovering it later could be a serious betrayal of trust between parent and child. In addition, if the divorce is the result of something the child already knows a lot about such as a parent’s violence or addiction, this can be mentioned at this time as well (“As you know, we have been dealing with Daddy’s drinking problem for a long time and both Daddy and I understand that it is no longer possible to continue the marriage this way…”). However, if the child does not know about “the fatal flaw” (i.e. the father’s pornography addiction), there is absolutely no need to divulge it. When the divorce is a shock – as when the parents have been getting along very well but an affair is discovered or some sort of illicit behavior has been discovered), parents can say “Although Mommy and I get along very well as you know, there are sometimes things that happen in marriages that cannot be fixed and we have been dealing with issues like that; unfortunately, we have to go our separate ways.” Just because a child wants to know the reason does not mean that parents have to provide it. Some sorts of information can actually scar developing human beings. If the positive image of each parent can remain intact, the child will fare much better after divorce. It is bad enough to lose a family. It is even worse if a child has to also lose a parent due to a new, negative picture of the person. Keep in mind that adults can be good parents even when they are poor marriage partners. Try hard not to tarnish the reputation of your spouse so that you do not rob your child of the opportunity to have two parents.

It’s best NOT to tell your child that you and your spouse have “fallen out of love.” Marriage is about commitment, compromise, learning to live together, growing and much more. Love is only one part of it – a part that waxes and wanes throughout the years and decades. While people are usually “in love” at the time of marriage, the nature of their love changes throughout the marriage. In long term marriages, they can be many loveless years inbetween many love-filled decades. There can be disappointments and betrayals. However, enduring marriages continue to pick up the thread of love and weave it in. If everyone divorced when feeling “not in love” there would not be a marriage left standing! Help your children to understand that marriage is a complex relationship in which people learn to care for each other and work together and always try to work out difficulties and differences. Sometimes, however, it is not possible to solve marital problems – something that you can’t explain to them now, but they’ll understand when they are much older.

Emphasize That the Divorce is Not Their Fault and Do Not Speak Badly of Your Spouse
This is very important: regardless of how old you children are, always emphasize that the divorce is not their fault. Kids have been known to blame themselves for a marital dissolution, either directly (“If I had only encouraged them to talk more…”) or indirectly (“Am I not a good enough reason for them to stay married?”). Stress that some situations are beyond anyone’s control, and need not be anyone’s fault.

Provide Them the Opportunity to Express Their Feelings
Give your children time to adjust to the news. Talking to your children about divorce or separation is not a one-way street. The family meeting is also an avenue to let your children express how they feel about the situation. Reactions can vary; some children will have a more difficult time than others. Expect anger, sadness, panic and rage. Don’t dispute these feelings; your children have a right to feel them. Instead acknowledge all feelings, and affirm that it’s normal for them to feel that way. Don’t offer false reasurrances of how wonderful life will be. Let time heal. Let the new life speak for itself. And be prepared to provide your children with professional counseling if they are having severe or enduring reactions to the loss of the family unit.

Note that navigating through any loss always takes time; so don’t expect your children to accept your decision right away. Neither should you compel them to agree with you. Denial and rebellion are also normal. Just emphasize the firmness of the decision, and your continued support if they need your help to cope.

Orient Them About the Changes That are to Come
Divorce and separation are periods of intense instability. It’s helpful for children to know beforehand what to expect, so that they can anticipate the changes that are coming. These changes may include new living arrangements, new parenting arrangements, and possibly some lifestyle changes as the family budget gets cut. Let them know that although there will be changes, you and their other parent will be there for them through everything. If this isn’t true (because the other parent has abandoned the family), then just let me know that YOU will be there through everything. Again, welcome their feelings and allow them to vent.

Remember that all change is hard. Be easy on yourself and your kids as you negotiate the changes that separation and divorce will bring.

For young children, read picture books on the subject of divorce – your local librarian can suggest numerous titles. There are also excellent books written for teenagers and these can be a big help for older kids.

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