Telling the Children You Are Getting Divorced

Telling the children that Mommy and Daddy are getting a divorce draws a line in sand. Now, everyone -- Mom, Dad and children -- all know where they stand, and very often have no idea where they are going. Telling the children is one of the many very difficult bridges that divorcing spouses must cross. Plainly, children must be told, if for no other reason than knowing of the break between their parents is the first step in accepting this dramatic change in their life.

Depending on the family situation, children sometimes sense that their parents do not get along, and depending on the age and experience of the children, they may actually anticipate the divorce even when they cannot understand all its ramifications.

Research suggests that children reared in a high conflict home filled with verbal abuse and physical violence fare worse than children reared in a tension-free environment. For this reason, children may be "better off," so to speak, after their parents divorce than before. Nevertheless, the day his or her parents tell a child that they are parting ways will be traumatic.

Children can grow and thrive in a divorced home, provided they are under the right parental conditions. One of the first ways that a parent can help a child is by telling him or her about the divorce. A divorce affects children of all ages.

Following are some tips on telling the children:
  • No matter what the age, parents must tell the children what is going on.
  • Ironically, breaking the news requires the parents to come together in ways that tax their own self-restraint, but if one parent enjoys a very good rapport with a child, he or she may lessen the trauma by being the one to break the news.
  • Neither parent should do or say anything that a child can construe as assignment of blame. Nor should either parent do or say anything that might give him or her a reason to choose sides. No blame should be assigned to either parent for the separation, because this may give the child a reason to think there is a good and a bad parent.
  • A parent must explain to the children that they are not to blame for the divorce. Initially almost all children feel that they are responsible. The parent must explain that the divorce is between the parents and not the children and parents. If this is explained correctly, the children will also realize that they are not responsible for the divorce, so they cannot be responsible for their parents reconciling, which is a persistent notion that torments many children.
  • A child should never to told about a divorce unless the spouses are absolutely certain that the decision is final.
  • Breaking the news should happen on a day when everyone can be together for as long as need be. A day off from school is probably best because the children are going to feel lonely, and they need someone there to feel a sense of safety and security.
  • Children want to know what to expect, what will become of them. A child may want to know about school and future living arrangements. After breaking the news, a parent may, without going into great detail, want to give the children some idea what they should expect in the future. This may be very improvisational because the parents themselves may be uncertain about the future.
  • If children ask "why," this usually means why is this happening to me. It does not mean why are you getting a divorce. The children initially really don’t need to know why, so eliminate details.
  • Children, like adults, assimilate a divorce at different rates, and questions percolate as the separation takes shape. Children may have questions, but will be reluctant to respond at that time.

Common Questions and Answers

Q. What is a great mistake parents make when telling a child about a pending divorce?

A. Trying to enlist the child as an ally or spy. Children love both parents by the entirety. A child asked to take sides faces divided loyalties that can tear him or her apart.

Q. What must a parent do when telling a child that a divorce is in the works?

A. A divorcing spouse must reassure the child 1) that he or she is still loved; 2) that the parent is leaving the spouse but not the child; 3) that the breakup is not the result of anything he or she did.

Q. What should a parent most avoid in telling a child about a divorce?

A. Trapping the child in the middle. Even under the best conditions, children suffer enormously when their parents divorce. Everyone knows stories of children caught in the withering crossfire of battling spouses, children who become proxies in a contest of vindication in the wake of failed marriages, children used as weapons or held hostage by parents who cannot stop fighting even after a marriage is over.



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