When a couple decides to end the marriage, telling the children is without a doubt one of the most difficult steps. The logistics of the breakup - that is, which parent leaves, which parent stays in the family home, the timing - vary from couple to couple. What is constant in all family breakups is the need for an explanation to the children.
Sometimes older children may be far ahead and sense that their parents are headed for a marital breakdown. For example, teenagers who nightly hear their parents battling may not be surprised when one day Mother and Father announce the end is at end. Younger children, however, are often blindsided by even obvious clues that their parents do not get along. In fact, younger children may be oblivious to the idea that their parents are unhappy.
Generally, the divorcing spouse must tell the children that Mother and Father are parting as well as give the children an understanding about what is in store for them. This may sound easy, but divorce deranges so many routines that an intact family enjoys as part of a sense of normality.
Dr. Shelov and Dr. Alba-Fisch and others recommend the following considerations in preparing children for divorce:
- Children should be told about their parents’ plans to separate when the decision is definite. Circumstances vary from family to family, but children should only be told after a decision has been made to separate. Obviously, spouses contemplating a breakup need not share this information with their children because the uncertainty and ambiguities of this situation would simply needlessly confuse them.
- Parents should tell the children together and tell them the same story.
This is very important. Children need to hear a believable story from both parents. The story should be neutral and unencumbered of unnecessary information. This means that separating parents should not give children information that might cause them to take sides. According to Dr. Shelov and Dr. Alba-Fisch, here are two satisfactory explanations: "You might have heard Mom and me fighting a lot. We have tried but have been unable to agree on issues or to stop fighting." Nothing in this explanation incriminates one parent. Or when the parents have grown apart: "You may have noticed Dad and I don’t talk or laugh much together. We are no longer able to feel close to each other, and we cannot make it better." Again, nothing in the explanation blames one parent.
The "mutual story of the divorce," according to Dr. Donald T. Saposnek, is "one of the most important first steps that parents can take in preparing their children for the changes ahead..."
"Understandably, when parents divorce, each has his or her version of the reasons for the breakup. Moreover, each parent typically attributes the cause of the divorce to the other parent. Because marital separations tend to be very complex, multi-layered matters, with multiple contributing factors, both parents may be presenting accurate realities from their respective points of view...The idea that there may be multiple truths is beyond the grasp of most children, since it requires a level abstract thinking of which most children are not yet capable - Thus, in order to help children come to terms with the fact of their parents’ divorce, it is most helpful for them to hear only one mutual and consistent story of why their parents split up."
According to Saposnek, a mutual story blends all the elements in a neutral way. For example, Mother, alone, might tell the children that she and the father are separating because he was unfaithful and cheated on her. She might say that he spends all his time at work, not with his family, and that she is tired of shouldering all of the responsibilities of the family. Father, alone, might explain that Mother has not shown any affection in two years, that she obviously doesn’t love him, and that his is tired of trying to get her to love him. He might say he is leaving and very angry with her for forcing the break-up of the family.
A mutual story of the breakup, however, would go like this: "We have been married 13 years, and we both love you children very much. We used to also love each other a lot, and we still do care about each other. But, over the years, we both realized that we didn’t love each other like married couples should. We have been unhappy with each other for a long time. We tried to make it better. We even went to counseling, but it didn’t help. We’ve tried very hard to love each other again, but it just hasn’t worked. We each feel that we will be happier living apart from one another, and that we will be better parents to you if we live apart and are happier. We will both still be with you regularly and continue to take care of you, but at different houses."
- Parents must stress the children are not responsible for the breakup of the marriage. One of the cruelest ironies of divorce is that children frequently imagine they have somehow caused their parents to separate.
This can make for profound sadness in the life of a child just at a time when he or she most needs reassurance.
- Children need to hear that their parents are separating from each other, not them. Children fear abandonment. Parents must assure them that even though one parent will not be around the way he or she was before, the departing parent will be back.
- Children must be told they are loved. This is self-evident. The news of a breakup makes children feel lonely and scared. Love expressed as well as shown in hugs and kisses helps take away the fear.
From the onset, divorcing spouses must avoid drawing the children into any crossfire. This means, among other things, spouses must avoid enlisting the children as allies, or spies, or even messengers.