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How Do We Tell the Children Together

One of the most stressful concerns of someone facing a divorce is telling the children. This article provides information to separating parents regarding:

  • How to tell your children you will be separating and divorcing
  • What to tell them, and
  • When to tell them, whether the upcoming separation and divorce will be amicable, or difficult.

If the separation is amicable, regarding How to tell the children, for couples that can co-parent, it is best to tell the children together. The conversation may start with:

"Hey guys, Mom and I (or Dad and I) want to sit down with you and talk about something."

Generally, it is best to tell all the children together, unless there's a big age difference between them. Otherwise you, the parent, are putting an added burden on a child to keep some sort of secret from the others.

You will tell them in a comfortable setting like in the TV room. Not in bed, and not in a public place. If a child is told in bed, the memory of the conversation may return when the child tries to fall asleep at night. If a child is told in a public place, the child may not be free to express himself or herself without embarrassment.

Regarding What to tell the children, the following words can serve as a guide:

You may have noticed that Mom and Dad, (or "the two of us") have not seemed very happy lately. We've decided that we will be happier if we become a two-home family. That will mean you will have a home with Mom, and a home with Dad. We will always be, and you will always have, a family, but we will be a two-home family. You will see plenty of both of us, just not together as much, and we will keep your life as much the same as we can.

Our decision to separate is something we decided to do after a lot of thought. This decision is in no way because of anything about you. We will be getting a divorce, which is a court paper ending our marriage to each other. But we will never stop being your parents and loving you. We will always love you. Mom/Dad will be moving to a new home in a few weeks, and you'll go see that home soon. Do you want to ask us anything?

This conversation should take no more than one or two minutes.

Let's break this down a bit, and start with:

You may have noticed Mom and Dad have not seemed very happy lately.

You may mention that the children may have noticed that Mom and Dad have been arguing a lot, or have not been laughing and holding hands and sitting close to each other like normally happily married couples may, and they may not be sleeping in the same bedroom any more, which is not the way most married couples sleep. To say Mom and Dad "are not happy" is not saying "Mom wants to end the marriage and break up our family," or "Dad decided he loves someone else." You are simply saying Mom and Dad are no longer happy together. There really is no reason for any more detail.

It is not always the case that the child's life will not change much. There may be a change to a new school district or a move. There may not be as much money for extras or for activities.

So regarding the phrase:

We will keep your life as much the same as we can:

only say this if you will.

I have found that parents who amicably separate and co-parent are focused on having homes near each other, and will work hard to keep the child in the same school and activities. But if you are going to move out of the child's school district, or rather far away, you may want to say something like we may have to move or change a few things, but we will try to keep you in the same kinds of activities, and will help you and be there for you as we build our new life.

Saying Our decision to separate conveys that the decision is joint, not because only one parent decided to end the marriage. It is not "mommy's fault," or "daddy's fault."

The phrase "is in no way because of anything about you" conveys that the child should not feel responsible in any way. You do not have to use the word "fault," as in: this decision is not your (or your mother's or your father's fault). There's no reason to introduce the concept of blame, unless you think the child may feel he or she is to blame.

Which prompts the question, could a child feel that he or she is to blame for the parents separating? The answer is "Yes." An example of why a child may feel he or she is to blame for the separation could be that a loud fight between Mom and Dad happened right after the child spilled a cup of dark red fruit juice on the beige rug, and then a parent left the home and did not return. You may not realize it, but the child may feel that is what caused the divorce.

If the children ask "Will you be getting a divorce," tell them "yes," because that helps get them to acceptance. Just as you, the parents, have to go through the stages of Denial, Bargaining, Grief and Anger to get to Acceptance about the marriage ending, so do the children, and they are not reading self-help books.

When to tell the children is an important consideration. Don't wait until boxes with all of Mom or Dad's things are in the hallway. And don't tell them when there still are no plans for someone to move out. And not just before the SAT, or in the middle of finals during 11th grade, or on the first day of summer. And not near a special holiday or birthday.

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