One of the most challenging and painful tasks for parents deciding to separate is telling the children about the impending divorce. The key to talking with children is to understand the experience of separation from their point of view, and to develop strategies that fit with each child’s age and stage of development. Children have a limited ability to understand what is happening during divorce, what they are feeling and why. Younger children see things from their own perspective, and tend to see themselves as the cause of events. They often blame themselves for their parents’ divorce. Further, most children secretly believe their parents will get back together, or wish that they would, and try to “fix” things and figure out ways of keeping them together. Some fear that their parents will walk out the door and never come back, and need reassurance that they will not be abandoned. Too afraid to tell anyone, they believe they are the only one in the world who feels that way.
Like adults, children manifest the classic stages of the grieving process, including denial, anger, bargaining, sadness, rejection and guilt. Some may also experience relief, which may bring about further feelings of guilt. The process varies from child to child. Some children may have suspected a separation, for others the news will come as a complete shock. Although children of all ages are deeply affected, younger children are particularly vulnerable and often suffer the most. It is thus very important for parents to be attuned to children’s reactions and watch for changes in their behavior.
With all this in mind, what do parents say and how should they talk with their kids about the separation? First, wherever possible, parents can reassure their children well in advance that they will not be abandoned and that both parents will cooperate in the future. Second, find a time and place that will be safe and comfortable, and speak with them together, and then with each of them alone; children will benefit from several shorter talks, rather than receiving all of the information at once.
Here are some key strategies and guidelines for talking with your children about the impending separation:
It is not their fault. Children assume that if they had behaved better, fought less with their siblings, received good grades or helped more around the house, they could have prevented the divorce. Tell children, in general terms, why the separation is taking place, keeping in mind their age and stage of development. Above all, children need to know that the separation is not their fault; regardless of what they may have heard when their parents fought, children are never the cause of a divorce. In other words, separation and divorce is an adult problem: “Mom and Dad could not find a way to work out our problems or to make things any better. We’ve made mistakes and we’re sorry that we’re causing you pain.” “Separation is a grown-up problem and you are not to blame. It is our problem and we will work it out.”
As parents, you will always be there for them. Tell your children you love them, over and over again, and that you will both always be there for them. Reassure them that you will continue to take care of them and keep them safe. The relationship you have with them will go on forever, and although feelings can change between adults, they never change between parents and children. Similarly, relationships with grandparents and other relatives will continue. “You will always be part of a family.” “We won’t be living together any more, but we both love you no matter what.”
Be clear about the reality of the separation. Children need to know, and to come to realize in tolerable doses, about the reality of the separation. “The separation was not an easy decision to make. We put a lot of effort into making our relationship work, but we have decided that we can no longer live together.” One of the saddest consequences of a divorce is the pressure some children put upon themselves to fix the problem. Feeling responsible for getting you back together is a huge emotional burden that you do not want your children to undertake.
Reflect your children’s feelings, and be a good listener. As children’s grief is quite profound, it is important to encourage them to share their thoughts and feelings. They are also anxious about how the divorce will affect them. But children need time to digest the information you give them. Don’t force a discussion of feelings, but be patient, look for cues and clues about what they are feeling, and reflect back what they may be going through. “We want you to say what you feel and think. You may feel worried, angry and hurt. Adults have these same feelings too.” For younger children, use books, storytelling, hand puppets, dolls, action figures and drawings to help them express what they are feeling and experiencing.
Be as clear and specific as you can about your future co-parenting plans. Children need to know the specifics of the future time-sharing arrangement, where they will be living, and how much time they will be spending with each parent. Address their particular needs such as friends, activities, toys and school. Before you embark on this conversation, make sure that you have made clear plans, and that the children are ready for the discussion about their future living arrangements.
Provide them with choices. Over time, it is important that children know that their voice will be heard when adult decisions are made about issues that affect their lives. As much as possible, encourage your children to express their needs and opinions, and to be part of family decisions, but never put them in a position where they are responsible for making adult decisions.
Just as important as knowing what to say is knowing what not to say. Never blame the other parent for the divorce, or give children the message that you are the good parent and the other parent is the bad one: children hear criticism of the other parent as criticism of half of who they are. Also, do not discuss details of what went wrong between you as a couple: children do not need to know about affairs, money problems, personality conflicts or other problems in your relationship.