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to Tell Your Kids
How, what, and when to tell the
children about your divorce.
By Teri Morrison
Hurt, pain, loss, and anger are a few of the
feelings you may have about your separation or divorce. And while this may be one of the
most painful or stressful periods in your life, it's at least doubly so for your children.
Experts agree that far too often it's children who suffer most in separation or divorce
proceedings, and so it's important to handle telling them in a mature, adult manner.
"Before you tell your kids about your decision to end your marriage, discuss with
your spouse what you are going to say and how you will say it," says Stephanie
Marston, a licensed marriage, family, and child counselor, in her book The Divorced
Parent. Julie Criss-Hagerty, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist in Newhall, CA
concurs and adds, "The optimum time is when you have made the final decision to
separate and you have a time line as to what is going to happen. Have a game plan in mind
with details about visitations, phone calls, and where Mom and Dad are going to be living.
The more information children have about the day-to-day facts, the better they are able to
deal with this period."
Here are some strategies and tips for
talking to your kids, and for helping them deal with the aftermath of the news.
Tell them together, as
early as possible
If possible, this job should not be done
solo. "There are several advantages to telling your children the news together. You
let them know that your decision is mutual, mature, and rational -- one that you both have
considered carefully and to which you are committed," says Marston.
Know which parent is going to say what, and agree that you
will support one another in front of the children.
Parents are often surprised that their
children know about an impending separation or divorce long before they are officially
told. That's because separation and divorce are usually preceded by tension or arguing in
the home. However, the kids still need to be officially told, no matter what they might
have figured out for themselves.
"It's best if both parents can give the
children the news as a couple," confirms Robert M. Galatzer-Levy, M.D., a
Chicago-based child and adolescent psychiatrist and the author of The Scientific Basis
of Child Custody Decisions. "If they can cooperate enough to do this, it will
send a positive message about the future." This approach will give both of you an
opportunity to reassure your children of your continued love for them. However, if you
think there's going to be a lot of conflict or a confrontation if you tell the children
together, then it's better to have one of you break the news to the children alone.
Re-enacting major battles in front of your children will probably do more damage than the
news of the separation or divorce itself.
Work out the details
It's a good idea to work out some of the
details of your separation or divorce before you sit down with the kids. Knowing things
such as where they will live, which parent they will live with, and visitation schedules
will help your kids get over the initial shock of the news. Although your children will
have an immediate emotional response to the news of your separation or divorce, don't be
surprised if most of their questions are practical and appear somewhat self-centered.
Children's concerns and questions often
depend on their age. "Most children have questions about their security: where they
are going to live, or if they're going to stay at the same school," says Carol-Ann
Flicker, Ph.D., a clinical child psychologist in Beverly Hills. "If they don't ask
the questions, they may act them out. Younger children in particular play divorce'
and take various roles. In some children, there will be sadness and depression. Other kids
will be hyper or aggressive, and in some cases, you will see regressive behavior."
"It's important to see the problem
through your child's eyes," says Dr. Galatzer-Levy. "A three year old might be
most concerned about where the dog's going to be living, while a 15 year old wants to know
if he or she'll be going to a different highschool." Both you and your ex-spouse may
want to consult parenting books or a therapist or mediator before talking to your
When it comes to telling the children about
the reasons for your separation or divorce, honesty is of the utmost importance. "Try
to be as truthful as you can given the age of the kids. Children don't just listen to the
words. They listen to the tone; they notice the look. They see the evidence," Flicker
says. Criss-Hagerty agrees: "Deceptions may be easier for the parent in the
beginning, but they will backfire later, and the child will get angry when he or she finds
out that the truth has been withheld."
This doesn't mean you should fill them in on
every sordid, adult detail; make sure you talk to them in an age-appropriate manner.
"A younger child needs simple information, and it should cover what's happening and
what's going to happen to them. Don't give them too much information all at once,"
advises Flicker. "Teenagers may be more willing to ask 'why?' -- and they may
question the fidelity of one parent. The bottom line in divorce is don't lie and don't
bad-mouth the other parent."
Divorcing parents of adult children should
also refrain from saying too much. It's tempting to use your adult kids as sounding boards
or therapists, but the long-term problems you'll cause far outweigh any short-lived
satisfaction you might feel after unburdening yourself to your child.
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