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How 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 first

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 Œplay 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 children.

Be honest

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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