Telling the Children

By Steven Reiter Ph.D. and Paula Van Doren LCSW

Under the best of circumstances divorce is a profound trauma for everyone involved. Telling the Children  is a moment that the child (unless they are very young) will remember for the rest of their lives.  WE have a very strong bias.  Our bias is that the welfare of the children is primary.  Their needs should be put in the forefront.  In this brief article we wish to present information to assist you in helping your children to receive and to respond to the traumatic news that their parents are divorcing.  Let us make that point very clear. YOU ARE DIVORCING EACH OTHER BUT YOU ARE NOT DIVORCING YOUR CHILDREN. This is such an important concept that it cannot be over emphasized.

There is a logical sequence to telling the children.  The first step is to decide that you are getting a divorce.  Telling the children that you are thinking about a divorce before you are definite and resolute in your decision will only threaten and confuse the children.  Hold off telling them until you are absolutely sure. Once you have finalized the decision to divorce, decided it is then time to talk with your spouse and make a plan on what and how to tell the children.  Don’t improvise.  You and your spouse should decide beforehand what you will tell the children and stick to it.    Avoid telling them on a school day.  They may be distracted at school, and they need time to let it sink in.  Anticipate what questions your kids may ask and have your answers prepared.  Telling the children is not a one-time conversation but a process.  The goal is to not only tell the children what you have decided but to give them an opportunity to ask questions and to share their feelings.   Remember that you have been thinking about this for quite a while and have had a chance to sort this through for yourself.  This is new for your children and they need time to process the information.   The point is to communicate to your children that you are available for them emotionally and you are very willing to listen.

In developing a plan to tell your children there are many points to consider.  Please see the list below:

    • Tell all your children together with the both of you present.
    • Make your presentation simple, direct, and at a level appropriate with your child’s ability to comprehend.
    • Do not criticize, condemn or blame your spouse.   This will only hurt your children.
    • Tell your children as soon as possible after you have decided so that they do not hear it from someone else.
    • Make it very clear to the children that they are not responsible, in any way, for the divorce or could they have prevented it.
    • Let your children know that they continue to be part of a family, in which their parents love them very much, even though their parents will live in separate residences.
    • Let your children know that you are not going to ask them to take sides.
    • Tell your children that, as their parents, you will work together to take care of them and provide for them.
    • Let them know what will change in their life and what will stay the same.
    • Encourage your child to ask questions, and assure them they can ask questions later too.
    • Validate your child’s thoughts and feelings.
    • Ask the children what they know about divorce.  This information may have a direct impact on how they process your divorce.  If they have seen or heard about the traumas of divorce you can use the opportunity to educate them about what you are doing as opposed to and different from what they have heard or fear.
    • Reassure your children that you are divorcing each other but that you are not divorcing them.
    • Don’t make promises that you can’t keep.
    • Do not lie to your children.
    • Reassure them that you still love them.
    • Your children’s emotional responses usually depend on their age, and can vary from a barrage of questions and profound emotion to an apparent indifference and no questions.  It is common for their feelings to be expressed in their behavior.  They may ask questions about the pragmatics of the change.

For example:

    • “Will I go to the same school?”
    • “Who will take care of me when I get home?”
    • “Will I have my own room?”
    • “Do we have to move?”
    • “Will I have to make new friends?”
    • “Where will I live?”
    • “Will I ever see Daddy (Mommy) again?
    • “Will I stay with my brothers and sisters?
    • “If I’m really good and never act up again, will Daddy (Mommy) come back?
    • “What did I do to cause this?  I’ll make sure I never do that again, then we can be a family again.”
    • Be prepared for the questions.  If you don’t know the answer to a question tell your child directly that you don’t know but that you will find out and let them know.
    • Your non-verbal communications are very important and in many cases communicate a great deal more than you words.  Be aware of what you are communicating with your gestures, posture, and facial expressions.  Make sure that these non-verbal communications are in line with the goal of being helpful to the children.
    • Don’t tell the unvarnished truth.  Your children do not need to suffer all of the intimate details.

Remember that this is not a single conversation but the beginning of a process in which there may be many discussions during which you assist your child in making a positive adjustment to your divorce.  Be loving, be patient, be compassionate, and be kind.  It is very common to want to reveal to the children the “Real Reason” for the divorce not a generic comment that “We don’t love each other any more”.  Don’t do it.  If you give the children the intimate details of the divorce, all of the violations, and betrayals, the children can be hurt by your disclosures, and feel confused and obligated to dislike the offending spouse.  Below is a sample introduction:

“Your mom and I want to talk to you.  We have been trying for a long time to work out the problems in our marriage.  We have been unable to fix them.  Our differences are so great that we have decided to get a divorce.  The decision to get a divorce has been a very difficult one.  We want you to know that although we will be living in separate houses that  we continue to love you very much.  We will always love and care for you.  Please know that our love for you is very strong even though we will be living in separate houses.”

The information presented in this brief article is only a guideline.  Your good judgment and intimate knowledge of you children are the basis for helping them through the process of telling the Children.  If you would like some personal consultation in the area of helping the children through the divorce please contact any of the coaches at A Better Divorce.

Further Reading:

Berry, Diane M. (2004). Child Friendly Divorce. Manitowic, Wisconsin: Blue Waters Publication.

Lansky, Vicki. (1996). Vicki Lansky’s Divorce Book for Parents. Deephaven, MN: The Book Peddlers.

Long, Nicholas. (2002). Making Divorce Easier on Your Child. New York: Contemporary Books.

Posted in Resources.