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How to tell your children you’re divorcing

Ask the Family Lawyer, by Jeanne M. HannahOne of the most difficult parts of divorce for parents is “what do we tell the children?” Bottom line: You have to tell the children. Surely, you don’t think they don’t know? Experience shows that children know, children pick up on tensions, overhear arguments. They worry. They wonder: Was it my fault? Can I fix it? What’s going to happen to me?

TalkingToChildrenAuthor Dana Ferber shares the following wisdom about how to tell your children that their parents are divorcing. This is an “everybody in the living room” discussion. These are Ferber’s tips for telling the children about impending divorce:

  • If possible, both parents should be present.  This illustrates to the children that you will still be able to co-parent.
  • Tell them calmly.
  • Keep it age appropriate.  Do not give them information that is over their heads.
  • Keep it short and sweet.
  • Explain that divorce is between the adults and that parents do not divorce children.
  • Ask for questions.  Answer honestly with age-appropriate information. Do not be afraid to say, “I don’t know the answer to that.  When I do, I will tell you.”
  • You do not tell your children about marital issues, like your sex life or money problems.  The details of the divorce should also stay between the two of you.
  • Explain to your children the ways the divorce will affect them directly, i.e., will you move, will they stay in the same schools, and so on.
  • Remember that divorce begins for the children the day the living situation changes.  On the day one parent leaves, that is the day their parents’ marriage ends.
  • Let your children cry if they need to.  It is important to let them grieve.
  • Reassure them that you will not leave them, even if you are angry (which is some children’s biggest fear).
  • Reassure them that you will always love them.
  • Notify their teachers, scout leaders, karate instructor and anyone else who has contact with your child, so they can be aware of and sensitive to your child’s needs.
  • Be prepared for any and all reactions from, “that’s too bad, what’s for dinner?” to  crying and yelling. Stay calm and be reassuring.
  • Remember your children will be as healthy about this as you are.  They will take their cues from you.
  • Continue to talk with your children about the process.  One conversation is only the introduction.  As uncomfortable as this may be for you, your children need your guidance and support.

I would add a few comments:

This conversation should be planned for a time when there will be no intrusions. Of  course you want to be thorough, but do not haul out a sheet of paper with the above bullet-points on it and read it to your children. How can they be sure of your feelings and your support if you can’t make eye contact with them as you talk to them?

As for No. 17 above, of course, your children will continue to have questions and concerns. When they ask you a question, listen carefully. Answer in simplest possible terms only the question they ask. Do not editorialize or add details that are not the children’s “stuff.”

It is always best to discuss the divorce with your children when your spouse is present. You don’t want to be accused of bad-mouthing your co-parent. Remember, a divorce is adult-stuff. Keeping your children healthy and happy is a parent’s job.

Donna F. Ferber, LPC, LADC, is a licensed psychotherapist in Connecticut and the author of From Ex-Wife to Exceptional Life: A Woman’s Journey through Divorce, which won an Honorable Mention Award by the Independent Publishers Association. This is a marvelous book, helpful to women embarking on a divorce process, making it easier for them to take a step-by-step approach into unknown territory. To read more about the author and her work, please visit www.donnaferber.com.

Donna’s Blog may be read here.

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