One of the most difficult things you will ever have to do as a parent is tell your children that their parents are breaking up. It is important that you shift your focus from your loss to your children’s loss. Divorce is about the dissolution of a husband-wife relationship. It marks a change in the parent-child relationship. Staying aware of this difference will help you effectively support your children. In talking with your children, stay focused on their feelings about this experience. If you focus on the spousal relationship, your own feelings may get in the way of good parenting.
Here are some tips for explaining the divorce to your children:
- If possible, both parents should be present. This illustrates to the children that you will still be able to co-parent.
- Tell them close to the time that one of the parents is planning to move out. Telling them months in advance doesn’t “prepare them.” It will only make them anxious and worried.
- Tell them calmly.
- Keep it age appropriate. Don’t 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. Don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know the answer to that. When I do, I will tell you.” You don’t tell your children about marital issues, like your sex life or money problems. The details of 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.
- Allow for 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.
- Behave yourself! Keep your thoughts and feelings about your spouse to yourself. Recent research shows that it isn’t the divorce itself that damages children as much as the fighting, stonewalling, tension and icy silences between the parents.
Continue to talk with your children about the process. As it is with discussions about sex or drugs, you do not just have one conversation and feel you have done your job! This conversation is only the introduction. An ongoing dialogue and open attitude will go a long way in minimizing possible negative effects. Be there for your children through this difficult time. As uncomfortable as this may be for you, your children need your guidance and support.
Donna F. Ferber, LPC, LADC is a psychotherapist in Connecticut who works with families in transition. This article is adapted from her book, Ex-Wife to Exceptional Life: A Woman’s Journey through Divorce which was awarded Honorable Mention in the self-help category by the Independent Publishers Association. Her second book Profileactics: A Guide for the Prevention of ill-Conceived Personal Ads was just published in October 2009. For more information, click here to go to her website.
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Guest Contributor Donna F. Ferber, LPC, LADC
Donna F. Ferber, is a psychotherapist in private practice for 28 years. She is a licensed professional counselor, a licensed alcohol and drug abuse counselor and an educator. Donna works with individuals and in groups. Her office is in Farmington, Connecticut.