Q. When should we tell the children about our impending divorce?
A. There are many factors that influence when you should tell your children about the divorce. Sometimes, a child may ask directly about this possibility and, at that point, it is best to be honest. Clearly, your child has some knowledge of the situation and you do not want say something that you have to take back in a short time. You can emphasize that this is not a settled issue if that is the case. However, denying something that eventually occurs can destroy trust. If your child doesn’t ask, you have more control of the timing. In my experience, there are usually two opposing factors influencing the decision to disclose. On one hand, parents want to have enough information to appropriately handle questions their child may have. For example, your child may ask if they will continue to live in the home. That decision may not be made in the early stages of the divorce. Waiting provides the opportunity to answer that question with concrete information. On the other hand, as time goes on, more and more people will know about the upcoming divorce including family and close friends. Children should hear about the possibility of divorce from their parents rather than a classmate or cousin. You want to tell your children before someone else makes a comment. Sometimes circumstances force the issue. If one of the parents is moving out of the home or even to a different bedroom children will naturally have questions. Be prepared to answer their questions at that time.
Q. How should we tell the children?
A. The parents should tell the children together. Try to tell them after you both have had time to recover from the initial impact of the divorce issue. It is understandable to show sadness when discussing the issue but the parent should keep his or her composure and be able to provide reassurances to the children. If possible, tell the children when they have time to digest the information and deal with their emotions. Never tell them before important events or a special day. For example, early in a weekend or school break is better than before they are going on a play date or off to grandma’s. Tell them in a private place where they can feel free to express their emotions and ask questions. Restaurants don’t work as they can inhibit the child’s normal reactions. Avoid places that are special to them such as their bedroom or playroom. Those are places where children go to relax and should not be disturbed by an event that will probably be upsetting to the child. Also, if one child knows, they should all be told. It is a burden for one child to keep this secret to himself or herself. Having siblings who understand what you are going through is an enormous help at this time. Occasionally, children will be relieved that the parents are getting divorced. This can happen when they have witnessed arguments or even violence that has been upsetting to them. Be aware that these children may still have negative feelings about the divorce. They just have a different starting point. Plan to check in with your child for follow up questions. If your child is surprised by the announcement of the divorce, she or he may need time to formulate the questions that he or she wants to ask.
Q. What should we tell the children?
A. Children are very perceptive and may be more aware than you think. For many age groups, their concerns will revolve primarily around their own needs. They will want to know how the divorce will affect them. Will they have to move? Can they still have their pets? Will they still be vacationing in Florida? One friend mentioned that the second question that her children asked her is “Will we have to go back to dial-up internet?” Be prepared to give them information about how the divorce will affect their day to day lives. They don’t want to give up friends or change school because you are getting divorced. The age of the child is an important factor in what you want to say. A simple and direct summary of the situation will be a good beginning. Very young children will have a limited understanding of the meaning of divorce. Older children will have more questions which can guide the conversation.
Be careful how you present the situation to your children. Frequently, parents will want to soften the impact of the discussion by implying that the divorce is not certain. If you are going to counseling and working on the marriage it is fair to say so and to let the children know that the outcome is uncertain. However, if the divorce is certain, then it is kinder to be honest about that. Giving children hope when there is none prolongs the process for them. The children need time to process their grief. By denying the inevitable, you are prolonging one of the most difficult periods for them. They will remain in a painful period – hoping that their parents reconcile, trying to influence the outcome, and desperately trying to read the signs as to which way the marriage will go. They cannot begin the grieving process and move to eventual acceptance until they can let go of the expectation that their parents will remain married.
One of the most difficult issues involving divorce is how much to tell the children when one parent is considered to have “caused” the divorce, for example, if one parent is having an affair. Often the other parent wants the children to know the “truth” because he or she doesn’t want to be responsible for “destroying” the family. While those feelings are understandable, I do not recommend that the children be given that kind of information. The greatest gift you can give children who are impacted by divorce is the shield them from adult issues. There is no benefit to destroying the image they have of the other parent. When you criticism the other parent it is as if you are criticizing a part of them. It shakes their confidence in their own feelings and judgment. After all, they love the other parent. Most importantly, you do not want to give your child the right to marginalize the other parent. This could be a critical issue when your child is a teenager and both of you will need to stand united as your child flexes his independence muscle. It is better to say that you are not getting along and realize that you will be happier apart. That is honest and something most children can understand. Be aware that, in some cases, the “bad behavior” will be exposed by others or by the spouse’s subsequent behaviors despite your best efforts. This is especially true if the children are teenagers and notice unusual behavior from either parent.
Many children blame themselves for the divorce. I am frequently amazed that a child will be living in a difficult family situation for months or even years and focus on one event which proves to him or her that he or she caused the divorce. In one case a child told me he caused the divorce because he had cried when his drunken father had pushed him onto the floor. His parents had been arguing about drinking issues for a few years. However, he was convinced that if he had been quiet his parents would not have divorced. It is such a common misconception that I recommend that you explicitly reassure your children during your talk that they had nothing to do with the divorce. It is also important to let your child know that, while parents can divorce, the parent child relationship is forever. Some children have a secret fear that mom may send them away or dad may leave them if he gets upset with them. Young children especially have expressed this concern to me and they need to be reassured that you will be their parents forever. Of course, one of the most important issues for children in the long run is the well being of their parents. It is so important that the children are reassured that both parents will be fine after the divorce. In my experience, the difficulties for children arise when they start worrying about their parents instead of focusing on being children. Divorce is most difficult for them when they become concerned with adult issues. If a parent is struggling during and after the divorce, the child can become afraid to discuss his or her own concerns for further upsetting the parent. If a parent is anxious or depressed, the child can become consumed with fixing the parent rather than doing activities that are appropriate for his or her age. It is the adult’s responsibility to find the help he or she needs to be a fully engaged parent. This can include a supportive social network or compassionate family members. A therapist familiar with divorce issues can be enormously helpful at this time.
Q. My child seems to have little reaction to our divorce. Does that mean he or she is doing fine?
A. Divorce is usually a difficult time for all family members. However, in the end, the majority of children come through the divorce process intact. Children are resilient and typically experience several emotional events during childhood – the best friend who moves away, the death of a grandparent or favorite pet, a family move. Children can handle some stress in their lives. Most children will be sad that their family is divorcing but they will recover and grow as we all do from new experiences.
With that said, many children have significant difficulties during the divorce process. They experience fear, anger, sadness and grief. Frequently, they keep these feelings to themselves during this difficult time because they do not want to burden their parents. Often parents will tell me how well their child is dealing with the ongoing divorce. However, when I see the child in therapy they express deep emotions and concerns that their parents are unaware of. Sometimes a few sessions with a mental health professional can alleviate these fears and improve communication within the family. In cases where the child is acting out by doing poorly in school, becoming aggressive or withdrawn, or experiencing crying spells, the family should see a mental health professional as soon as possible. Some children are vulnerable to begin with and they will have a more difficult time during the divorce. If your child has difficulties with change or has had issues with anxiety or depression in the past you should seek professional guidance for your child during this process.
Q. What can I do to ease my child through this period?
A. This time is like any other time in your child’s life. They need their parents to be there for them. This is important because I know that the parents are going through a very difficult period of their own. Parents are experiencing a wide range of emotions as well. There can be changes in the household that makes a parent less available to the children. For example, a stay at home mother may return to work. She is dealing with her own disappointment regarding the divorce and the difficulties of beginning a new job. It is crucial at this time to remember that your children need you. Make time to have dinner together or make cookies or read a story before bed. If Dad has moved out, he should continue to be involved in sports or activities that he and the children shared. Frequent visits that continue traditions with be most helpful to the children. Consider this permission to put aside the housework or work projects to concentrate on your children. This is one of the best ways to help your child through this stressful period.
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