Separation and divorce is often difficult and overwhelming, and when kids are involved, parents can become riddled with stress and anxiety over how to break the news. When, how, and what you tell your children can have a long lasting impact on them. The following provides parents with some guidance.
When Should We Tell The Children?
It is best to tell the children only after you and your spouse are certain a separation will happen. Once you and your spouse have decided that a separation will occur, telling the kids a few weeks prior to the separation allows them to digest and understand what is going to happen and perhaps lessen the upset when one parent moves out. While it may be tempting to tell older children before telling younger ones, keeping this secret can place a lot of stress on the older child, and telling them together allows the children to offer each other support. Consider what the kids and you have scheduled before you tell them. Breaking the news at a quiet time on a weekend allows parents to be available should the kids have questions or want to talk.
How Should We Tell The Children?
It is best if both parents tell the children together as a united front. If you cannot tell them together then the next best process would be for each parent to talk to the children separately but sequentially one right after the other. When both parents deliver the message together, the children are less likely to feel they need to choose “sides”. Be sure to reinforce that both parents love the children and the children can and should still love both parents. Because divorce is so emotional, prepare before talking to the kids. One suggestion is to write down what you will each say and determine if there are any topics that are off-limit for discussion. By reviewing how and what you will tell the children in advance, both parents are more likely to remain calm and avoid becoming upset or angry with one another.
What Should We Tell The Children?
When telling the children, you need to balance providing enough information without telling them too much. Avoid placing blame on one parent as it does not benefit the kids and is not in their best interests. Disparaging a parent in front of the children causes more harm than good down the road. If you know the plan, even if it is temporary, share it with them. You don’t need a lot of details, simply letting them know who is staying in the house, where the other parent will be living, and how often they will be with each parent. Reassure the children, but don’t promise something you can’t deliver. For younger children, reminding them of the plan every so often is helpful. Let the kids know that you are available if they have questions or if they want to talk.
Once You Have Told the Children:
Have a support system in place. For example, let teachers, babysitters, daycare providers, coaches, and/or friends’ parents know what is happening. Ask them to let you know if they observe any unusual behavior from your children. It is okay to ask for help. If you are feeling overwhelmed or the kids appear to be having a difficult time dealing with the divorce, contact a therapist who can offer advice and guidance for you and your children.
For more detail and information I suggest reading the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers online publication "What Should We Tell the Children? ....A Parents' Guide for Talk About Separation and Divorce." Geraldine Welikson Hess, Esq. of Hess Family Law is a Fellow in the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers.