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Tips on Telling Your Children about Your Separation or Divorce

When facing the idea of telling their children about their impending divorce, most parents feel confused, anxious and filled with dread. It is difficult enough for adults to face the reality of a divorce and manage their own feelings. Telling their children and facing their children’s feelings can seem like a worst fear come true. Yet, what parents say and do at this painful time can have a major impact on how the divorce affects their children’s development. The following guidelines are intended to help parents plan what to say and do at that meeting. These guidelines should be adapted to the individual needs of each child and family. Most parents find it helps to write out and practice what they are going to say.

  • Tell the children when the decision is final and before they will begin to see changes in their daily life, such as who sleeps where, one parent moving out, etc.
  • It is generally best for both parents to tell all the children
    • at the same time
    • at a quiet time undisturbed by TV, telephone or video games
    • at a time when neither parent is going away for a few days
  • Talk slowly and clearly.
  • Explain that you are going to get a divorce. If the children are too young to know what a divorce is, then explain that this means: you will not be married any more, you will live in different houses; explain that you will still be their parents.
  • Explain that when you got married, you both wanted to be married forever and you tried to do that. When problems came, you tried to fix the problems and you are very sad you could not fix them. Speak in simple terms. Wait to see if they have questions before you go on.
  • Tell them you love them and you will continue to take care of them as their parents even though you will live in different homes.
  • Be sure to tell the children that it is okay to show you how they feel and to ask questions. Stop to listen at any time they have a question or comment or want to show how they feel.
  • Kids usually need to know something about why the divorce is happening so that they can make sense out of it and so that they will not blame themselves for the divorce.  It is advisable to tell them what is true, but to provide information that is  appropriate to their age and explained in very simple terms.
  • Do not blame each other, disparage each other or disrespect each other in front of the children.
  • Tell them that divorce is an adult decision and there is nothing they can do to change it.
  • Tell them you do not want them to take sides about the divorce. You want them to love both of you the same as they always have.

After you have told them about the divorce, explain about the changes you know will happen and when these will happen, such as who will live where.

  • Explain what will not change, such as “you will go to the same school in the same grade and you will still be on the soccer team.” Or, “the plans for you to go to ___________College next year will stay the same.”
  • Listen to their questions and answer them as well as you can. If you don’t know the answer, tell them you haven’t figured that part out yet, but you will tell them when you have. Then do so.
  • Ask what questions they have.
  • If they act in a way that suggests they do not want to talk about this anymore, tell them you understand that this is hard to hear and you are ready to talk later when they have questions or want to talk.
  • If the plans for spending time at each parent’s home have been finalized, tell them what those plans are. In the case of younger children, it helps to use a calendar with days at Mom’s house and Dad’s house marked clearly in different colors.
  • Tell them that both of you will be glad to sit down with them again in a few days to talk over any questions or concerns they may have.

In the next few days and weeks, do not be surprised if your children:

  • Do not want to talk about it.
  • Ask the same questions over and over.
  • Ask the “tough questions” in the car.
  • Tell you they do not want you to do this.
  • Get very angry/upset with you about this and/or other things.
  • Show signs of distress like sleep problems, tearfulness, emotional neediness, behavior problems, sadness, anger, etc.
  • It usually helps children at this time if you provide them with understanding, stability, information, and comfort.

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