Telling Young Children About Divorce

Children of all ages are usually aware of serious conflict between their parents. Even very young children experience tension in the home and know that Mommy and Daddy have been yelling at each other or sleeping in different rooms. But despite their awareness that things are rocky, few kids are prepared for the finality of the decision to divorce, and virtually all children wish that the family unit would remain intact.

iStock_divorceFor children, home and self are intimately connected.   The dissolution of the marriage threatens a child’s foundation – her sense of wholeness, stability and security.

How and when to tell the children that you are divorcing can have a considerable impact on their ongoing emotional stability and on their ability to adjust to the new reality. It is ideal for both parents to craft the script together. This can be a difficult task, since often divorce is not a mutual decision and one or both parents may feel guilty, hurt and angry.

Below are some general guidelines for telling the children.

  • Tell the children as soon as (and not before) you are certain that you are divorcing.
  • Wait until you have a good idea about your plans, since many of their questions and concerns will revolve around how their lives will be changed.  They will feel more secure and less anxious if you appear to have things somewhat under control.
  • If at all possible, attempt to present a united front, agreeing beforehand on what you will say. Stick to the script and avoid the temptation to blame the other or to present yourself as the victim.
  • Be as truthful as possible without offering too much information upfront. Make it practical and digestible; they will process the information slowly, over time. Young children see things concretely and don’t fully understand concepts like love and marriage, so keep it simple:  “Daddy and I just can’t get along anymore.” “Mom and Dad are going to live in different houses so we don’t fight so much.” “Some moms and dads are married and live together and some are just friends and live in different homes.”
  • Stress that the children are not the reason for the divorce. Children can imagine that their own misbehavior or inadequacies drove a parent away. Emphasize that this is a grown-up decision having to do solely with the relationship between Mommy and Daddy.
  • Explain that grownup love is totally different from the kind of love that a parent has for a child: “We don’t love each other anymore, but we will never stop loving you. We will both always be your parents. Love between children and parents is a permanent thing.”
  • Be aware that when children experience one parent as abandoning the family, they will worry that if one parent could leave, perhaps the other will as well.  Reassure them that you will not leave.

Though you may want to emphasize the positives and assure your children that life will go on, it is also vital to acknowledge that it is sad and to allow them to express the full range of feelings about it. Though you may be struggling with your own difficult feelings, try to tolerate and have compassion for your children’s sadness, anger, fear, etc. and resist wanting to “fix” it quickly. Their feelings will evolve over time.

“Telling the children” is only the first of many conversations you will (and should) have going forward.

Next month, Divorce Information NOW plans to publish an article on MommyBites titled “How Best To Tell Your Older Children That You Are Divorcing.”

Divorce Information NOW

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