Divorce: Telling Your Children

By Debbie Pincus, LMHC, psychotherapist and parent/couple coach

Parents often wonder how to tell their elementary age and preschool children that they are getting a divorce. It is normal for parents to feel anxious about the conversation. They wonder and worry about the kinds of questions and reactions they will get from their children. It is never an easy conversation but being prepared and thoughtful about the process will help parents calm their nerves and help children to adjust better to the impending separation or divorce. Here are some helpful tips for parents:

It is very important is to put aside any animosity with your “ex” so that you can decide together about how and what to tell your kids. Remind yourself that it is for the sake of your children if you have difficulty staying calm enough to make these thoughtful decisions together. You can always go to a counselor or mediator for help if you are too reactive to one another to get anywhere.

The calmer you are when presenting the news the lower the children’s anxiety will be. When they see that their parents are okay they can better anticipate a positive outcome for themselves. Kids will be much more unsettled if they see their parents battling and pointing fingers at each other.

Make sure to tell all your children at the same time so that a sibling is not breaking the news to another sibling. You can later talk to each child individually and address their individual concerns and question based on their age but the first talk should be with all present. Also present should be both parents. The children will see that for their sake you are finding ways to work together.

Children will want to know a reason for the breakup and although you do not have to tell them all the gory details you do need to tell them something. You might tell them, simply, that you and your spouse could not work out your problems successfully and you have decided to live apart. Remember, each child because of age, temperament, role in the family, birth order will react in their own unique way to the news. Be patient and understanding of whatever their reaction. A child may have an intense angry outburst while another child may seem as though she could care less. It takes a long time for children to be able to understand and speak their feelings – in the meantime you must just let them have their emotions even if they are painful for you to witness. Of course, you must help them manage their feelings in responsible ways. It will take them time to digest the information – some children may have sensed it, others may be shocked – regardless it will require your patience as they attempt to make sense and adjust to the changes happening to them.

Make sure to provide them honest information about the changes that will be taking place in their life. Tell them as much as you know and be honest about what you do not know. Tell them where they will be living, whatever arrangements that are in place, who they will be living with, when and how they will see the parent that is leaving. Assure them that they will be able to have a stable and strong relationship with both parents, even the one no longer living at home. Remember the parent is leaving the mate, not the child. For very young children you may want to draw a picture of what will be happening – draw two houses with mom in one and dad in the other and the kids in moms (or which ever parent’s house they will be in the most) and draw lines to show how the kids will go back and forth.

Most importantly, make sure you show them your unconditional love through words, actions and lots of affection. Make sure they are told this is in no way their fault and that there is nothing that they could have done to prevent this. Tell them this even if they have not verbalized this as a concern – it lurks in every child’s mind when their parents split up – and it will be reassuring for them to hear you articulate it.

Be patient with the many questions that they will ask you – some questions they will ask over and over even if you have answered and answered them. Let them know you are open to all their questions and you will try to answer them, within reason, as honestly as you can. Some questions they might ask you initially are: why is this happening, what will happen to me, will I be with my brothers and sisters, will I be able to maintain a relationship with the parent leaving , will I stay in the same school, where will I keep all my stuff, did I do something to cause this, will you get back together someday and will I still be able to be in my activities?

Parents often ask about the best custody arrangement for the children. Sometimes one parent does not like the idea that she or he gets the kids mainly on weekdays. She misses the weekend when he or she can have more time with the kids in a relaxed manner. Hopefully both parents can put their intense emotions aside to work out an arrangement that considers the best interest of the children. Whether you are trying to work out your own schedules or the court is handed you one these are some visitation schedule options listed below:

  • A few weeks in the summer
  • Every other weekend
  • A weeknight per week
  • Some holidays
  • 1st, 3rd and 5th weekend

There are many possibilities but you must consider what will best work in your own unique situation considering, of course, the ages of the kids. Best interest of the kids means helping them to be raised by both parents (unless one parent is considered unfit). Young children will do best with as much consistency as possible. It will be best for the schedule to have some flexibility so that at times you can allow for extra days or extended times.

This transition period is not without pain but by being sensitive to your children’s well-being you will reduce their anxiety and distress immensely.

For more information or counseling feel free to contact Debbie at: [email protected] or by phone at 914-834-4965.