How, what and when to tell the kids about your divorce

Hurt, pain, loss and anger are just a few of the feelings you'll have about your separation or divorce. While this may be one of the most painful and stressful periods in your life, it's doubly so for your children.

Experts agree that far too often it's children who suffer most in separation or divorce proceedings, and so it's important to handle telling them in a mature, adult manner.

"No matter how painful you think this will be for your children, you shouldn't assume they don't want to know," says Michael Cochrane, a Toronto-based lawyer specializing in family law, and the author of Surviving Your Divorce and Surviving Your Parents' Divorce (both John Wily, 1999). "When children know something is wrong, and no one's talking about it, it leads to uncertainty, feelings of guilt, and, often, taking on responsibility for problems that belong to the adults."

Below are some strategies and tips for talking to your kids, and for helping them deal with the aftermath of the news.

Tell them together, as early as possible

Parents are often surprised that their children know about an impending separation or divorce long before they are officially told. That's because separation and divorce are usually preceded by tension or arguing in the home. However, the kids still need to be officially told, no matter what they might have figured out for themselves.

It's best if you and your ex-spouse can tell the children the news as a couple. This approach will give you both an opportunity to reassure your children of your continued love for them. However, Deborah Mecklinger, a Toronto-area therapist and mediator, notes, "If you think there's going to be a lot of conflict or a confrontation if you tell the children together, then it's better to have one parent break the news to the children. Re-enacting major battles in front of the children will probably do more damage than the news of the separation or divorce itself."

It's also a good idea to work out some of the details of your separation or divorce before you sit down with the kids. Knowing things such as where the children will live, which parent they will live with, and visitation schedules, will help your kids get over the initial shock of the news.

"While children will have an immediate emotional response to the news of a separation or divorce, parents often overlook the fact that kids will have a lot of questions of a practical nature," says Deborah.

"Children are most concerned with how this change will affect their world: will there still be a mom and a dad, will they still see their grandparents, will they go to the same school, will they still be able to see the same friends? Even if you don't have all these details worked out before you tell the kids, you should anticipate these kinds of questions."

Stan Benner, a counsellor and family mediator working in private practice in Toronto and Brampton, says that assuring children of any age repeatedly of your love for them is the best way to cushion the news: "Tell your kids that your love for them is not going to change until you feel confident they understand that - and then tell them again!"

Both you and your ex-spouse may want to consult parenting or a therapist or mediator before talking to your children. As well, Michael advises that you and your ex-spouse have a definite plan or strategy for telling the kids before you talk to them. "Knowing which parent is going to say what and agreeing that you will support one another in front of the children will make this difficult conversation a little easier."

Be honest

Don't lie to your children about the reasons for your separation or divorce - even if you think you're sparing their feelings. Children are smart and will probably know if you're being less than truthful with them. This doesn't mean you should fill them

in on every sordid, adult detail. "It's important to talk about the facts in an age-appropriate manner," adds Deborah. "There's a big difference in what you can tell a four year old and what you can tell a thirteen year old."

Deborah also cautions divorcing parents of adult children to refrain from saying too much: "Parents of adult children often expect their kids to be sounding boards or therapists because they're adults. Children of any age should not be put in this position."

You may also feel compelled to paint a picture of a "better" life after the divorce to smooth things over. Don't promise things that won't or can't happen. If the children ask you something that you're unsure of - whether or not everyone has to move out of the family home, for example - let them know you're not sure and that you'll keep them up-to-date.

Be prepared for all types of reactions

A child's age, gender, and level of understanding will affect how they react to the news of your impending separation or divorce. A preschooler may not understand the implications of divorce, but will certainly notice an absent parent, and may fear complete abandonment. An adolescent may assign blame to the parent he or she believes is at fault. Most children feel guilty, but while a teenager may wonder and ask if he or she is the cause of the separation, a younger child will assume he or she is responsible.

Above all, let your children express their feelings about the separation or divorce, whether it's denial, sadness, or anger. "Be respectful of and sensitive to your children's emotions," advises Deborah. "Quite often, parents want to conclude that their kids are fine when they're actually quite sad. It's completely normal for the children to feel sad, so let them feel free to grieve their loss."

Listen

Most children respond to the news of a separation or divorce with a lot of questions such as "Why is this happening to us/me?" or "Why can't we all live together?" While it's important to listen to their concerns and answer their questions honestly, it's just as important to listen for their "hidden" questions and concerns. A child often won't ask the questions that are really on his or her mind: "Is it my fault?" "Will you leave me next?" "Will you always love me?" Children of any age will need repeated assurances that you love them and won't leave them. "The message you want to convey again and again is that it's only the husband and wife relationship that's changing, not the parent/child relationship," says Michael. "You can't stress enough that this is an adult problem that the adults are going to work out, and that you are going to love them no matter what happens."

Don't use your children as bargaining tools

No parent in the middle of a divorce hasn't thought at least once of using his or her child to get back at his or her former spouse. Thoughts of withholding support, refusing visitation, or just plain dumping on your kids about your ex may give you moments of pleasure, but ultimately will hurt only your children.

Nor should you force your children to take sides. Do whatever you can to avoid asking them to give up their loyalty and love for their other parent, either directly or indirectly. This includes subtly trying to find out information about your ex's activities or telling the kids you'd like to buy them new shoes "but dad's not giving us enough money," for example. "Trying to co-opt a child's loyalty is very damaging," says Stan. "Your children will start to feel responsible for your problems and try to solve them. Remember that your kids aren't divorcing your ex: you are."

This article first appeared on April 25, 2000.

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