Telling children about divorce

Children suffer most in a divorce. Responsible parents can reduce stress for their children by acting like grownups. Pre-planning is best and the more the parents work together to iron out the details of the custodial arrangement before the split, the better and more definite information you will have to tell the kids when necessary. This mature approach creates the most stable environment for your kids.

Both parents should read A Child’s Bill of Rights and sign the agreement before sitting down with the kids.  This will help set important ground rules and help ensure the parent’s act in the children’s best interests.

When & how to tell children about divorce

When you and your spouse are utterly certain that you will be separating to obtain a divorce, you should jointly decide when to tell the kids and what to tell them. It is best to do this shortly before one parent moves out of the house. Both parents should be present when the children are told and all children should be told at the same time. This is a mature, responsible way to deal with the issue and it sends a positive message to the children about their future. Arguing about what to tell the children in front of the children is a recipe for disaster.

What to say to children about divorce

Above all, reassuring the children that both parents have unconditional love for the kids is overriding. It is important to reassure the children that it is not their fault and that you both love them and will continue to be with them. Above all, be honest and remain calm for the kids so that they can see that things will be ok. Neither parent should be blamed for the impending divorce. Kids often expect an explanation for what is happening and it is appropriate to give a general explanation but no specific details should be shared about why you are getting a divorce. However, specific details regarding where the kids will live, where the departing parent will live and how often the children will see and spend time with each parent will comfort them. Therefore, working all of this out in advance is best for the children and will make the “telling” process simpler. One therapist, has created an interactive web-site where you can create a personalized storybook for use in telling your children about the divorce.

What children want to know

  • Where will I sleep?
  • How often will I see dad? …mom?
  • Will I change schools?
  • Will I stay with my brothers and sisters?
  • What happens to my dog, cat, etc.?
  • What happens if I get sick?
  • Did I cause this?

What not to do

Kids should not be expected to deal with adult problems. Here are just a few definite “no’s”:

  • Never blame the child for the divorce or make him or her think it is their fault.
  • Don’t put the children in the middle of an argument let alone an all our war.
  • Don’t pull the kids out of class at school to tell them. Do it at home in a comfortable place.
  • Don’t blame the other parent or say bad things about them.
  • Don’t ask the child what he or she wants to do. You are the parent and the child expects you to be in charge.
  • Don’t pressure the child to choose sides.
  • Don’t make promises to the child for the purpose of gaining favor.
  • Don’t use guilt!
  • Comfort your child; don’t expect the child to comfort you!

Get professional help

Each family situation is different. Before you sit down with your kids, you should consult a divorce lawyer and work out the specifics on child custody and visitation. You should also consult with a licensed mental health professional for advice on how to address your children’s needs before you break the news. At Rice Law, we often work with Denise Scearce, MSW, LCSW and Bridge Builders Counseling and Psychotherapy in Wilmington, North Carolina.

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