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Divorce: what do we tell the children?

By: Christina O’Brien, Esq.

Once you have made the decision to divorce, many parents have questions about how and what you should tell your children. Parents often spend very little time discussing the divorce with their children simply because they don’t know what to say. Divorcing couples often feel that telling their children about the divorce is the part they dreaded the most.

Before you tell your children about your divorce, consider spending some time with your spouse to come up with a plan, or at least some topics to cover. You may wish to consider the following as you prepare to discuss your divorce with your children.

Make sure they understand that the adults (Mom and Dad) made the decision.

Children often believe that they caused or contributed to the divorce. They also tend to think they might be able to “fix it,” convincing their parents to change their mind about the divorce decision. Make sure you let them know that they did not do anything to cause it, or can they change your mind about the divorce. Make it clear that it was an adult decision to get a divorce that had nothing to do with the children.

Do not place blame for the divorce.

The children should not be told that the divorce was one of the parent’s decision or that poor choices made by one parent was the cause of the divorce. Regardless of who first broached the subject of divorce, and regardless of whether one parent wants the divorce “more,” when telling the children, present a united front. You can let them know you are sad about the divorce, or the changes the family will face, but children need the security of knowing their parents made this decision together.

Let your children know that you are available if they need to talk.

Just like you and your spouse have talked about the divorce, your children will also need to talk about it. Let them know that you and your spouse are always available to listen to them if they need to talk about their feelings. Make it clear that they can always ask you questions they have about the divorce or the changes that will occur. Understand that they will likely bring up the topic many times in the future.

“Feelings of sadness, confusion and powerlessness are common in children of divorcing parents. The importance of seeking outside support or counseling for the child should not be dismissed or minimized by belief that the child will eventually ‘adjust to the changes and be okay,’” shares Eileen McIltrot, a licensed psychotherapist and parenting coordinator in Southwest Florida. She suggests that “parents should encourage children to be open and honest in sharing their thoughts and feelings with the counselor. It can be empowering for a child to be asked by the parent, ‘Would you prefer to speak with a male or female counselor?’ and to know that the conversations they have with the counselor are private and confidential.”

“Children can have their feelings validated in counseling with a neutral person and need not fear hurting or betraying a parent with the honesty of their own thoughts, feelings and perceptions of what is happening in the family.” In her experience, “children are often reluctant to be this open and honest with their parents or other family members for fear it will make the situation worse between the parents. A counselor can help the children develop strategies and insights and utilize their strengths to navigate these waters of change,” shares Ms. McIltrot.

Present a clear path for the future.

Your children will want to know how the divorce is going to affect their lives. They will likely have questions about changes to their school, activities and where they will live. Children need consistency and stability. The divorce will bring about upheaval. Be prepared to answer their questions and provide them with a clear path for how their future will look. If you and your spouse have already agreed upon a timesharing plan, share that with them. Giving them appropriate information will help provide them stability.

Research shows that children whose parents present a united front during and after a divorce are less likely to have serious issues in the future. Don’t disparage the other parent and encourage your children’s relationship with them. Your children will benefit from seeing their parents working together to resolve important matters.

Should you have questions or need assistance with a divorce matter, I may be reached at christina.obrien@henlaw.com or by phone 239-344-1279.