Top Tips for Talking to Your Child About Divorce

By UB Staff Therapist, Pam Schur, MA, LPC

You meet. You fall in love. You marry. You have kids. You separate. You divorce. That’s not exactly the fairy-tale ending most couples hope for or expect when they tie the knot. Unfortunately, statistics show that nearly 50 percent of marriages in the United States end in divorce. While this may not be news to many, divorce continues to be a challenging and heartbreaking occurrence, especially when children are affected. Regardless of why or how a marriage ends the news that their parents are divorcing, is often hardest on the children.

“Kids will always remember, when and where their parents told them they were getting divorced,” says Janice Alpert, MA, LCPC. Alpert, a licensed therapist for the past 36 years, experienced divorce first hand when her two sons were 8 and 4 years old (now grown men in their 30s with children of their own). Alpert and her ex-husband have shared weddings, holidays, grandchildren birthdays, and get along with each other’s new spouses. “For this,” Alpert says, “my boys are incredibly grateful.” From both personal and professional experience, Alpert shared her thoughts about the most important things for parents to consider when talking to their children about divorce.

  1. Present a united front. Tell the kids together. Plan out what you are going to say ahead of time. Kids need to know they are going to be safe; that they have a place to live. They are going to ask questions and will want to know how the divorce is going to affect them. Will they stay in the same house? Will they have to change schools? Who are they going to live with? Try to have as much planned out in advance so you can provide honest answers. Keep it simple.
  1. Plan accordingly. Schedule a time to tell your kids when they do not have to be anywhere right away. They will need time to process their feelings and ask questions. Be sure to tell your kids it is not their fault. Let them know that even though you have decided you can no longer live together and be married, mommy and daddy love them and their love will never change. If kids see a tear or two, and they know you are sad, that is fine…totally normal, and may even help them see their sad feelings are understandable.
  1. Minimize change. Keep your children’s schedule (classes, sports, play dates, etc.) and routine as consistent as possible.
  1. Acknowledge the pain. Tell your kids you know this is a real hard time. Reassure them they will feel better in time. You all will. As their parents you will be there to support them and guide them. They are not alone. While things will be different, your love stays constant. This cannot be repeated too often.
  1. Be the parent to your child, not vice versa. While it is normal (and expected) for parents to struggle with negative emotions (anger, sadness, blame, guilt), try to keep your emotional temperature even. Children should never have to feel they have to take care of you. Never vent to family or friends on the phone about your ex when the kids are in the house. They hear everything.
  1. Act accordingly. Parents should be mature and respectful of each other. Divorce is an adult problem. Remember the old adage, action speaks louder than words.
  1. Love is all around. Let your children know that it is okay to love their mom and their dad. Encourage your children to be part of each parent’s life. Even if one parent is sad, let the kids know it is perfectly acceptable for the kids to have fun with the other parent. Also, if possible, continue to have a relationship with your ex. It will make your children’s lives easier and ultimately strengthen your bond with your kids. Children should not be forced to choose between two parents…ever.
  1. How much is too much? When talking to your kids about the divorce, keep it simple. Often if there has been a betrayal, the victimized party feels the need to tell the children “the truth.” Trust kids are smart and they will figure things out in time. The more parents can rise above their own hurt and pain, the better. Sometimes the best answer is: “I’m not comfortable discussing this with you. This is a grown up issue and it’s between mommy and daddy. The main thing you need to know is we love you and none of this is your fault. “
  1. It takes two. Work together to co-parent, and put the needs of your children before your own. Provide your children with love, support and safety. Do not put kids in the middle.
  1. Be kind. Do not take sides, blame, or say anything about the other parent in front of the kids. Children hearing one parent bash the other is the single most damaging thing to do in front of kids. In addition, the person doing the bashing is often the parent the kids resent.

While these are important for the initial conversation, parents need to be reminded, this is really an ongoing conversation. Encourage your kids to ask questions and be prepared to answer as honestly and appropriately as possible. This is very important to your child. Divorce is never easy for anyone. From a child’s perspective, they can feel like their world is falling apart. As a parent, do your best to be a parent. Provide your child safety, love, and support.

Finally, like it or not, you and your ex are connected forever, so for the sake of the kids, deal the best you can with your hurt, anger, and sadness so you can all get along. In time, as hard as it is to imagine, you will all heal.

 

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