Talking to Children about Separation and Divorce

One of the most difficult life experiences for a child is having their parents separate or services_family_law_and_divorcedivorce. Most children want their parents to stay married. And that is true even if the marriage has been unhappy.  Divorce is extremely difficult for children and I believe parents owe it to their children to do everything they can to salvage the marriage if at all possible. If that is not possible, providing them as much security as you can is imperative. Part of doing so is telling them about the separation and/or divorce in the healthiest way possible.  Here are a few tips to help guide you through that process:

  • If at all possible tell the children before you separate. For children under 5, tell them 1-2 days ahead. For slightly older children about a week ahead and for teenagers about 2 weeks ahead.
  • Both parents should make a plan together for when, where, and how to talk to the children and both parents should be present.
  • Tell the children together as a family, preferably at home.
  • Pick an appropriate time over a weekend or when they will have time to adjust. Preferably not on a school day or prior to a big event.
  • Tell them you are separating/divorcing with an age appropriate explanation. Tell them how hard you tried to make it work. Do not give intimate details and do not blame each other.
  • Tell them that when you married you loved each other and planned to stay together forever. You want them to feel they were wanted and born into a loving family.
  • Reassure them that both parents still and will always love them and that will never change, and that both parents will stay involved with them.
  • Reassure them that the cause of the divorce had nothing to do with them or anything they have done.
  • Tell them that you understand that they are sad, as are you. That is natural and it will get easier with time.
  • Be clear about how the separation will affect them–living arrangements, school, sports, etc.
  • Allow them to express all their feelings.
  • Spend time close by afterwards in case they have questions or feelings come up later.
  • Do not mention any other people who may be involved, such as boyfriends, etc.

This may be a conversation that they will remember all their lives and it can frame the way the family will handle the rest of the divorce experience. Plan it well and work together as best  you can for the best interest of the children. Remember reassurance is key.

Next time we will look at how to tell if your children may need professional help in dealing with the divorce.

About Gretchen Derda (Woosley), MSW, LCSW

I am a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in a private psychotherapy practice where I specialize in work with families and children. My focus is to help families improve their functioning so that each member of the family can reach their full potential, becoming the persons they were meant to be.
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