DOs and DON’Ts When Telling Your Child You Are Getting a Divorce

30 Oct

Divorce-Sign-Post
In my clinical practice, I often see children whose parents are either separated, in the process of divorcing, or divorced (and sometimes for many years). In some cases, the conflict between the parents can be very intense and heated, and the children feel they have to choose sides. Unfortunately, these are the children who suffer the most and have a hard time coping with all the changes that occur as a result of their parents’ decision to divorce. In contrast, when the fighting between the parents subsides after the separation, the majority of children adjust to their new reality within two years. Of course, every situation is different.

Some time ago, I met with an 8-year old girl who was was feeling very sad about her parents’ divorce. She was exhibiting extreme rages, destructive behaviour, and temper tantrums daily when she was with her mother, but behaved like an angel at her father’s house on weekends. This little girl knew her mother asked for the divorce and was clearly angry with her for taking that decision. In contrast, she felt badly for her father, who shared with her that he still loved her mother. She tried to take care of him by being very helpful around his place when they were together. Her recollection was that she learned her parents were getting divorced through a family friend the day her parents went to court. She also thought it was her fault and blamed herself for “opening up my big mouth.” She fantasized about a plan to help her parents reconcile. It was clear that she was having difficulty coping with the divorce.

DOs and DON’Ts

upset-boy-with-pics-of-parents
The decision to divorce is certainly not an easy one but once that path has been chosen, it is very important that you take the time to think about what and how to tell your child or children.

DOs to consider:

  • DO sit down with your child to explain to them this decision and what a divorce means for them. A one time conversation is not enough. You will need to have multiple conversations about this issue.
  • DO reassure them that this decision to separate and divorce is not their fault and that nothing they could say or do would change this adult decision.
  • DO share the information that directly affects them and that they need to know. For example, your child needs to know answers to the ‘W’ questions including what are the changes, who is leaving, when it will be happening, where the other parent is going, and why you are divorcing (e.g., “Mommy and Daddy do not love each other any more and we fight all the time. We do not like who we each have become when we are together. Mommy and Daddy have decided we cannot stay together as a couple. Daddy will be moving out this weekend and he will live with Grandma and Grandpa for a while until he figures things out.“)
  • DO specify when your child will see the other parent. A calendar with the dates circled can be especially helpful for younger children.
  • DO allow your child to express their feelings about the separation and divorce, and also answer their general questions in a way that is appropriate for their age.
  • Most importantly, DO tell your child that you love them and will always love them.

  • DON’Ts to follow:

  • DON’T share with your child the personal details that led to the decision to divorce, especially when it likely involves hostility towards the other parent.
  • DON’T badmouth or talk negatively about the other parent to your child or within earshot of your child. After all, your child comes from both you and your ex. When you insult your child’s other parent, you are hurting your child.
  • DON’T put your child in the middle or send messages to the other parent through your child. Find a way to communicate issues related to your child with your ex, even if it means going through a third party.
  • DON’T discuss finances or personal problems with your child. Remember that they are your child and not your friend, no matter their age or maturity level. Allow your child to be a kid.

    Divorce involves major adjustments, emotional upheaval, and new challenges for everyone in the family. You may want to consider consulting with a child psychologist, physician, or mental health professional for specific guidance in this difficult process. In addition, there are some highly recommended books available for you and your child.

    Recommended Books For Parents and Children About Divorce

    Book TitleAuthorAgesDescription
    Helping Your Kids Cope with Divorce the Sandcastles WayM. Gary NeumanParentsAn excellent and practical resource that guides parents step-by-step on how to help their child of any age cope with the changes and issues that arise following a divorce. Topics covered include how children experience divorce; understanding children's play and art; when parents fight; how to tell your child about the divorce; custody and visitation; parenting the child of divorce; and introducing your new significant other.
    Dinosaurs Divorce

    Laurene Krasny Brown and Marc BrownAges 4 to 8This highly recommended book for young children uses cartoon dinosaur pictures to help kids understand why parents divorce, the different feelings this evokes, what happens after the divorce, visiting one parent, living in two homes, how to tell friends, and much more. It is a valuable tool for promoting discussion with parents.
    My Mom and Dad Don't Live Together Anymore

    Judith Rubin, Ph.D.Ages 6 to 10This strongly recommended journal and drawing book is very helpful for children to help process their feelings, thoughts, and experiences related to their parents' divorce. This workbook can be used as a tool to promote discussion of various topics related to life before and after a separation and divorce.
    Two Homes

    Claire Masurel;
    Illustrated by Kady MacDonald Denton
    Ages 2 to 5This lovely story reassures young children whose parents are divorced that whether they are with their mother or with their father, they are loved at all times.

    As always, I welcome your feedback, comments, and questions.

    Best wishes,
    Dr. Stephanie

    Top image courtesy of Stuart Miles / freedigitalphotos.net
    Image at right courtesy of David Castillo Dominici / freedigitalphotos.net