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Helping Your Children Overcome Divorce: Breaking the News

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This article is the second in a three-part series meant to help you as you help your children overcome the difficult process of divorce.

When going through the process of divorce, oftentimes, your children are the ones who end up suffering the most. To them, their world is being divided and destroyed. As their parents, it is your responsibility to help them through this time of uncertainty and confusion. The first step in helping your children to overcome divorce is to understand what they will feel. To read our article on the grief cycle, and how you can help your child through it, click here. After understanding the range of emotion your child will pass through, your next step is to tell your child about the imminent divorce.

Divorce usually comes after months or years of both spouses attempting to reconcile. However, regardless of how obvious you may believe your unannounced divorce to be, studies show that the day you tell your child is a memory that will not fade from their mind.1 In her studies of children of divorce, Heather Westberg explains that no matter how much later, the image in a child’s head of the day their parents tell them of the divorce is one that stays fresh.2 How, what, when, and even where you tell your child are therefore important factors in fashioning the memory they retain into the easiest with which to live.3

When and where to tell your child about your divorce?

Lisa Herrick, a leading specialist in divorce and separation, suggests that you tell your child anywhere from two to three weeks prior to physical separation.4 Before sitting down with your child, however, plan how the conversation will progress with your spouse. Doing so in advance allows you to present a united front,5 as well as to avoid anger, guilt, and blame.6 Research shows that parents who are able to present the news together, both taking equal responsibility, protect their children from feeling as if the divorce is their fault, and also helps them understand that they do not need to choose one parent or the other with whom to side.7 Practicing the conversation will help both you and your spouse to act civilly, as well as plan how to best tailor the conversation to your child’s age and needs.8 Do your best to establish a plan for what will happen post-separation—where your child will live, when they will visit the other parent, how your child’s daily routine will be affected, and so on. These are all questions that you need to be prepared to answer in your conversation with your child, if possible.9 Plan to tell your child at a location where they feel safe and secure, such as your home, rather than doing so in public or in the car.

Before telling your child, reach out to teachers, as well as any other people who spend a considerable amount of time with your child (nannies, grandparents, babysitters, etc.).10 By alerting them to the imminent separation, it prepares them for any acting out or upset on your child’s part.11Ask them to be both sensitive and discrete with the information, and request that they not speak to your child about the divorce unless your child brings it up.12

Herrick suggests that you tell your child at the beginning of a weekend, in the morning. Doing so will give them adequate time to process the revelation, and additionally leaves them time to ask questions, as well as gives you time to reassure and comfort them.13 Telling them in the car on the way to school, before bed time, or without first planning with your spouse will often result in a negative experience, and leave your child with greater feelings of guilt and confusion. Additionally, should you have more than one child, find a time to tell them all at the same time, regardless of age differences. Studies have shown that telling just your older children places psychological stress upon them, as they now have to keep a particularly heavy secret, and also results in your younger children feeling as though they can’t be trusted.14

What to tell your child about your divorce?

After planning when and where you will tell your child, prepare yourselves to tell them what they need to hear. The most important point you need to make is that the divorce is in no way your child’s fault. Failing to do so effectively can result in your child taking upon themselves the fault for the divorce.15 Assure them that the decision lies completely on you and your spouse, and that nothing they did, do, or will do will change the decision.16 Explain that, while you are separating, your child is free to continue to love both their parents without prejudice; they need not feel that they have to choose a side.17 Though their family is changing, assure your child that both of you are, and will be, their parents, and will love them no matter what happens between you and your spouse.18

Some of the first questions your child will have will concern their daily routine, as well as that of their parents. Be prepared, if at all possible, to answer basic questions such as which parent is staying, which is leaving; when your child will see each of you, and how often; explain clearly changes that will happen in their daily routine, and make clear those things that will stay the same.19 These choices should be made by you as parents; forcing your child to make these decisions places stress on them, particularly when having to make choices such as with which parent to live and with which to spend the weekend.20

If your child asks why the divorce is happening, be as honest as possible, while keeping in mind, however, that you should strive to maintain a united front with your spouse;21 should knowing the reasons for the divorce place blame on one parent or the other, it is better to withhold such details.22Above all, insure that your child feels free of any obligation to love or choose one parent over the other, and free of any reason to blame one parent or the other.23

How will your child react, and what should you do?

Each child will respond differently to the news of divorce; some will begin to cry, while others will pretend they did not hear, and try to change the subject.24 Regardless of their reaction, you and your spouse need to remain united.25 It is okay for you to show pain; let your child know that the process is hard for all of you, but that you will all get through it, and that with time, the pain will pass.26 If you or your spouse lose composure while speaking, or begin to be upset, angry, or accusatory, the other should rescue the situation; while it will be easy to become defensive, remember that this time is for helping your child through a life-altering conversation.27 Explain that it is hard for both of you, and tell your child that you will speak about it more when the other parent has calmed down.28

Remember, the most important thing you as parents can do is stay united while telling your child of your decision to divorce. This is not the time to place blame, but rather to help your child understand that they can, and should, continue to love both parents the same. Comfort them, and help them realize that their life will continue, and that you as parents will do everything you can to ensure that their life is affected as little as possible through out the divorce process. While this experience is one that will remain with them for the rest of their life, it need not be one that is unduly negative.

At the Law Office of Brett H. Pritchard, our goal is to take care of your case and divorce as autonomously as we can, so that you can focus more on helping your child through this tough time, and less on the legal problems presented. For more information on how our team can help you, visit our Family Law page.

  1. Heather Westberg, Children’s Experience of Parental Divorce Disclosure: A Look at Intrafamiliar Differences, 2000, https://digitalcommons.usu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://www.google.com/&httpsredir=1&article=3677&context=etd (Last visited Dec 5, 2017).
  2. (Id.)
  3. (Id.)
  4. Lisa Herrick Ph.D., Guide to Telling the Children About the Divorce, Lisa Herrick Ph.D., https://www.lisaherrick.com/separation-and-divorce-work/guide-to-telling-the-children-about-the-divorce/ (last visited Dec 5, 2017).
  5. (Id.)
  6. D’Arcy Lynsey’s, Ph.D., Helping Your Child Through a Divorce, KidsHealth from Nemours, Jan. 2015, www.kidshealth.org/en/parents/help-child-divorce.html (last visited Dec 5, 2017).
  7. Heather Westberg, Children’s Experience of Parental Divorce Disclosure: A Look at Intrafamiliar Differences, 2000, https://digitalcommons.usu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://www.google.com/&httpsredir=1&article=3677&context=etd (Last visited Dec 5, 2017).
  8. D’Arcy Lynsey’s, Ph.D., Helping Your Child Through a Divorce, KidsHealth from Nemours, Jan. 2015, www.kidshealth.org/en/parents/help-child-divorce.html (last visited Dec 5, 2017).
  9. Lisa Herrick Ph.D., Guide to Telling the Children About the Divorce, Lisa Herrick Ph.D., https://www.lisaherrick.com/separation-and-divorce-work/guide-to-telling-the-children-about-the-divorce/ (last visited Dec 5, 2017).
  10. (Id.)
  11. (Id.)
  12. (Id.)
  13. (Id.)
  14. Heather Westberg, Children’s Experience of Parental Divorce Disclosure: A Look at Intrafamiliar Differences, 2000, https://digitalcommons.usu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://www.google.com/&httpsredir=1&article=3677&context=etd (Last visited Dec 5, 2017).
  15. Lisa Herrick Ph.D., Guide to Telling the Children About the Divorce, Lisa Herrick Ph.D., https://www.lisaherrick.com/separation-and-divorce-work/guide-to-telling-the-children-about-the-divorce/ (last visited Dec 5, 2017).
  16. (Id.)
  17. (Id.)
  18. (Id.)
  19. (Id.)
  20. D’Arcy Lynsey’s, Ph.D., Helping Your Child Through a Divorce, KidsHealth from Nemours, Jan. 2015, www.kidshealth.org/en/parents/help-child-divorce.html (last visited Dec 5, 2017).
  21. Gina Kemp, M.A., Melinda Smith M.A., Jeanne Segal, Ph.D., Children and Divorce: Helping Kids Cope with Separation and Divorce, HELPGUIDE.ORG, Oct. 2017, https://www.helpguide.org/articles/parenting-family/children-and-divorce.htm (Last Visited Dec 5, 2017).
  22. D’Arcy Lynsey’s, Ph.D., Helping Your Child Through a Divorce, KidsHealth from Nemours, Jan. 2015, www.kidshealth.org/en/parents/help-child-divorce.html (last visited Dec 5, 2017).
  23. (Id.)
  24. Lisa Herrick Ph.D., Guide to Telling the Children About the Divorce, Lisa Herrick Ph.D., https://www.lisaherrick.com/separation-and-divorce-work/guide-to-telling-the-children-about-the-divorce/ (last visited Dec 5, 2017).
  25. Gina Kemp, M.A., Melinda Smith M.A., Jeanne Segal, Ph.D., Children and Divorce: Helping Kids Cope with Separation and Divorce, HELPGUIDE.ORG, Oct. 2017, https://www.helpguide.org/articles/parenting-family/children-and-divorce.htm (Last Visited Dec 5, 2017).
  26. Lisa Herrick Ph.D., Guide to Telling the Children About the Divorce, Lisa Herrick Ph.D., https://www.lisaherrick.com/separation-and-divorce-work/guide-to-telling-the-children-about-the-divorce/ (last visited Dec 5, 2017).
  27. (Id.)
  28. (Id.)
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