Telling Your Children
Tell your children about the divorce or breakup as soon as it becomes a firm decision. Think carefully about how to explain the change. Pick a time when none of the children are upset or worried. Do not tell the children while you are in the car driving somewhere because you will not be able to give them your full attention.
If possible, both parents should tell the children at the same time. Children can support and comfort each other when they are together. You can talk later to each child on that child’s level if there are wide differences in the children’s ages.
If possible, present the decision as one you reached together, after trying every other way you could think of to solve your differences. Explain that every effort was made to stay together. Help your children understand you are both responsible, loving parents who remain committed to them even though you are going separate ways.
Express your sadness about the breakup of the family. This gives your children permission to mourn without having to hide their feelings of loss from you or from themselves.
Breakup Is Not Their Fault
Children often assume they were the reason their parents no longer live together. Emphasize that the divorce or breakup is entirely your decision. Explain the reasons in appropriate terms. Stress to them that only parents can decide to stay together or separate. Reassure them that the breakup is not in any way their fault.
Explain some of the major changes that will take place as the family reorganizes. Life will temporarily be disorganized; routines disrupted. One parent may move out. The house may be sold. The family may move to a new neighborhood. A parent may go back to school or take a part-time or full-time job. Make it clear there will be many changes that the whole family will face and overcome.
Children often feel powerless when their parents break up. Invite them to make suggestions in matters concerning them. Consider their suggestions. Older children may be assured they have some say in setting up the parenting schedule. This does not mean the children should make major decisions. The goal is to involve each child appropriately so they all feel they are participating in working out a solution to the family crisis. Once the parenting schedule is settled, explain it to the children in detail.
Fear Of Loss
Emphasize to your children that the divorce or breakup will not weaken the bond between you and them, even if you live apart. Reassure them that, although parents may divorce each other, they do not divorce their children. Reassure your children that both parents love and will continue a close relationship with them. Make it clear that everybody will have to work hard to maintain these important connections.
Your Children’s Feelings
Children have their own feelings. They often need to express those feelings, fears, and wishes. Don’t inhibit your children’s need to talk about the divorce. Be a good listener. Acknowledge their feelings.
Keep Your Feelings Separate
Make every effort to separate your own needs and feelings of hurt and anger from the needs and feelings of your children.
Give your children permission to love and maintain a relationship with the other parent. This may be hard for you to do because of how you feel.
Do not say bad things about the other parent in front of the children. Do not encourage them to take sides. Encourage your children to love their other parent. Support a positive relationship between the child and the other parent. Avoid using your child as a pawn, messenger or spy.
Be honest and realistic with your children. If their other parent is doing hurtful things to them, do not tell them it is OK. Make it clear that you understand your child’s feelings.
Children often hope you will get back together. They may even do things to get you back together. Your children need to understand you will not be getting back together. You might say: “We’ve given this decision a lot of thought. It is a final decision. Even though it feels sad, this decision is not going to change.”
Answer Their Questions
Be open to the inevitable questions. Be prepared to offer repeated explanations to questions in the following months.
If a child asks “Why?” give age-appropriate information about what caused the breakup. You might say: “We’re fighting too much and that isn’t good for anybody.” Some additional examples are: “We were too young, too different. We just don’t communicate well. We should have just remained good friends.”
To encourage discussion, you might say: “Things are going to be different for awhile. Don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions. Tell us what you’re feeling or thinking. We know this is difficult. We want to answer all your questions as best we can.”
Children and teens may need to ask questions or express their feelings at a later time. As they get older, they may look at things in a different light. Encourage your children to talk with you and to re-ask questions.