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When parents reach the difficult
decision to divorce, they are faced with the emotional task of deciding on the
best time and way of explaining the decision to their children. It is necessary
to be open and honest with children, keeping in mind their ages and
developmental levels. In all cases, children need to be reassured that they are
not to blame for the divorce, will continue to maintain relationships with each
of their parents, and, above all, they are loved.
When a marriage breaks down,
children may already have a sense that something is not right in their family.
They have the right to know the situation as soon as practical, as it will
result in changes in their lives that will require time for adjustment. However,
the conversation should be carefully timed.
Delaying the conversation until some
final decisions have been made regarding changes in living situations and parenting
time will help parents deliver a clear message and answer questions. Also, it is in the children’s best interest
for both parents to put their differences aside and choose a time to present
the news together in a unified and supportive way.
Should I Say?
In a divorce with minor children
there will be agreements made regarding custody, visitation and child support.
It is necessary for the parents and their attorneys to come to decisions based
on what is in the best interest of the children, but young children themselves
should not be burdened with the specifics.
Exceptions might be made in the case of older children who may be asked
about their custody and visitation preferences by the court or a guardian ad
Considering a child’s age and
maturity is the first step in deciding how to explain divorce. The youngest
children may not understand what divorce is, and parents will need to explain
it in simple terms. Older children will
likely understand the concept, or even know friends whose parents are divorced.
In any case, parents should use language that is age-appropriate when
explaining the changes that a divorce will bring about.
Changes are Normal
Understandably, children faced with
the uncertainty of their parents’ divorce often exhibit behaviors as a result.
Parents should be aware of these, and be supportive of their children through
the divorce process. Common behavior changes differ by age:
- Infants may
exhibit clingy, irritable behavior or have a tendency to regress. Though
very young, babies can sense tension between parents, but are unable to
understand the reason.
have formed a strong bond and attachment to their parents and the security
that they provide. Changes in their lives are difficult to accept, and
they may think that they are to blame.
Attention seeking, trouble sleeping and fear of being alone are
have the capacity to understand a breakup, and may feel insecure,
powerless or responsible. Due to their increased maturity, they may keep
their feelings inside resulting in acting out or nightmares.
kids can better understand the finality of divorce. They may make efforts
to fix the marriage because they fear losing one of their parents. They
may also blame one parent for the divorce.
Helping Children Cope
Parents play a critical role in
easing their children’s fears and uncertainties during the transitions that
take place in divorce. Even in good times, children thrive on predictability
and consistency. Divorce will bring
changes, and developing a routine benefits children of all ages and their
parents as well.
Assuring that the children have
adequate time with each parent, providing a safe environment open to discussion
of feelings and opinions, allowing familiar objects to travel between homes, and
providing increased emotional and physical comfort are all ways to help
children feel more secure during a tumultuous time.
Many children benefit from
discussing the situation with a third party. Asking another trusted family
member, teacher or counselor to discuss feelings about the divorce with the
children, and keeping the lines of communication open, may make a positive
Divorce is a difficult transition,
and this is especially true for children. Most decisions in a divorce regarding
the children are made for them, and it may take time for them to understand and
adjust to the changes in their lives. When
parents work together to present the decision to divorce to their children in a
positive way, the entire family benefits.