Before the Separation
Telling the Children
- Children should be told by both parents, together, that they will be divorcing. It is important that it is emphasized that despite the divorce, the parents still love the children, and that the reasons for the divorce have nothing to do with the children.
- Parents should tell the children as much of the truth as appropriate. While children do not need to know about specifics, such as affairs, they can be told that the parents no longer love each other.
- Parents should try to remain nonjudgmental. As difficult as it may be to keep emotions and hurt feelings out of the conversation, the parents should try to not blame each other or call each other names during the discussion, as well as through the separation and divorce proceedings.
- Parents should try to remain honest and not lie. It is important that the parents appear open and honest during such a difficult time. If the children discover that the parents are lying, the parents will lose credibility and make the situation that much more difficult.
After the Announcement
- After telling children about the divorce, the children should be given time and space to process the information. Regardless of age, it is a lot to take in. Children will need time to understand what is happening, what that means to the family and home life that they know, as well as ample time to grieve.
- Parents should express sadness at the situation. This lets the children that their sadness is appropriate and that it is OK to mourn.
- After the announcement, children are likely to feel sad, scared, anxious and even anger. They are also feeling confused, and thus should be given the opportunity to ask questions. Children, especially younger children, will most likely ask the same questions repeatedly. As frustrating as this can be, parents should encourage it. Children need repeated validation that following the divorce they will still be loved, be safe, and be taken care of. Children who are not asking questions are likely denying what is happening and either not dealing with, or suppressing the subsequent emotions.
- The move-out of the non-custodial parent should happen somewhat soon after the children are told. If the move-out happens too quickly following the conversation - or worse, before the discussion occurs - it can be an extremely overwhelming experience for the children. On the other hand, if too much time passes, younger children may think that the divorce is not happening. Most experts agree that following the discussion, the move-out should occur within 1-3 weeks.
Following the Separation
Dealing with Conflict
Parents should strive to keep conflict to a minimum in front of the children. Children who witness conflict are at greater risk for psychological problems. Additionally, adults who are arguing, fighting, name-calling, yelling, screaming and possibly resorting to physical violence are not being good models on how to handle disagreements for children.
Parents should do their best to not use the child as a messenger or go-between. That means not saying, “Tell your father…” or quizzing the child about the other parent once they return home.
Parents should not let their parenting be influenced by feelings of guilt or sadness. Children certainly need love and attention, but they still need discipline. Separated parents still need to be a united front. Both parents need to install the same rules and follow the same punishments. What’s more, if one parent says no, the other parent cannot give in.
Therapy can be an invaluable resource for children of all ages who are experiencing the divorce of their parents. It is helpful to have a neutral third party that children can confide their worries and fears too. Children may also need a safe outlet to vent their own frustrations and concerns related to the divorce and the effect it is having on them. A therapist can provide a listening ear, can validate feelings and can help the child process the situation and their feelings.
Turner, P.J. & Welsch, K.J. (2011). Parenting in Contemporary Society. Fifth Edition. Pearson Publications.
Parent Child Relations by Professor Susan DeWitt http://gozips.uakron.edu