Telling Your Child About Divorce

Divorce is stressful for parents and children alike. Although children's emotional reactions usually depend on their age at the time of the divorce, many children experience feelings of sadness, anger, and anxiety - and it's not uncommon for these feelings to be expressed in their behavior. Often, the child's emotional reaction can be quite different than the parent's, and it's important to understand these differences. For example, a parent may feel a sense of relief that a difficult period is coming to some resolution, whereas the child may feel a sense of loss.

Fortunately, there are things you can do to help your child during a divorce. By minimizing the stress the situation creates and responding openly and honestly to your child's concerns, you can help your child through this difficult time.

As soon as you're certain of your plans, talk to your child about your decision to divorce. Although there's no easy way to break the news, both parents should be present when a child is told, and feelings of anger, guilt, or blame should be left out of the conversation. At best, this is a difficult message to communicate, but if you handle it sensitively, you can help make it less painful for your child.

Although the discussion about divorce should be tailored to your child's age and development, all children should receive the same basic message: "Mommy and Daddy used to love each other and were happy, but now we're not happy and have decided we'd be happier apart. What happened occurred between us, but we will always be your parents and we will always be there to love and take care of you."

It's important to emphasize that your child is in no way to blame for the breakup and that the unhappiness is not related to him or her. Children tend to blame themselves for the failure of their parents' marriages, and they need to be reminded frequently that it is not their fault. Finally, your child may question whether your love for him or her is temporary (because it was with your spouse); reassure your child that even though you're getting a divorce, you love him or her permanently and unconditionally.

When it comes to answering questions about your divorce, it's important to give kids enough information so that they're prepared for the upcoming changes in their lives but not so much that it frightens them. Try to keep your feelings neutral and answer your child's questions in an age-appropriate way and as truthfully as possible. Remember that kids don't need to know all the details; they just need to know enough to understand clearly that although divorce means separating from a spouse, it doesn't mean parents are divorcing their kids.

Not all children react the same way when told their parents are divorcing. Some ask questions, some cry, and some have no initial response at all. For kids who seem upset when you break the news, it's important for parents to let them know that they recognize and care about their feelings and to reassure them that it's OK to cry.

For example, you might say, "I know this is upsetting for you, and I can understand why," or "We both love you and are so sorry that our problems are causing you to feel this way." If your child doesn't have an emotional reaction right away, let him or her know that there will be other times to talk.

Most children are concerned with how the divorce will affect them:

  • Who will I live with?
  • Will I move?
  • Where will Mommy live or where will Daddy live?
  • Will I go to a new school?
  • Will I still get to see my friends?
  • Can I still go to camp this summer?

Be honest when addressing your child's concerns and remind him or her that the family will get through this, even though it may take some time.

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