What Will You Say To The Kids - By: John Denvert

By Anthony C. Levitas, Psy. D.

Tammy Wynette's famous 1968 country song "D-I-V-O-R-C-E" aptly sums it up:

Our little boy is four years old and quite a little manSo we spell out...

View moreText:What Will You Say To The Kids

By Anthony C. Levitas, Psy. D.

Tammy Wynette's famous 1968 country song "D-I-V-O-R-C-E" aptly sums it up:

Our little boy is four years old and quite a little manSo we spell out the words we don't want him to understandLike T-O-Y or maybe S-U-R-P-R-I-S-EBut the words we're hiding from him nowTear the heart right out of meOur D-I-V-O-R-C-E becomes final todayMe and little J-O-E will be goin' awayI love you both and this will be pure H-E double L for meOh, I wish that we could stop this D-I-V-O-R-C-EMany times I've heard people in the midst of their divorce say these words to me: "I don't want to hurt my children, but..."

These words echo in my office day after day. Well-meaning, loving parents who are on the verge of divorce come to my office and say these words. While the reasons may be different, they have one thing in common: determining if they do not wish to stay married.

Of course, loving parents do not want to hurt their children. Sadly, however, in divorce, there is virtually no way around it. Children get deeply hurt by divorce, and too many of them also carry these scars into adulthood. Children need to cling to the myths that their world is safe and that they and their families are okay. Divorce can abruptly shatter these myths.

When I work with children of divorce, I regularly ask them what they would wish for if they could have three wishes granted to them. The overwhelming majority of them wish for their parents to get back together. It is a constant theme and fantasy for many of them. Who can blame them?

Therefore, when you finally reach the decision to divorce, after exhausting all possibilities of saving the marriage hopefully, one of the most painful and necessary tasks is telling the children. Parents should try to keep in mind that children need to be informed about divorce in a calm and straightforward manner. It is common for parents to experience a wide range of emotions during the divorce process, so it is obvious that children may also have many different feelings about the divorce. If you are going through the divorce process, you most likely can relate to this.

Helping Children Adjust

There are many ways parents can help their children adjust to divorce.

It can be extremely helpful to the children for their parents to have as many of the divorce details worked out prior to telling the children. Children will often have many questions, including "Where will I live?" and "When will I see each of you?" Having these kinds of details already decided will help to reduce conflict and argument.

When parents are ready to tell the children, I encourage them to do so typically at the end of the week when they will be able to spend time with the children. It is also important to avoid telling them about the divorce during any special event, such as a birthday or a holiday. Otherwise, it is possible that they will form a lasting memory of the divorce being associated with that event.

Parents should clarify what divorce does and does not mean. The discussion should be open and tailored to the developmental needs of the children. Especially for younger children, the information should be kept brief and simple.

For example, "We are getting divorced. This means we will have two separate homes and we will each continue to see you and love you." Speaking simply and openly can help children reduce their anxiety and discomfort, and hopefully ensure that the children will adjust to the divorce in the best possible way.

It is preferable for both parents to be together while telling the children, provided they can put aside their differences during the discussion and not battle in front of the children. Unless there is some issue of safety or abusive behavior, parents should not blame each other for the divorce.

It is harmful for children to have to see one of their parents as being the bad guy. Blaming can lead to children suffering needlessly. It will only confuse the children even more than they already are because it induces guilt as they then try to figure out whose side they are supposed to be on.

Some marital conflicts are so marred by anger and finger pointing, a civilized family discussion is impossible. In these cases, parents should meet separately with the children. However, even if the main discussion occurs separately, the initial breaking of the news to the children should be done jointly, whenever possible.

Parents need to be as clear as possible when explaining divorce to children. It is important for children to be told as much as they are able to comprehend about the divorce and why their parents have chosen to separate. A helpful comment such as "We cannot live together anymore because we cannot get along" may be appropriate.

Parents and children should both know that many discussions will take place and that it is justified for the children to ask questions and feel whatever they feel. Often times, parents tell me that they tried not to be upset or show their emotions when telling the children. On the contrary, it can be helpful to children for their parents to model their feelings (within limits), which can show children that it is all right to be sad or angry or have many different feelings regarding the divorce.

Parents should be available to their children and encourage their children's questions and ideas about what is happening. Children need to know that the door will remain open for continued discussions.

Children need to know about changes in living arrangements as soon as possible. If custody issues are left undecided, children may experience increased distress.

There are numerous custody arrangements available to families now. When possible, it is helpful to involve children in the planning of living arrangements. It is almost always appropriate and necessary for a parent who does not have primary custody to remain actively involved with the children. The terms of the visitation should be kept simple so the children can easily predict when they will see each parent.

Each parent should honor the visitation schedule. This will help children learn that while parents are no longer married, they can still be respectful of each other.

A general rule of thumb is to keep the information simple and free from blame. If parents can ask themselves "What is in the best interest of the children?", then they will help their children to stay clear of the loyalty binds that many children get caught in when their divorcing parents continue to battle.

In many states, when a child turns 14, he/she can elect to live with the parent of his/her choice, but in a few, the courts are even listening to wishes of children at 12 and 13. However, I almost always discourage parents from allowing this to happen. Making such an important choice can be quite stressful to the child and lead to extreme guilt and conflicted feelings.

Instead, I recommend that parents say to the child, "Because we love you and know what is best for you, we will decide what the visitation schedule will be."

It is important for children to know that at the time of their birth, their parents loved one another and that they were born out of love and affection. This knowledge can help to prevent children from feeling that they were in some way responsible for the divorce.

Children need to know that they will not be abandoned and that regardless of the living arrangements, both parents will continue to love them and actively participate in their lives.

Divorce Talking Points

Here are a few specific suggested statements for talking with children about divorce:

"We are getting a divorce." (Explain what this means.)

"You did not cause it."

"You could not have prevented it."

"I'm still your mother." "I'm still your father."

"We both still love you and always will."

"You do not have to choose between us or take sides, and we will try not to ask you to do this. Sometimes we might slip up and forget this. If that happens, please remind us that we told you it is okay for you not to take sides."

"You will still spend some time with each of us."

"We may still continue to have some arguments."

"It is okay to tell your friends; it is not a secret."

While it is normal for children and families to experience distress during this process, parents need to be alert to symptoms of excessive depression, anxiety, or withdrawal, which will interfere with academic and social functioning. These may include abrupt mood changes, sleep or eating difficulties, school problems, crying, and acting out behaviors.

If these types of symptoms persist, individual and/or family counseling is indicated. Group therapy can help children l earn to develop healthy coping skills and know that they are not alone with this difficult change in their lives.

Children at different developmental stages may react differently to the news of divorce. However, one of the best predictors for how children will adjust to divorce is the level of conflict between the parents. When parents continue to battle, children suffer.

When I work with children of divorce, I regularly ask them what they would wish for if they could have three wishes granted to them. The overwhelming majority of them wish for their parents to get back together.

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