One of the most frequent questions I get asked as a psychologist, both in my work as a collaborative team member and as a therapist, is how to talk to children about divorce.
While there is no simple straightforward answer to the question, there are a few basic rules that parents can follow. One is that it is best for parents to inform their children about this decision together at a time when no one is in a rush, or an important event or holiday celebration is close by. For that reason a weekend morning when there is not much going on may be a good time to gather so that everyone can have time to digest the news.
Second, it helps children if parents can present the news calmly and frame it as a joint decision, rather than “blame” one person for the dissolution of the marriage. This can be challenging for parents who feel that they did not initiate the divorce and still may not have fully come to terms with what is happening. These parents may feel they are being dishonest if they say it was a joint decision. Even if a parent decides that they must tell their children that it was the other parent’s choice, it is paramount that children know that although their parents are divorcing each other, they are not divorcing their children and will both always love them. Similarly, it is essential for children to know that they will not be asked to choose sides and that their parents will work together in their children’s best interest. Additionally, younger children may need reassurance that something they said or their behavior was not the cause of the divorce.
Third, it is best to use age appropriate language that children can understand and provide information that is relevant to them, protecting them from things that they do not need to know. For instance, it does not help children to know that one of their parents had an affair or is a gambler. Giving tangible examples that children are aware of which explain the decision is a good idea. By that I mean, if children are reminded that their parents have been in separate bedrooms, have not been talking to each other or are arguing frequently, they may be able to better understand and eventually accept their parents’ divorce.
Children should be told what is expected going forward, to the degree that parents know this information. If there will be a physical separation soon (which may be the reason the news is being shared) they should be told the time frame (ideally within a few weeks, but not the next day), where they will be living and what their schedule will look like. If plans are uncertain including: whether the house will be sold, who will be living where and when, children should be informed of this as well.
Children may react in predictable or unexpected ways. Some have a lot of questions and others need space. It is important to keep in mind that some questions should not be answered, as they are adult issues. Furthermore, it is fine for children to see that their mother or father is sad or anxious, provided that they know that you are well enough to care for them.
While some of these suggestions may be applicable for any given family, some may not because every family and divorce is unique. The collaborate divorce process has the benefit of mental health professionals who help parents figure how to talk to their children, as well as a team who are devoted to coming up with agreement that serves all family members.