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How to Tell the Children

by Rachel L. Virk

One of the most stressful concerns of someone facing a divorce is telling the children.  This article provides information to separating parents regarding: How to tell your children you will be separating and divorcing, What to tell them, and When to tell them, whether the upcoming separation and divorce will be amicable, or difficult.

Video: What Exactly To Say To The Children (A Short Script)

If the Separation is Amicable

“Hey guys, Mom and I (or Dad and I) want to sit down with you and talk about something.”

You may have noticed that Mom and Dad, (or “the two of us”) have not seemed very happy lately.  We’ve decided that we will be happier if we become a two-home family. That will mean you will have a home with Mom, and a home with Dad.  We will always be, and you will always have, a family, but we will be a two-home family. You will see plenty of both of us, just not together as much, and we will keep your life as much the same as we can. 

Our decision to separate is something we decided to do after a lot of thought.  This decision is in no way because of anything about you. We will be getting a divorce, which is a court paper ending our marriage to each other.  But we will never stop being your parents and loving you. We will always love you. Mom/Dad will be moving to a new home in a few weeks, and you’ll go see that home soon.  Do you have any questions.

If the Separation is Due to Attendance in Substance Abuse Rehab or the Entry of a Protective Order

Dad (if it was Dad) left because he is thinking more about himself than about the family right now. That is sad, because he is missing out on all the wonderful experiences he could have with beautiful you.  It is nothing about you. Your Dad needs to focus just on himself right now, which is his loss, but I am here for you and we will get through this and take one day at a time. While Dad works on getting better, we will also focus on keeping you safe. We may have to move or change a few things, but we will try to keep you in the same kinds of activities, and will help you and be there for you as we build our new life. You can talk to me if you miss your Dad, but understand that his choices are because he is making decisions that are unfortunate.  You are so worthy of being loved. Your Dad may just be having trouble being able to feel and show that love right now.

Video: A Discussion Regarding Telling The Children You Will Be Separating And Divorcing

How Do We Tell the Children Together?

If the separation is amicable, regarding How to tell the children, for couples that can co-parent, it is best if you both tell the children together. The conversation may start with:

“Hey guys, Mom and I (or Dad and I) want to sit down with you and talk about something.”

Generally it is best to tell all of your children together, unless there’s a big age difference between them. Otherwise you, the parent, are putting an added burden on a child to keep some sort of secret from the others.

You will tell them in a comfortable setting like in the TV room. Not in bed, and not in a public place. If a child is told in bed, the memory of the conversation may return when the child tries to fall asleep at night.  If a child is told in a public place, the child may not be free to express himself or herself without embarrassment.  

Regarding What to tell the children, the following words can serve as a guide:

You may have noticed that Mom and Dad, (or “the two of us”) have not seemed very happy lately.  We’ve decided that we will be happier if we become a two-home family. That means you will have a home with Mom, and a home with Dad.  We will always be, and you will always have, a family, but we will be a two-home family. You will see plenty of both of us, just not together as much, and we will keep your life as much the same as we can. 

Our decision to separate is something we decided to do after a lot of thought.  This decision is in no way because of anything about you. We will be getting a divorce, which is a court paper ending our marriage to each other.  But we will never stop being your parents and loving you. We will always love you. Mom/Dad will be moving to a new home in a few weeks, and you’ll go see that home soon.  Do you have any questions.

This conversation should take no more than one or two minutes.

Let’s break this down a bit, and start with:

You may have noticed Mom and Dad have not seemed very happy lately. 
You may mention that the children may have noticed that Mom and Dad have been arguing a lot, or have not been laughing and holding hands and sitting close to each other like normally happily married couples may, and they may not be sleeping in the same bedroom any more, which is not the way most married couples sleep.  To say Mom and Dad “are not happy” is not saying “Mom wants to end the marriage and break up our family,” or “Dad decided he loves someone else.” You are simply saying Mom and Dad are no longer happy together.  There really is no reason for any more detail.

It is not always the case that the child’s life will not change much.  There may be a change to a new school district or a move. There may not be as much money for extras or for activities. So regarding the phrase: We will keep your life as much the same as we can – only say this if you will.  I have found that parents who amicably separate and co-parent are focused on having homes near each other, and will work hard to keep the child in the same school and activities. But if you are going to move out of the child’s school district, or rather far away, you may want to say something like we may have to move or change a few things, but we will try to keep you in the same kinds of activities, and will help you and be there for you as we build our new life.

Saying Our decision to separate conveys that the decision is joint, not because only one parent decided to end the marriage. It is not “mommy’s fault,” or “daddy’s fault.”

The phrase “is in no way because of anything about you” conveys that the child should not feel responsible in any way. You do not have to use the word “fault,” as in: this decision is not your (or your mother’s – or your father’s fault). There’s no reason to introduce the concept of blame, unless you think the child may feel he or she is to blame.  

Which prompts the question, could a child feel that he or she is to blame for the parents separating?  The answer is “Yes.” An example of why a child may feel he or she is to blame for the separation could be that a loud fight between Mom and Dad happened right after the child spilled a cup of dark red fruit juice on the beige rug, and then a parent left the home and did not return. You may not realize it, but the child may feel that is what caused the divorce.

If the children ask “Will you be getting a divorce,” tell them “yes,” because that helps get them to acceptance.  Just as you the parents have to go through the stages of Denial, Bargaining, Grief and Anger to get to Acceptance about the marriage ending, so do the children, and they are not reading self-help books. 

When to tell the children is an important consideration.  Don’t wait until boxes with all of Mom or Dad’s things are in the hallway. And don’t tell them when there still are no plans for someone to move out. And not just before the SAT, or in the middle of finals during 11th grade, or on the first day of summer.  And not near a special holiday or birthday.

How Do I Tell the Children Separately?

If the separation is difficult, most likely you and your spouse will be telling your child or the children separately. That is the How. Regarding What to tell them, it might that you will say Mom and Dad will be living apart because we are no longer happy together.

If there is substance abuse that is being addressed, if Mom or Dad is in rehab, be honest and tell the children that Mom or Dad has a problem with drinking or drugs because he or she has some unhappiness he or she has to work through, and is working on that.  Or if your spouse is NOT properly addressing addiction issues, you may have to tell your child or children that Mom and Dad have to separate to keep the child safe.  In these cases you can tell your child that he or she can certainly love Mom or Dad who has an addiction problem, but not to accept or love the behavior.

If there is physical abuse, and a parent was taken away by the police for hitting the other parent, that is a consequence of that parent doing something he or she should not have done, that is wrong.  No, Mommy didn’t “put Daddy in jail,” Daddy put himself there for breaking the law and doing something he should not have done that is wrong. Or Mommy did something she should not have done that is wrong. In either case, it is important to teach a child that physical abuse is not to be tolerated, and that there are consequences to breaking the law and committing a criminal assault and battery. You do not want to teach your child to either accept physical abuse, or to think it is ever appropriate.

If there is a “significant other,” then it is important, again, to be honest, and to keep the trust of your child.  But he or she only needs a G-rated version of events. And remember, divorce, like any other conflict, will bring out the best or the worst in people, and how you conduct yourself through that difficulty models that behavior for your child.

If you try to alienate your child from a parent who was unfaithful, you will likely in most cases ultimately hurt that child. And when your child figures out that you exaggerated the blame, he or she will be angry at you.

Again, it is important for the child, especially a young child who is still anchored to the foundations of others, to believe that the other parent will never stop loving him or her.  There are, however, cases where a parent walks away from a child. In those heartbreaking situations it is also important to be honest. Or the separation may be because one parent is going to rehab for substance abuse, or jail, or maybe a protective order was entered. In these situations, you may want to say that

Dad (if it was Dad) left because he is thinking more about himself than about the family right now. That is sad, because he is missing out on all the wonderful experiences he could have with beautiful you. It is nothing about you. Your Dad needs to focus just on himself right now, which is his loss, but I am here for you and we will get through this and take one day at a time. While Dad works on getting better, we will also focus on keeping you safe. We may have to move or change a few things, but we will try to keep you in the same kinds of activities, and will help you and be there for you as we build our new life. You can talk to me if you miss your Dad, but understand that his choices are because he is making decisions that are unfortunate.  You are so worthy of being loved. Your Dad may just be having trouble being able to feel and show that love right now.

In these difficult cases where someone goes to rehab, or a restraining order is entered restricting a the child’s contact with a parent, When to tell the child will be at the time that Mom or Dad goes away or had to leave.

In my opinion, the most important consideration of that very difficult conversation is honesty. When life changes dramatically for a child, and a parent is no longer in the picture as much, it is important for a child who has no control over the situation to at least feel that he or she is getting trustworthy information.  Don’t just say Mom or Dad is on a business trip, when that trip becomes a 90 day stay in rehab. Explain instead that Mom or Dad is working on getting better, and is learning how to live without needing to drink alcohol or use drugs, because using alcohol or drugs is not healthy.

This brief article only addresses a little about How, When and What to tell your child about a decision to separate and divorce. The separation and divorce will be an ongoing process, and your child will need support, attention, patience and love. That support, attention, patience and love are perhaps difficult for you to give when you need all the same things, and are maybe trying to work a job and run the household at the same time. Which is why it is important to take care of yourself also, so you can be strong for your child. Sort of like if your house floods, you aren’t helping your child any by saying “Oh no, everything is lost, what are we going to do?  This is terrible!”  No, you’re the parent.  That’s when you say “Hey, we’re all going down to the school or stadium, and we’re going to sleep on these little beds with a big red cross on them for awhile, and eat those donated food items.  Yay!”  Because you are the parent.

If your child is struggling, look for activities that can help to boost your child’s self-esteem. Real life experiences, not just isolating, fantasy-world computer games. You may look to see if your child’s school counselor has a support group for children whose parents are separating or divorcing.  And of course you need to reach out to your own support network so you can be strong for everyone. 

Your children will take their cues from you. If you present the situation as “Hey, Dad has a new special friend that you will be seeing every now and then,” or “We will be moving soon to a smaller place and we’ll decorate the walls in your room to be special,” that is the new normal. To present the new normal in a positive light is better parenting than to say things like “Your father or mother broke up our family to live with a new horrible person and now we have to go live in an awful little place instead of in this nice big house.” Good parents do not vilify or mistreat the other parent.  Bad parents hurt their children by trying to alienate them from a parent due to their own hurt or anger. There is a right and a wrong in how you work with your children, even though you may feel the whole situation is inherently wrong.

Remember, divorce, like any conflict or difficulty, brings out the best or the worst in people. You brought your children into this world. Teach them to deal with unfairness and adversity with strength, dignity and respect.