There are many important factors to consider when discussing divorce with your children. Each family will have a different set of requirements to their discussions that will depend on the age and maturity level of the children involved. For example, what a two-year-old can comprehend is very different from what a 12-year-old can understand. Also, depending on maturity levels of the children, two children the same age may grasp and react to things differently.
Children can sense things early on, especially when change is involved. If the status of your marriage is causing a change in your home environment, it would make sense to tell your children sooner rather than later. Although each family and situation is different, it is generally recommended that the parents inform their children early on of their intention to divorce. It is suggested that the discussion be done with both parents present in a calm and neutral environment. If the parents are extremely emotional, as is often the case during this time, it is best to wait and have the conversation when the adults are able to speak in a composed, calm, and clear manner.
There are a few "Dos" and "Don'ts" regarding the discussion of the family divorce. Although research and experts vary on specifics, there are a few key points that are universally agreed upon regarding what to address:
- First, it is important to explain that your children did not cause the divorce and nothing from their behavior or past has contributed to the situation. Without adding too much detail, it can be explained (again varying due to age and maturity of children) that mom and dad have decided that they would be happier people if they lived on their own. Then it should be addressed that mom and dad still love you very much and that you will still be a family although in a different way. It is important to stress that although mom and dad's love for each other may end, their love for you will never end.
- Next, it is helpful to explain to the children that they cannot get their parents back together. A lot of children fantasize about this and spend a great deal of time and energy trying to make their parents unite. Focus the children's energy not on looking in the past, but rather on working on ways they can enhance this new experience. It is recommended that the parents outline a clear schedule of living arrangements and how the children will now interact in their school and other activities. If possible, parents should establish these schedules prior to the discussion so they can elaborate on when mom and dad will be present and for what.
- Last, it is important to allow your children to express their emotions acknowledge that they will feel sad and upset about the situation. Parents can explain that it is ok to be sad now and that everyone will be ok in the future.
The more detail in regards to schedule and structure you can provide the children, the easier the transition may be. Children often fear that they will not see a certain parent or that they will be forgotten at soccer games. It is important to reassure the children that they will now have two homes and that all of their needs -- emotional, educational and physical -- will be met. Added support of family, friends, or professionals would benefit all members of the family during this transition.
There are also a few "Don'ts" that seemed to be addressed by research and experts in the field:
- First, it is important to not disparage either parent. There should be no discussion of "who did what" or "who harmed who", though important for the parents to address, it is simply not necessary for the children to understand.
- It is also suggested that the children not be messengers between the parents. If the parents are not able to converse it is suggested a friend, family or professional act as a mediator as this is not something a child can do.
- Last, parents should not use their children as a support system for their feelings; this is too much of a burden for a child to shoulder. It is hoped that the initial divorce discussion end with a clear message and no deleterious mentions about either parent.
Talking to your child about your divorce is not a pleasant conversation for any parent. However, when done properly, it can mitigate the sadness, confusion, and powerlessness a child tends to feel during this time. Parents should lean on others during this time and take care of their own emotional needs so they are able to speak clearly and calmly to their children. Speaking to the children early, being clear about the past and future, and presenting a united front will help to comfort the children during this time of transition and beyond.
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