By Angela I. Green, Esq.

One of the first and most important questions many of my divorce mediation and collaborative divorce clients ask is, “How do we tell the children about our divorce?”  The answer to this most important question is complex.  There is no one clear or a simple “one size fits all” answer.  How you tell your children about divorce depends entirely on your individual and unique family circumstance.

No one is really prepared to tell their children about divorce. Perhaps you are even doubting your own feelings about the separation.  You have guilt, fear, and are concerned about your actions or in-actions.  After all, it took you months to finally make the decision; or worse, the decision was made for you.

While you know it will be very painful to have this conversation with your children, you look forward to sharing this information. The good thing about all of this, is that you are actually doing something about this unknown. You are educating yourself by reading and you are starting to formulate a plan.

Children of Different Ages respond Differently

Gary Neuman, a well-respected marriage and family therapist (seen on Oprah twice in 2007) is an expert on children’s post-divorce behavior. He tells parents that children under the age of nine tend to respond to hurtful situations with sadness, but that’s not necessarily the case for older children.

Anger and resentment are much more prevalent after age nine. “Anger gives a child experiencing divorce a sense of control,” says Neuman. “Since it is a more assertive response than crying to Mommy — children between nine and twelve see anger as a grown-up way of handling their emotions.”  “At this stage, kids usually also try to detach themselves from the family and may appear ambivalent about the divorce,” he adds. “Don’t be fooled. Both the anger and lack of interest are defense mechanisms.”

The pre-teen is at an awkward state of maturity. Their ability to understand emotions is still rather limited and therefore their behavior can seem distant and unfeeling. According to Neuman, when you talk about divorce to your nine to twelve year old don’t be surprised if they see it in strict black-and-white terms and want to lay blame squarely on one of their parents. Possibly they can view the divorce as a rejection of them personally.  They may push you to treat them like an “adult,” asking for detailed information about the relationship. When they ask why you are getting a divorce, you don’t need to go into great detail. Talk about what happened in your relationship, without placing blame. “We didn’t know how to stop arguing and walk away from a fight,” is the type of language that Neuman suggests. As with all children, pre-teens need to be reminded that you love them, that you will always still be their parents, that they will be safe and cared for and that you are working out the details so that everything will be okay.

When it comes to questions about the future, Neuman suggests an answer that reminds your children that “both Mom and Dad still want to be in their lives, because we both still love you.” “Then,” says Neuman, “spell out custody and co-parenting arrangements as clearly and in as much detail as you can.” If you’re not sure how to talk to your children about the divorce, seek out professional help through mediation, therapy, courses, and books.

I recommend investing the time and effort in educating yourself about how to talk about divorce. This process may prepare you simultaneously for what is to come during and after the divorce. I recommend that you both formulate a plan, and you both stick to this plan of informing the children.  You should both be present when you tell the children about what is happening.  Conveying the information after you both have reached a plan is most prudent.  It demonstrates to the children that you remain in control and you will continue to co-parent.  News comes from one source, it is conveyed in unison and you are both in control. As parents, you should do this together because the learning process empowers both of you equally to co-parent.

Additional Resources

Mom’s House, Dad’s House, by Isolina Ricci, Ph.D.

Explaining Divorce to Children, by Earl Grollman.  This book covers topics such as: practical rules for telling children about divorce, religious views of divorce, and parental dating.  I find this to be a useful book for parents.