Telling the Children

by Michael Stokamer

photo by Geomangio licensed under Creative Commons

Telling the children is one of the most difficult parts of the divorce process. There are many studies that show that the overwhelming number of children with parents who are separating and divorcing are told too little, too late.

One study showed that 23% of children whose parents were divorced said that no one had talked to them about the divorce. In the same study, 45% said that they had been given only the shortest of explanations (“Your Dad is leaving.”). Meanwhile a mere 5% reported that they had been given adequate explanations and the opportunity to ask questions (Kelly and Emery: Children’s Adjustment Following Divorce; Risk and Resiliance Perspectives in Family Relations 52(4) 352-362.2003). Many other investigators describe similar scenarios as typical, noting that many children reported, in substance, that one day when they came home from school they were told, without any explanation, that their parents were divorcing and would live in different places. (Wallerstein and Blakely: What about the Kids? Raising your Children Before, During and After Divorce, 2003.)

Telling the children is never easy. Although there are differences in the “what, when and how” to tell the children, depending on their ages and stages of development, most experts agree on general guidelines. The following summary is based on guidelines set out in The Divorce Book; A Practical and Compassionate Guide, by Matthew McKay, Peter Rogers, Joan Blades and Richard Gosse, and in What about the Kids: Raising your Children Before, During, and After Divorce by Wallerstein and Blakeslee. (For a full discussion of the issues, and explanation of the stages of development by age, I suggest that you read the books noted above).

Brief Guide to Telling the Children

Before your talk to the children you need to:

  • Agree on the outline of a parenting plan: This is the minimum you and your spouse need to work on before talking with the children

  • Arrange to have a family meeting with both parents and children present

At the family meeting:

  • Tell the children that you are getting divorced, and if necessary what that means.

  • Be patient, it may be necessary to repeat the information for younger children.

  • In age appropriate language, outline the reasons that led you to decide to divorce.

  • Make it clear that your decision was made after a lot of thought over a long period of time.

  • Tell them that divorce is a last resort after unsuccessful attempts to deal with the problems.

  • Do not express anger or blame.

  • Tell the children, in the strongest possible terms, that they are in no way the cause for the divorce and that there is nothing that they can do to prevent it.

  • Explain that there is no such thing as divorce from a mother or father.

  • Tell them what they can expect on a daily basis: where they will live, go to school, how often they will visit with the non-residential parent.

  • Let them know if finances will effect them (e.g. no more music lessons, or summer camp)

  • Assure them that they will always be taken care of and that their needs will be provided for.

  • If anything has not yet been resolved, let them know that.

  • Assure them that they will be told promptly as soon as decisions are made, and that both parents are working on the plan for the future.

  • Tell the children that they should not take sides: Be a role model for this by your behavior.

  • Listen to their reactions, answer their questions and acknowledge their feelings.

Keep in mind that you are not asking their permission to divorce; you are informing them of your decision.

Make an appointment to have a second family meeting a few days or a week later. During the second conversation with the children, ask them if they have any questions about the divorce and what it means to them. Review areas that they do not seem to understand. Give them plenty of opportunities to talk or express their opinions. Tell them how much you appreciate their understanding. Assure them that you both will always love and care for them.

I can help parents in mediation prepare for the meeting with the children. A well thought out plan will make the task of telling the children easier.

Suggested Children’s Books:

Contact your local children’s librarian or bookstore to find other books about divorce that may be helpful for your child.

It’s Not Your Fault, Koko Bear, by Vicki Lanski
This is a read-aloud book for younger children and a self-read for older children. This book is probably suitable for children 4-8 years old.

The Feeling Book, by Dr Lynda Madison – American Girl Library
Children, especially girls are encouraged to learn about their feelings. This book is probably suitable for preteens and young teens.

When Your Parents Split Up: How to Keep Yourself Together, by Alys Swan Jackson
Quotes from teens make this book seem very realistic. This book is suitable for teenagers.

Other books that you may want to review:

My Story, by Jim Boulden and Joan Beaverville
A coloring and activity book for child and family designed to help a child find his or her place in the process.

It’s Not the End of the World, by Judy Blume

A book for parents:

Mom’s House – Dad’s House, by Isolina Ricci – MacMillan
Self-help guide for crafting a shared parenting plan with sample language examples and practical hints.