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Closing the Chasm: How to Talk with Children About Divorce

All you need is love — or so the song goes.

In a perfect world, no matter what challenges and issues arise, love would conquer all. Unfortunately, that’s not how real life works. A disintegrating marriage that ultimately is dissolved presents parents with a complicated problem that love alone will not solve: how to talk with children about divorce.

The romanticized version of marriage in movies and on TV typically shows only the good, happy times with minimal-to-no struggle. But as we see on social media, there is always much more going on beyond all the happy, smiling, perfect pictures that are often painstakingly set up.

Marriage is hard work. The challenges are sometimes overwhelming.

The love that partners share may eventually fade as a variety of issues slowly erode the relationship. It can be devastating for a couple to acknowledge that “love really isn’t enough” to keep the marriage going. It is typically even harder for parents because while they may end the relationship, the bonds can never be fully broken when children are involved.

How does divorce affect children?

The end of a marriage or romantic relationship can be a traumatic event for the children in that family. Decades of psychological research have shown children can experience physical, mental, and behavioral problems later in their lives due to the adverse effects of divorce. The behaviors of parents during the marriage and the separation, as well as after the divorce has a direct impact on how their children will recover, which is why it is so important for divorced parents to constantly remember they remain co-parents after ending the couplehood.

The path toward divorce can arise for a number of reasons (The 11 most common reasons people get divorced) and if marriage counseling doesn’t help save the relationship, there will be a lot of questions and feelings from children that need to be addressed.

Divorce often doesn’t make sense to children. It can make them feel like it’s their fault or they did something wrong. So, it’s critically important to talk with your children about what is going on. But how do you broach such a difficult subject?

What is the best way for children to be told that their parents are divorcing or ending their romantic relationship?

When it comes to figuring out how to talk with children about divorce, the ideal situation is for parents to engage their children together, as a family. This says to the children that you care about them even though you are not getting along and will not be living together. Children can feel cared for even when parents say, “We love you. Me and your mom/dad just don’t want to live together anymore.”

The next suggestions are dependent upon your unique situations, as well as your children’s developmental levels.

  1. Answer questions honestly with as few details as possible. Each child’s developmental level, personality, and attention span make a difference in what specifics and how much you say at one time. So, start with planning a time when every family member is together, including both parents. Then, when everyone is together, express gratitude for everyone’s presence and attention and simply state the purpose of the meeting: “Your father/mother and I would like to tell you about a decision we have made.” Only stating the decision to separate and that both of you love each of them exactly as you have been.” A pause here is best giving each child their moment to hear it and then ask questions.
  2. Clearly state they are not to blame for the situation. The intent during this portion of the family meeting is to answer questions and respond to their emotions with as much patience and love for them as you both are able while simultaneously being as cooperative with your spouse as possible.
  3. Assure them you will both be there to care for them no matter what happens. Most times it is best to start with the youngest child’s concerns as this has the potential to also reassure the emotions of the older children. Repeat your intentions as parents to remain in their lives and do your best to remain cooperative with one another in caring for them. It is imperative that each parent spend individual quality time with their children after this meeting to attend to unique, emotional, distress.
  4. Encourage them to talk with other adults that both parents agree are safe and have your children’s best interests at heart. Secret keeping is a behavior that is harmful to all members of a family unit, especially in times of major change. Parents are encouraged to identify a few different adults as external support for their children’s counsel and advocacy. This may be grandparents or aunts/uncles or school counselors, coaches, or spiritual mentors. It may also be helpful to speak with each child’s best friend’s parents so that if your child chooses to only speak with a peer, that peer’s parent can also monitor for any concerning behaviors.
The end of a marriage or romantic relationship can be a traumatic event for the children in that family. Decades of psychological research have shown children can experience physical, mental, and behavioral problems later in their lives due to the adverse effects of divorce. Photo by Nastya Gepp on Pixabay.

Are there any specific suggestions parents need to know as they maneuver through a divorce?

Research on the dissolution of romantic relationships has identified different patterns that appear to influence how successful adults are at moving through divorce.

  1. Keep communication clearly about the children’s needs and coordinating care. Child support payments and your thoughts/feelings about a new third partner are not topics for your children to hear. Boundaries are the best preventive against possible harm.
  2. Unless there are extenuating circumstances (e.g., abuse/neglect allegations), each parent needs to have access to and be included in your child’s academic and medical services. We are not expendable. It does take a “neighborhood’ to raise a child. So, please be mindful of keeping communication and access constantly flowing for your children’s long-term benefit.
  3. Keep your commitments, like pick-up times, play dates, and extracurricular events. Broken promises are just a step away from neglect. If some unexpected event presents itself, make every effort to resolve it as soon as possible.
  4. Agree and keep to the co-parenting plan as much as is realistic and possible. Plans can be as simple as visitation schedules and yet have complications within our daily lives that include extended family relationships and maneuvering emotional tensions while interacting at those events. Plans are also impacted by conflicting parenting beliefs and injuries that have resulted in the separation/divorce. Most adults need a third party to assist in devising a more effective co-parenting plan.
  5. Cancelations are a rarity. Children are the priority. It is important that the adults re-devise a single-parent work-life balance plan. Who are your supports? What resources need to be contracted? What self-care is a priority?
  6. Children are not to be used for relaying parental communication, listening to your criticism about the other parent, or spying for your benefit and curiosity. This final suggestion has the most impact on your children. Your ability to be mindful of your actions has a direct impact on your children’s smooth adjustment to a very difficult life transition. If you find your hurt motivates your decisions and actions, please contact professional guidance as soon as possible.

How do parents know if their children are adjusting to this big change?

Adjustment takes a bit of time for all of us. Parents who are doing their best to work together in this process are likely to see their children struggle for a few weeks/months with schoolwork, sleeping, or behaving in their usual manner. However, if a few weeks after the divorce and custody have been finalized and these struggles continue to present themselves, it is probably time to contact a professional. A few concerning behaviors include:

  1. a decline in your child’s development (e.g., clinging or isolating)
  2. persistent moodiness
  3. misbehaving in different ways than their norm despite corrective action
  4. manipulativeness
  5. sadness or depression
  6. guilty feelings
  7. personality changes
  8. unusual peer struggles
  9. academic changes
  10. unexplainable fears or compulsivity.

How do parents work together when they struggle to get along?

It is very important that parents strive to be aware of their children’s emotional needs above their own emotional distress with the other parent. Family therapists can be a lifeline for parents struggling to identify their own style of a “business-like” arrangement for attending to their children’s needs as well as being equitable to each parent.

What else should you know about how to talk with children about divorce?

Watch this video of family and marriage therapist Susan Harrington, founder of Maison Vie New Orleans, discuss ways you can talk with your children about divorce. You can also contact us to see how we can help guide you and your family through counseling sessions.