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How to Tell and Help the Kids When Divorce Looms

The manner in which parents handle the process of telling and supporting their children when they've decided to divorce can make all the difference in how the children make it through this difficult process.

 Q:  My husband and I have decided to divorce. We want to be proactive in supporting our kids through this. Our children are ages 3 and 5. How do we tell the children? What can we do to help them through this? It's a very difficult time for my husband and for me but we want to work together for the best of our kids.

A:  Those last eleven words of your final sentence above need to be the touchstone that you and the father of your children establish, maintain, and return to again and again throughout this process.  In my years of experience counseling children and parents through the divorce process, and my training as a Child Specialist in Collaborative Divorce Law, I will tell you that though divorce can be a very difficult challenge for children, it's all in the way you, the parents, handle it.  It will be essential at all times for both of you to focus on working together for the best of your children as you say you wish to do.

When it comes to telling the children there are several things to consider.  Since your children are very young, you're going to want to keep it simple and focused on the concrete elements of this process in how it relates to them and their world. They simply don't have the cognitive capability yet to understand an abstract concept of "divorce" per se. What they need to see and feel is that while their family is going to make some changes, Mommy and Daddy are both there for them and will continue to be there for them. Here are some specific recommendations:

1.  Until you and your husband have figured out where each of you will be living and exactly what the initial schedule will be for the children, wait on telling the kids.

2. That said, establish the new living arrangements down to the details and work out a plan for the children to remain in their normal routine as much as possible while you make a gradual shift in changing the routine.  Be sure that both of you have established special time with the children.  You may want to seek the guidance of a co-parenting counselor who can help you come up with a parenting plan.  If you are unable to agree, you may need to seek a custody evaluation with a psychologist or a court appointed Guardian Ad Litem to determine best interest of the children in terms of custodial arrangement.

3.  Be sure you are united and well rehearsed in what you're going to say as a team when you sit the kids down.  Take care of your own emotional needs with your own counselor or a supportive friend before you have this talk. It's okay to show a little normal sadness but if you are too emotional to have the talk with them, wait until you are feeling clearer and stronger. You don't want to alarm the children.

4. Focus on the simple concepts of how the family is going to change: Mommy and Daddy are going to live in two different homes and you are going to spend time with Mommy and Daddy. Reassure them about their school, friends, routine and make sure you both tell them that you both love them and are going to both be there for them. 

5. Answer their questions with simple answers. Don't make it complicated. Your three-year-old might want to know if Daddy will have a stool to reach the sink at the new house like she has at the house she is in now.  Your five-year-old might want to know if she can have her own room and what color the walls will be.  Don't turn these questions into openings for abstract discussion.  Just reassure them on the concrete details.

6. Seek professional counseling for your children with a play therapist who has experience helping children through divorce. It's an important proactive measure. Play therapists with this specialty are able to help children and parents through the process so that emotional trauma is avoided or at least minimized. 

7. Inform your children's teachers and see if there are age appropriate support groups for changing families at their schools. You might also seek out a group like this at a counseling center for children or at some of the local churches and synagogues.

Remember, throughout the process, when and if the adult issues of the divorce send you off track, working together for the best interest of your children is the touchstone to which you should return.  Keep this as your focus and your children will get through this in a healthy manner.

Sharon McEachern March 15, 2011 at 11:17 PM
New research has found that kids of divorce are twice as likely to have a stroke in their lifetime as kids whose parents stay together: http://www.ethicsoup.com/2010/11/divorce-and-your-kids-will-have-double-the-risk-of-stroke-1.html
Steve Grissom March 16, 2011 at 01:12 PM
One of the best things you can do for your kids is to get them into a DivorceCare for Kids group. The healing that will occur is amazing! DC4K's website has a searchable database to help you find a nearby group (there are thousands): http://www.dc4k.org. There is also a companion DivorceCare group for adults. You can find groups meeting near you at http://www.divorcecare.org
Julia Harris March 16, 2011 at 03:38 PM
Hi Sharon and Steve, Thanks for the links and information. My mother waited until the day after my high school graduation to divorce my father. It was a shock to family friends, but not to me or my sister. Kids are more perceptive than adults give them credit. My sister and I knew for years that our parents were unhappy. I told my mother the day that she filed (and told me) I wish that she'd divorced him years earlier since they were miserable. But like most parents, she wanted to provide a two-parent home for the children. Younger children need a support system through divorce. Therapy and support groups should help. Many churches have support groups, too.
Lynn Louise Wonders, LPC, RPT-S May 16, 2011 at 01:04 AM
There is research to support the resilience of children. There is research to show the negative effects of divorce on children. There is research to support that children can fair very well and thrive after their parents divorce. There are certainly other factors to be considered such as predisposition for and/or family history of mental illness, psychological disorders, etc. No matter how you slice it, however, it comes down to how parents manage and handle the process and the years after as well.

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