Telling the Children Mom and Dad are Separating

by Mary Lund, Ph.D.

Most parents who are ending their marriage worry about what to say to their children and how to help their children emotionally. Finding out their parents are separating is usually a shock for children, and they may become anxious or start having problem behavior. Children usually do not want their parents to separate, even if they know parents are unhappy and have been arguing. They are frightened, as their parents usually are, about how their lives will change and whether they will lose a parent. I have found from working with thousands of children going through their parents’ separation that how you tell the children is the first step in keeping your divorce from damaging them:

  • Tell them together after you have agreed on what you will say and prepared yourselves emotionally – it is good to write it out and practice it first
  • Use language they can understand, such as talk about living in two homes with younger children, because they will not understand the word divorce
  • Assure them that even though you won’t live in the same house together, you will both still be their parents together
  • Let them know it is OK to love both of you, that you will still be a family even if there will be changes
  • Help them understand that you are separating because of how you cannot get along together, not because of them
  • Tell them what you know about what things will stay the same and what things will change, but don’t go into things that are too far in the future
  • Emphasize what will stay the same, if possible, in terms of their lives, how you will take care of them, the routines of their lives, their friends, their activities
  • Tell them that you will want to know their thoughts and feelings about plans, but it is the parents’ job to make the decisions and they do not have to figure things out
  • Give them time to ask questions and talk about their feelings (but many children don’t say much or show a response right away) and have a plan to do something that is familiar and entertaining with them because it will help them cope
  • Let them know they can talk to you afterward, as much as they want, and refer to your agreements about what to say so you trust each other when talking to them alone

Your Collaborative Coaches or Child Specialist can help you make agreements about what you will say to the children. Ideally, in Collaborate Divorce you will have some preliminary plans for living arrangements and time you will each spend with them immediately after the separation so you can give them some certainty and time to prepare themselves emotionally for change. After separation you should also agree on how to update children about changes that affect them as you make later agreements. We can also help you with how to consider children’s feelings and thoughts in your planning.

Children are most traumatized when parents argue in front of them, one parent abruptly leaves the home, when they have long periods of uncertainty about what will happen to them, and parents make them feel they have to choose between the parents. Older children may want to know why you are separating. This is a very delicate topic; we can help you with they way to help them understand what is happening without giving them too much information about adult relationships that might overwhelm them. We help you take care of your own emotions so you can still be there for them as parents in the way you want to be.

With Collaborative Divorce, you get help on the practical planning to do things in a way that buffers the children from sudden upheaval and ill-considered decisions.