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Breaking the Bad News: Talking To Your Children About Divorce

One of the most difficult parts of the divorce process is choosing the time and manner of telling your children. In fact, parents are so often fearful about addressing the issue that they delay it until the very last second—or even fail to discuss it at all.

That’s a mistake. Psychologists and social workers generally agree that children should be informed of major life changes as early as possible to give them time to have their questions answered and their fears eased. This is your chance to begin the life transition in a positive way, so that the divorce will not cast a shadow over your child’s future relationships.

“Why doesn’t Mommy like Daddy anymore? Will one of them stop liking me next?”

Children are usually quite sensitive about changing family dynamics, and it’s quite possible your kids noticed early that your attitude toward your spouse is different. You need to address that perception and explain what’s going on in a positive way. If their concerns about your changed attitudes are not acknowledged, your children are at risk of anxiety, depression, and uncertainty over their own status in the family.

Dozens of family therapists and psychologists have written about this issue. Although opinions are not in perfect agreement, most experts emphasize a few points. As family law attorneys in North Carolina, we pass these tips on to our clients in the hopes they will make this difficult discussion have a positive outcome:

  • Schedule a family meeting as soon as you are sure that you and your spouse can’t reconcile your differences. Each day you delay makes it harder to get the conversation started, and it means one less day for your kids to prepare for the coming changes.
  • It’s best if both parents tell the children together. If that’s not possible, then one parent will have to take on the task. Don’t bring someone else along—a friend, or your sibling, or even your own parents—for support, because that will appear to your kids that you are gathering allies for a war against your spouse.
  • You and your spouse must treat each other with mutual respect in front of the children. From this point onward, you should not speak ill of your spouse when the children may hear. If you show hostility toward their other parent, your children will wonder if you might secretly dislike them, too.
  • Reassure the children that both parents love them. Say it often. It should go without saying, but you must not ask your children to choose sides.
  • Tell your kids the truth. Any lies will eventually be exposed and will damage your relationship with your children over the long term. It’s okay to answer questions by saying, “I don’t know,” “We’re still working that out,” or “That’s something just between adults, and we can’t talk about it to you yet.” You are under no duty to tell your kids all the details of your personal life.
  • The children deserve an explanation for the divorce in terms they can understand. You should not go into specifics about intimate marital details or misbehavior. Make sure they understand that they aren’t at fault for the divorce.
  • Explain to the children the plans for living arrangements and for spending time with both parents. This means that you must agree on a plan with your spouse before the family meeting. The plan doesn’t have to be a permanent arrangement, but it should reassure the kids that someone has been thinking about what will be happening in the near future.
  • Acknowledge that this is a sad occasion, and that it’s alright to be a little upset about it.

Further Down the Road

Remember, breaking the news to your kids is just the start of a process. You can expect that your children will have additional questions for you or your spouse over the next several weeks. Some families even schedule a second family meeting a week or two after the first, just to answer any new questions that have come up. Other families have had success by letting each parent interact naturally with the kids informally, responding to questions when a child raises them.

No parent ever feels that he or she has done a perfect job in telling the kids about an upcoming divorce. Don’t worry about getting a perfect score in something that can’t be scored.

If you need additional advice about breaking the news to your children, call your Wilmington divorce attorney from Speaks Law Firm at 877-593-4233. We may be able to recommend useful books, online resources, and other references that will help you prepare for this occasion.