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When and how to talk to children about divorce

With any significant life change, you must sit down and have difficult conversations. In any family disruption, it is important to speak at the developmental level of the child.

While this post will provide some tips, let’s start with an example of what not to do. It is never the best idea to have a tough conversation at the local Starbucks where there is little privacy. And saying something along the lines of “You’ll get used to it” or “I feel bad when you say you want to spend time with [the other parent]” is not helpful for the child.

During times of loss, you might not have the right words. Recognize that actions may speak louder anyway.

Ideally, both parents should be present when the children are informed about the separation. Depending on the age of the child, he or she can be most afraid that divorce means they are losing a parent. It is important, if possible, to reassure them that they will continue to have two parents, even if they no longer live in the same house. If you cannot discuss the changes together, do not criticize or demean your ex-partner. Your child loves the other parent even if you no longer do. You will be co-parenting for the rest of your life and demonstrating that you recognize the importance of the other parent to the child is how you set the groundwork for the future.

Time and place for this difficult conversation is important. Identify a time when your child will be able to process and react. A Friday afternoon at the end of a long week is rarely the best time to approach the topic. Second, think about a place where you have some privacy. If you are unable to have this conversation at home, try to avoid the coffee shop and reserve a room at the library or talk at the home of a relative or family friend.

Simple facts

Less is more with most children. No child needs (or even wants) to know the intricate details of what went wrong. Think about what you are going to say and research sample scripts for guidance. Be straightforward and factual about what will be different.

The positives

If you spent months or years fighting or living in a tense, eggshell state, this conversation can be a moment to discuss the benefits. Don’t be surprised if your child is already keenly aware of this conflict. Sometimes, explaining that this new chapter will reduce the amount of fighting will actually help a child to adjust to the new reality.

And focus on the things that won’t change, such as both parent’s love for their son or daughter and their other family relationships.

Take time for questions and ask how your child is feeling. This is one of those times when “adulting” is really tough. By keeping the lines of communication open it can be manageable. You will get used to it, but don’t press your child to discuss his or her feeling until they feel ready. If your child seems to be having difficulty processing the changes in the family, consider having the child work with a psychotherapist who can help the child to address his or her feelings.

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