Are you dreading the idea of having to tell your children that their parents are divorcing? Do you want to minimize the pain and confusion for your children?
I remember the day when my ex and I told our children we were getting a divorce. It was a sad day indeed. We got some good advice from some experts before we did it so we did it right. Suzy Yehl Marta is an expert and has some great ideas.
Suzy Yehl Marta, a divorced mother of three boys, gave up the security of her three jobs to do something she knew in her heart had to be done for our youth who were grieving a life-changing loss. She established Rainbows, now the world’s largest nonprofit organization dedicated solely to helping families cope with loss. Over the last 27 years, Rainbows has served nearly 2.5 million youth throughout Canada, the United States and 17 countries. Suzy has conducted 100+ media interviews and her book, Healing the Hurt, Restoring the Hope, was published to help guide youth through times of divorce, death or crisis. To learn more, please visit
the Canadian website at www.rainbows.ca or the website for the head office at www.rainbows.org or join Rainbows on Facebook and Twitter at www.facebook.com/rainbowsforkids and www.twitter.com/rainbowsforkids.
I fully support Rainbows and recently was asked to serve on its Board of Directors for Rainbows Canada. The head office for Rainbows Canada is in Barrie so it was a perfect fit. I was happy to accept the invitation.
Suzy answers some questions about how best to tell your children about your divorce.
1. What is the best way to inform a child about divorce? How do you explain the situation to them; and should this differ according to age? How much information should you actually give, and what should you perhaps leave out?
Informing the Child:
As soon as the decision to separate or divorce is made, both parents need to sit down with their children to discuss how the family will be changing. Having both parents present makes a statement that while mom and dad will be living separately, they are still your parents and family issues are being handled together. This may not be true initially, but this can offer comfort to the children. If one parent refuses to participate, then the other must be emotionally strong in front of the children, not accusatory of their estranged spouse, and able to answer the questions and respond to concerns. I recommend parents to begin the discussion in a familiar setting that is free from distractions.
While this is a painful conversation to have with children, keeping the situation from them instills fear of the unknown and makes them believe that the two people they trust the most in the world are not truthful with them.
When talking with children, parents should consider their ages. Younger children require fewer details. I recommend parents stress again and again that the divorce is not their fault, it is a grown up problem. Over time weave into conversations as it will take hearing this more than once for the children to really “hear” it in their minds and hearts.
As parents talk through the changes, they should ask if the kids have questions or concerns. If there are questions that cannot be answered at the time, tell them so. Most children and teens want to know the logistics of where everyone will be living, how their lives will change, and how holidays and other celebrations will be handled. In most cases, those decisions will not be known at this time. As the divorce process continues, it is wise to ask the kids for their thoughts or wishes. This allows them to feel included.
Does age matter?
With any significant event, age might not always be able to define the emotional maturity of the child. It also depends on the family’s ability to communicate and the event itself. No matter the age, the two people they love most in world do not love each other anymore and are ending their couple relationship. It is critical to assure children that mom and dad will always be their parents.
Here are a couple examples on how different age groups usually are affected by divorce:
Birth to age 5: It is difficult for this age group to understand what divorce is and how it will affect their future and family. If there are other families they know who are divorced and handling it well, it is OK to use them as an example. Since this age group cannot grasp the concreteness of the divorce, they will seemingly recover quickly. As they mature though, the questions and concerns will surface and need to be addressed.
6 to 12 years old: Children in this age group can easily be caught in the middle and struggle with loyalty conflicts. They also fear abandonment because they realize they cannot take care of themselves.
13 to 18 years old: At this point in a teenager’s life, they are trying to separate from their family, but at the same time need the security and stability that family structure provides. Their reaction becomes complex and remains right below the surface. Parents need to be aware that they must never use their children as their sounding board, companion or confidant.
2. What questions should parents be ready to answer when talking to their child about divorce?
There are three important questions that children usually have that often are unasked.
· “Did I cause this?”
o Even though the child is often times reassured that they did not cause the divorce, they still get that sense of guilt, especially when the arguments of divorced parents often revolve around the children. Children like to believe that their parents are perfect and any mistakes or failures that parents make are canceled out and children quickly blame themselves for the divorce.
· “Who will keep me safe?”
o A huge fear that children have is that everything that they depend on will crumple. From an early age, children have the idea that security comes from two people taking care of them. This fundamental anxiety affects all children, especially adolescents.
· “Is this going to happen to me too?”
o Children worry that history will repeat itself when they grow up and marry. It is really important that parents let their kids know that everyone at one point in their life will stumble, but it’s so important to just try again. Turning the conversation into a positive discussion about marriage is critical, especially for teenagers.
Thanks so much to Suzy for her insight and advice. I agree with everything Suzy has said and would add to it that it is important to let your children know it is okay to love both mommy and daddy and that they will have time with both parents.
Experts tell me that you should not blame the other parent for the divorce or explain the details of why the divorce is happening. If asked, just say “This is not something I am willing to share with you. Just know it was not your fault.” I understand telling your children the details could cause some serious emotional damage to your children.
Lastly, repeat, repeat, repeat. Your children might be overwhelmed at first so let it sink in initially and then repeat your message until they really get it. I remember my boys saying “Enough Dad. We get it. It’s not our fault, it’s okay to love both you and mom and we are going to spend lots of time with each of you. Okay?”
So… at that point I realized they had received the message loud and clear… and I went back to nagging them about doing their homework, cleaning up after themselves and “watch your language young man!” …. the normal stuff.