How to talk to the kids about divorce

Dr. Howard Chusid and Carlos Blanco


It’s never easy to talk to the kids about divorce, whether they are still young or already out of the house.  Additionally, addressing the painful issue may be different depending on their ages.

They will all have some commonalities, naturally.  It is common for children all ages to mourn the loss of their parents as a unit.  It is natural for them to wonder what this means in their day-to-day lives and to their quality of their lives. But if old enough – usually past age 5 or 6 — children often feel culpable for their parents’ breakup, so parents will do well to tell their kids repeatedly that they are not the reason the marriage ended.

There are differing opinions on whether to tell the children together or separately about the divorce, but most experts agree that if the parents can tolerate one another enough to be civil for an hour, they should tell their children about the divorce together.

You’re Still a Family

“This often softens the blow,” said Dr. Howard Chusid, a Counselor and Family Mediator.  “It also shows them that you are both still united when it comes to loving them and providing for them. That you are still a family.”

This may be harder to do than you might think.  Your children will probably become emotional and so can you. Prepare to have them plead with both of you to change your minds.  And, as hard as it will be, prepare to tell them that that it is no longer an option.

But other than keeping them informed on issues that affect their lives directly, parents should commit to keeping children, whatever their ages, out of the divorce process.  They certainly should not be used or controlled by one parent against another.  That is not only damaging to the children but could also hurt the controlling parent’s case for custody or visitation.  The parent with custody throughout the proceedings needs to make sure that access is provided to the other parent.  Experts agree that it is very destructive for a child to suddenly have zero contact with one parent.

Keep the Dirty Details to Yourselves

Even adult children out of the home do not need to hear all the troubling details.  It may suffice to say that mom and dad have irreconcilable differences, which have nothing to do with them, which reinforces the message that they are not to blame. In fact, most children will already know that mom and dad have problems, and will be expecting a situation change.

What, then, do you say?

“You tell them that you love them and that you are still there for them no matter what.  That the divorce does not have to change your relationship with them.  You constantly reinforce the message that this is an issue between the adults that is no fault of theirs, and that you can still be a family, albeit in a different way” said Dr. Chusid.

Get Ready for a Gamut of Feelings

Children will go through a series of feelings: sadness, frustration, anger.  Sometimes, pre-teen or teenage children will lash out at both parents with the silent treatment or act out with erratic behavior.  It is important to maintain united discipline by both parents, said Dr. Chusid.

If your child won’t talk to you, encourage your angry child to talk to a relative, teacher, family friend or even a professional counselor.  In addition to providing a space for your child to vent his or her feelings, you show your child that you care about those feelings and value them.

Parents must stay united if a child lashes out at one parent only.  Because today it’s him, but tomorrow it could be YOU.

“As difficult as it may sound, each parent has to make an effort to support and encourage the other’s relationship with the kids,” said Dr. Chusid.

Co-parenting Begins with Communication

Because, in case nobody has told you this yet, the divorce isn’t the end of the relationship between you and your spouse when you have kids.  The divorce is the end of one relationship and the beginning of another, which is solely as co-parents.  And just because one relationship ended poorly, doesn’t mean you have to foul up another.

In other words, talking about your divorce with your children is something that may never end.  It is something that just evolves over time, as your children grow and your lives continue together. Both parents will be invited to their children’s weddings and hopefully share the birthdays of grandchildren.

By establishing an open door policy and keeping lines of communication open, you can easily slide into a comfortable dialogue that becomes part of your language and helps you not only to understand each other, but thrive together in your new lives.

Dr. Howard Chusid, is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, Board Certified Counselor, Supreme Court Certified Family Mediator, Circuit Civil Mediator,  Elder Care Mediator and  Parenting Coordinator.

Carlos Blanco is the owner of the Big Kaboom, a Divorce, Answer and Support Referral Service.

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