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Talking with your children about family transition

Wondering how to tell your children you’re getting a divorce or separation? And how to talk to them about the family transition that follows? Here are some answers to your questions about how to discuss these important issues with your children in a thoughtful, loving way.

We’re planning to get divorced (or separated). Who should tell our children?

Without question, children should hear about their parents’ separation or divorce from their parents.

Will it be better if both of us tell the children together?

Yes! When both parents tell children about plans for divorce or separation at the same time, the children see that they will continue to work together as parents. Breaking the news together also helps ensure the accuracy of information and prevents possible sharing of misleading information. Calmness and neutrality are of utmost importance during the conversation. Don’t sugarcoat the situation, but present it in a positive manner.

When should we tell the children?

Choose a time when the conversation will be private and uninterrupted. Give your children time to process the announcement. Children may react by needing to be alone, asking more questions, getting angry with you, or spending time with a friend. They may need to do one or all of these things. After they have had time to reflect on the news of the family transition, offer more opportunities to talk.

This is important, so how do we tell the children “the right way”?

Be thoughtful and prepare what you will say. Your children deserve to be told in a loving and caring way. Even if you think your children have seen this coming, they will still most likely react with sadness, shock, anger, or even some residual disbelief. You must assure your children that you will be there for them physically and emotionally, no matter how they feel.

Also remember to speak both positively and realistically. Simply telling children “everything will be all right” is not acceptable for several reasons. Here are two:

  • While things most likely will be “all right” in the end, the transition won’t be without troubles, which this kind of remark implies.
  • Your children will probably not be feeling “all right” at the moment and may not want be comforted. They need to work through their emotions.

Validate and name your children’s feelings by saying something like, “I know you’re angry right now and I’m sorry for that.” Remain calm and ready to answer questions with honesty. Sometimes you won’t know the answer. In those cases, it’s okay to say, “I don’t know.”

We’ve told our children about our plans to divorce (or separate). Now what?

Even after you tell your children about your plans to divorce or separate, they will want to talk about this major change in their life more than once. They will also continue to want information about what to expect during the family transition. Speak to your children about what’s happening in ways that are appropriate for their age and stage of development.

Above all, you should speak to your children in ways that convey love, understanding, and assurance that they will be cared for as the family starts a new way of life. Help your children understand that they can always talk to you, or another trusted, caring adult, about what’s on their minds. Open, honest communication is essential to building trust in your “new” family.

What do our children need to hear about the family transition — about changes they can expect in the future?

Be as specific as possible about issues like new living, custody, and visitation arrangements. At the same time, be honest about things that are still uncertain, noting that both of you will always strive to do what’s best for them (the children).

Remember to keep repeating key messages to your children. Here are a couple important ones:

  • The divorce or separation has nothing to do with them; they did not cause it (although they cannot stop it, either). Stated another way, divorce is between parents - not between parents and their children.
  • You will both continue to love them as much as you did before.

What do children not need to know?

When talking to your children about the coming family transition, you need to be as careful about what you don’t say as what you do. Don’t share details about adult concerns or burden children with your worries. Children need to be free to fully experience childhood.

Children also do better if they don’t witness parental conflict. This includes not hearing about it, or even sensing it, during discussions you have with them about the divorce or separation. Remember, too, that your children will still have a relationship with both of you. Don’t “poison” their relationship with the other parent by saying too much.

Rose M. Allen, Ellie M. McCann, Joanne L. Musich, and Minnell L. Tralle, Extension educators in family resiliency

Reviewed in 2013

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