Explaining Divorce and Separation to Children

If you’re going through a separation or divorce, it’s important to explain this difficult situation to your children in a sensitive and timely manner.

Separation and divorce are one of life’s most difficult challenges, especially when children are involved. And one of the toughest moments that parents who are divorcing will face is breaking the news to their children. However, this difficult task can be made just a little smoother when parents keep a few key points in mind.

First make sure you tell your children that they are loved, that they were always wanted, and that they were not the cause of the separation. It’s also helpful to be as clear as possible about matters such as where they’ll be living and with whom. Finally, break the news to your children at an appropriate time, says family counselor Linda Achton. “It’s not helpful if parents tell their children a long time in advance that there’s going to be a physical split. A physical split should be mentioned a week or ten days before the actual split happens, because children are left with the anxiety of when it’ll happen and what it’ll be like. Of course you don’t spring it on them the night before mommy or daddy has left. You try to wait a week or so before the actual split.”

Rhonda Freeman, of the program Families in Transition agrees that providing information to children about the separation can help ease anxiety. “Sometimes children haven’t been properly prepared for how it (separation and divorce) will be, so it makes it more difficult for them to cope. Sometimes children don’t understand why it’s happening (especially when) the unraveling of the marriage has been more hidden from them. Even in situations where there may have been a lot of violence in the marriage and children are aware of the difficulties their parents had, there may still be a feeling that their world has come apart.”

When parents do separate or divorce it’s important to be aware that while the parent may be in pain over the marriage ending, children will be grieving too. “Kids go through the same emotions and grieving process that their parents are going through, ” explains parent educator Sue Bourque. “It’s particularly hard on children because parents are going through their own grief and they tend to forget that their child is feeling the same. It doesn’t matter that the parent is thirty and the child is three, they’re both experiencing the same losses.”

Freeman agrees that reaction to divorce is in many ways similar to the reaction of a death. “I think it’s fair to say that both children and adults experience a loss with separation and, in fact, do grieve the loss, and need time to mourn the changes before they can move on to build a new life after separation and divorce. ”

Bourque adds “a parent can show support to the child by listening.” However she recognizes that this can be hard to do. “At a time when you’re turned inward and focused on your own healing, it’s difficult to find the energy to give to that child and to be there and to listen. A parent needs to focus on the feelings that the child is having while they’re experiencing the divorce or separation.”

When it comes to dealing with this difficult transition, all experts agree that counseling can go a long way in helping the entire family come to terms with this life altering experience.


Adapted from The Parent Report Radio Show. Any advice or information contained herein should never be a substitute for professional and/or medical advice, diagnosis and treatment. For more information please review Terms of Service.

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