Children have a right to know about impending change in the family, particularly how it is going to affect them. But this kind of information should be saved until you and your spouse have made some final decisions and are able to provide the children with a structured plan and answers to most of their questions. Your youngsters should not be subjected to statements like "Your father and I are thinking about getting a divorce; we'll let you know what we decide."
If you and your spouse make the decision to separate or divorce, explain the situation honestly to your children. Ideally, both you and your spouse should talk with the children about the divorce at the same time. Discuss the situation in language they can understand. For example, if you have a child in the younger years of middle childhood, explain the situation simply and directly:
"Mommy and I have decided that we are going to stop living together. We don't know yet whether it's going to be forever or for a little while. We're getting what's called 'separated.' That means that Daddy will live in one place and Mommy will live in another. We've decided that we just can't live together right now. You are going to live most of the time with Mommy and some of the time with Daddy. But we both still love you just as much as we always have."
As you talk to your child, explain that despite the changes that lie ahead, everyone hopes that life will be better under the new family arrangement. For instance, if your child has been exposed to constant arguments in the home, she will not have to be subjected to them anymore. And as you and your spouse get a new start on life, the two of you will become better, happier parents in many ways.
Allow your child to respond with whatever she is feeling. She may be upset. She may cry. While some parents try to convince their children that they should not feel sad, this is unwise and is often an attempt to ease their own guilt about the impending family disruptions.
Here are statements to children that some parents have found useful:
- "Hearing about the divorce probably makes you angry."
- "Our divorce seems to make you sad."
- "You probably have a lot of strong feelings about Mom and Dad right now."
These "active listening" statements from parents may give a child who is experiencing divorce an opportunity to express herself with thoughts and emotions. When such statements are followed by a brief period of silence, the school-age child is more likely to respond.
You might find that your child is not surprised by the impending separation or divorce at all. By the middle years of childhood, most youngsters are sensitive enough to family dynamics to realize that problems exist in the marriage, and they are probably familiar with divorces in the families of relatives or friends. Your own child may have heard you or your spouse make threats about divorce in the past. She may even have already verbalized her fears about divorce ("You and Dad are going to get divorced, aren't you?").
When choosing the best time to have this discussion—whether at the time of the separation or several days or weeks beforehand—take into account your youngster's maturity level. A five-, six-, or seven-year-old has a frame of reference that extends no further than a week or two into the future, and she may become confused if you are talking about a separation that won't take place for a month or longer. You can give an older child a little more advance notice, allowing her a chance to think about and adjust to the changes ahead and to ask questions. Expect the questions to continue. Most children cannot quite comprehend and adapt to the issues the first or second time they hear them. Additional questions will occur to the child as she grows older and reconsiders what has happened.