The conversation you have when you tell your child you are divorcing is not to be taken lightly.
PIC.tv Producer Alejandra Okie recently talked to Kelly Brown, a school-based Licensed Professional Counselor, to get advice on how parents can tell their children the news.
Alejandra Okie: How important is it to plan and think through how to have this conversation with your child?
Kelly Brown: You have to remember that telling your child you are getting separated or divorced is only one in a series of events and changes that will have a long-lasting impact on your child’s life. For example, the child may start living in two households, then one or both of their parents may start dating and may remarry, and so on. You want to cooperate as much as possible with your ex-spouse from the very beginning so that your child will have the best chances of adjusting and being happy in the long term. Think of your child’s needs first and try to put your anger toward your spouse aside.
AO: What should the parents do before having this conversation with their children?
KB: The parents should talk about what they plan on saying and not saying to their child when they first break the news. They should make plans for both of them to be present when having this conversation with their child, if possible. Plan on explaining, in general terms, why this is happening. You should also tell your child what will be changing, for example, if a parent is moving out and if the child will be going back and forth from one house to the other. You may need to repeat some of this information later since your child may not take it all in. Give your child a chance to ask questions.
AO: Are there any key messages that parents should provide to their child when breaking the news about the divorce?
KB: Children, especially young children, need to feel safe and that their basic needs will be met. Statements such as, “We will always be your mom and dad” and “We will always love you” are very important to a child in this situation and should be repeated over several days and weeks. They should also be told that it’s not their fault that their parents are divorcing.
AO: Are there certain things that parents should not do or say?
KB: The most important thing is that both parents stay calm and not start pointing fingers or placing blame. You want to show your child that both of you will be working together as parents. This will help reassure your child so he or she feels less anxious.
AO: Are there any books that you recommend for parents?
KB: Yes, there is a great book that I recommend for all of my clients in this situation. It is “Cooperative Parenting and Divorce: A Parent Guide to Effective Co-Parenting.” It includes helpful tips and exercises to put your child first while going through this difficult situation. You can look for it at your public library.
AO: Can you recommend any good books for young children?
KB: My favorite book that I use with elementary age children is Dinosaurs Divorce: A Guide for Changing Families. It can help kids talk about their own thoughts and feelings related to divorce.
AO: Thank you so much!
KB: You’re very welcome.
Kelly Brown, M.A., is a school-based licensed professional counselor in North Carolina. She provides individual therapy to students in grades K through 12 and their parents.
Other resources that may be helpful include:
Children deal with a lot of conflicting emotions when their parents are divorcing, and it’s important that the adults in their life help them through the difficult experience.
Heart & Mind: Children & Divorce is a website from Dishon & Block, Divorce and Family Law Experts with a list of excellent activities you can do to help children deal with divorce.
You can try:
- Drawing pictures - Many children can have difficulty expressing emotions in words. Drawing can make it easier for children to express their emotions in a positive way and helps parents understand how they truly feel. From the drawings you can ask the child specific questions. Why has he or she drawn what they’ve drawn and why? Ask them…
- What does divorce look like?
- What does divorce make you feel?
- To draw pictures of feelings like anger, sadness, or loneliness.
- To draw a picture of your family, including anyone you feel is part of your family.
- To draw a picture of the homes you live in.
- If a genie could grant you one wish related to your family, what would you wish for? Draw a picture of your wish.
- Conversation starters - After a divorce, it’s important to keep the lines of communication open. Some questions to ask:
- How has your life changed since the divorce?
- Why do you think people get married?
- Why do you think people get divorced?
- What is a happy family like?
- Who do you talk with about the divorce?
- Has anything good come from the divorce?
- What do you worry about?
- What do you think your life will be like in five years?
- What good qualities does your dad have? Your mom?
- If you could change anything about your life, what would you make different?
- Communicating from a distance - When one of the parents doesn’t live in the same city as their child, it’s important for that parent to maintain strong relationships even from a distance. Here are some suggestions:
- Email each other often.
- Start a postcard club. Give some stamped cards to your child, and take turns sending a card each week.
- Set a specific time for weekly or monthly phone dates. It’ll give you something to look forward to!
- Create a shared journal that you can write your thoughts and feelings in. Exchange the notebook when you see each other.
- Create a family web site, and post information and pictures to each other.
- Skype or use FaceTime (if you have an iPhone or Mac) to talk while seeing each other using video. Or make audio and videotape recordings.
And even more helpful resources:
- Resources for people contemplating or going through divorce
- Mental Health America (MHA)
- Life After Divorce: 3 Survival Strategies from WebMD
- Kids Coping With Divorce
- Cooperative Parenting