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About the Children: Having a Child-Centered Divorce or Custody Case

Father speaking with daughter

When Should You Tell the Children You Are Getting a Divorce?

Parents often ask this question in their initial divorce consultation. Most parents want to do this part “right.” Hopefully, as a parent you have worked hard to shield your children from the adult problems or conflict that you may have been experiencing in the months leading up to the decision to separate or divorce and your children do not know of your intentions or plans. However, in many families, clients will share that their children already know or sense that something is up. So when should you talk to the children about the changing family dynamic and how should you?

What Are Some Basics?

Talk to the children and share this life-changing news in a way that will not traumatize them. Often, when you have children of varying ages and varying levels of emotional sensitivity, you will experience a wide variety of reactions from your children based on hearing the same news. When is the right time to tell the children?

You should generally wait, in an idea circumstance, until both you and your spouse are able to tell the children together.

  • Wait until you and your spouse have definitively made the decision to move forward with the separation and divorce. Short of that, it may only be necessary to tell the children that mom and dad are separating to take some “cool down” time or “time out” time, similar to how we ask our children to take a time out sometimes. Again, working to keep things on an as needed basis, based on the circumstances;
  • Both parents can speak about the situation without getting too emotional. If one parent is significantly struggling, he or she should obtain emotional support before moving forward with changes in family dynamics or trying to express those to the children. Children often take their cues about how they should react and respond from the adults in their lives. If the adults are hysterical and act as though “the sky is falling”, children will assume that is how they should feel about the situation as well. If the adults present as a strong, unified front in explaining the decision that has been made and how life will continue to go on and things are going to be okay, the children will assume and think this as well.
  • You should only start this conversation when you have plenty of time to speak with all of the children and process whatever is needed. Of course, it goes without saying that you likely cannot plan to tell each of your children separately over the course of a few days as one child “knowing a secret” will almost certainly share information with the other child or children. Hearing a “secret” kept by the parents and one child from another sibling will be a traumatic way for the child learning this information to hear it. Also, this information should not be shared on the evening before your child needs to return to school, but rather, shared on a weekend morning, hopefully where there are no required activities, so the family can spend hours and hours, if needed, answering, processing and discussing the future (again, some children need this level of discussion while others do not).
  • Both parents need to agree and be on the same page about what will be said. Blaming one parent or trying to attribute fault will not help your children process this. Trying to have as many details as possible worked out or thought out before discussing this change with your children will help them process. This means if you and your spouse are working out details on a 50/50 parenting plan arrangement, share with your children that the plan is for them to spend equal time with both parents going forward. Success for this conversation truly depends on you and your spouse being able to present a joint, united front.

When Should You Have This Conversation?

Ideally, wherever possible, you should share the plans for the divorce before you and your spouse are separating. Of course, if you and your spouse have already separated and now need to share the decision that you are divorcing, this is best done in a joint conversation, i.e. a family meeting but may be something that your child is already anticipating. Try not to have the conversation right before or around or during a major event such as a child’s birthday or a meaningful holiday.

How Should You Prepare for the Conversation?

In the best case scenario, you and your spouse would speak or meet prior to talking to the children and plan out a script- or at least an outline- of what you will say and important, key points you agree you want to express. As long as you provide a caring, loving front with your spouse, and let the children know that it is okay to have emotions of fear, frustration, anger and sadness, you can hopefully minimize the trauma or fall out from a difficult conversation.

What Should You NOT Do When Telling the Kids?

Absolutely never blame the other parent, blame the children, ask the children where they want to live or make them feel like they will need to pick sides, involve the child in believing they have power over decisions or involve the child in ongoing marital strife or conflict with the other parent.

Help your children to know what is going on- children often report even more anger, frustration, fear and other negative emotions when they feel that their parents are keeping something from them. If you and your spouse can speak to your children as a unified front, sharing that although your living situation is changing, your love for the children will never change, hopefully you can share negative news in a way that will allow your children to feel as safe and secure about the transition for the family as possible.

If you anticipate going through a divorce or separation and you are looking for an experienced and knowledgeable family law attorney who will provide you child-centered knowledge and advice, call Pingel Family Law at (816) 208-8130 today to schedule your consultation.

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