Talking to Children About Divorce

By Maureen McKinley Light, MSW, ACSW

Q: "My husband and I are considering divorce. What do we tell the children?"

A: This is a frequently asked question, and there are really two parts to it. One part is "how" does the parent break bad news of any sort to a child or children, and the other is "what" does the parent tell them. While it is impossible to apply a one-size-fits-all solution, there are some important issues to keep in mind when considering this problem.

First and foremost, keep in mind that children are very perceptive. In most cases, they are intuitively aware that problems exist between their parents even if steps are taken to keep conflict from flaring up in front of them. Children are worriers by nature. These worries are often internalized and show up in the form of physical complaints such as stomachaches or headaches. It is a good idea therefore to bring problems which impact them into the open in a safe way so that their worries do not take other forms. In the case of older children worry still takes place but is sometimes disguised by defiance, anger and acting out behavior, or turning to peers for company and comfort while turning away from the family.

In all ages, worry can take the form of problems in concentration which can effect performance in school or other areas.

Talking to your children, then, is definitely recommended. But when, and how much? Most parents realize intuitively that they shouldn't load their children with details which they do not need to worry about. At first, keep it simple. In other words, acknowledge that there are some disagreements or problems going on but solutions are being sought. If there are no ongoing attempts to repair the marriage and one parent is planning to move out of the home, children should be told of this in such a way that their own immediate concerns will be forcefully addressed. Since children are normally egocentric, or preoccupied with their own needs being met (i.e., survival), this should be the first target of any conversation. In essence, parents need to convey to their children, "We are not sure what is going to happen yet, but we will make sure that you will be O.K. In other words, neither parent will disappear and their lives will be disrupted as little as possible. How this is to be achieved will doubtless be a work in progress, but children will respond to the confidence with which you communicate this message to them.

In talking to children along these lines, parents can be reminded of what their primary goal should always be, which is to put the children's needs first. From this point, children will ask questions which are of most concern to THEM, and not necessarily when or in what form the questions might be expected. They should be answered as they come, leaving room for the child to interpose their own thoughts about what might be important. Parents should avoid imposing topics they think should be of greatest concern to their children, lest they miss hearing what is really on their minds, or talk about something the child does not need to, or feel ready to, talk about.

Maureen McKinley Light is a licensed Clinical Social Worker, Board Certified Marriage & Family Therapist for Adults, Children & Adolescents in private practice in Grosse Pointe. She is forming a group for women in transition from divorce or other troubled relationships seeking support and perspective. She can be reached at 313-640-7762 ext. 1.

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