The first thing to know about telling your children that you are separating is that your children can travel successfully through this life transition. The more confidence you have, the more confidence they will have. It will probably be bewildering and upsetting for them, but there are ways you can help them with the transition.
If at all possible, discuss with the other parent what the two of you will say before you sit down with the children. Try to have the conversation as a family, rather than individually or with less than all the children together.
It will be important to reassure your children over and over (it takes more than one time) of the following things:
- You love them very much. You always will.
- You want them to talk to you whenever they want about what they’re feeling (and then be sure to listen—without necessarily trying to problem-solve).
- They are not the reason for the split. Let me repeat. They are not the reason for the separation, and they should not feel responsible for trying to get Mom and Dad back together.
- They will still have a real family. It will be in two homes.
- You will continue to take care of them. You will get them to school, to their activities, and they will continue to see their friends and both parents.
For your children to make the transition in a healthy way, it will also be important NOT to tell your children certain things:
- It will NOT be helpful to tell them specifically why you are separating (they do not need adult information), except that the marriage isn’t working any more.
- It will NOT be helpful for your parents, siblings, friends, etc. to say bad things about the children’s other parent (your spouse) in front of them.
- It will NOT be helpful to the children for you to explain which parent caused or wants the separation. In other words, it will not be helpful to the children for them to know that you are blameless or that the other parent is blameless.
Finally, and most importantly, you must understand the devastating impact that conflict between parents has on children. For your children to have a good chance of making the transition of divorce in a healthy way, you must work to insulate them from your arguments, disagreements, and disputes. Ideally, your children would never see or hear a raised voice, angry words exchanged, or criticisms of the other parent. They would never overhear a telephone conversation with a friend or extended family member in which you share your true feelings about the other parent’s behavior. If your children have been exposed to this type of conflict prior to the decision to separate, recognize that one of the very positive aspects of the seemingly devastating decision to split can be the commitment to eliminate children’s exposure to their parents’ conflict.