How to Explain the Divorce to Your Children

Children of divorcing parents want and need to know the reasons behind the divorce.  When they begin to understand why, most kids will become more accepting of the drastic changes happening in their lives.

In most families, however, the children are given little information about the divorce.  Parents often assume that their child knows the “whys” as well as they do themselves.  After all, parents assume, each child has been a part of the family and therefore, has experienced the same events, in the same way, as they have.  Other parents may choose not to tell their children about the reasons behind their divorce as a way to protect them from the experience or knowledge of such unhappy and unpleasant events.  Still other parents find divorce to be so painful that it is too difficult for them to discuss it with their children.

CHILDREN WANT AND NEED TO KNOW THE REASONS BEHIND THEIR PARENTS’ DIVORCE.

In other instances, parents may over share details of their divorce with the children.  Oftentimes when a parent is very hurt and in desperate need of a confidant, he or she will turn to their child as an open ear for listening.  For example, one eleven year old girl remembers how her mother awoke her in the middle night to drive through the city in effort to catch her father and his girlfriend together.  This same girl was also forced to call women’s homes and various bars in search of her father.  This example may seem extreme; however, it is not uncommon for a very isolated parent to over-involve a child.

CHILDREN ARE CAPABLE OF UNDERSTANDING TO SOME DEGREE ALL THE REASONS FOR THEIR PARENTS’ DIVORCE.

Neither extreme—“Telling the children nothing” NOR “Telling the children too much”—is what the children need.

GUIDELINES:
There are a few basic rules to consider when discussing divorce with your children.

  1. Consider each child’s age and maturity level; tell them only what he or she can understand.  The ability to intellectually and emotionally comprehend certain aspects of your divorce will depend upon your child’s age.  The majority of four year olds can’t understand the concept of divorce.  If they know the word, they may simply think it means “Daddy and Mommy don’t live together.”  By the time children are six or seven years of age, they may be able to realize that courts and lawyers are involved and that divorce has meant many changes for their family.  When children are eleven or twelve years old, they are very interested in how custody is decided.  By this age, children have developed a sense of fairness, and they may want to be sure custody and visitations are equitable.
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  3. Always be honest with your child.  If your child asks you something about your divorce, always answer as truthfully and thoroughly as possible (taking into consideration what the child can absorb).  Sooner or later, fabrication will be discovered and will only confuse your child about the real reasons for the divorce.  Being dishonest about the divorce will also cause your child to doubt and mistrust all of your statements.
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  5. Take initiative; do not wait for your child to ask you questions.  Oftentimes, children are reticent about bringing up divorce-related issues.  Their silence does not mean that they don’t have any questions or don’t want more information.  It may mean, however, that they are taking cues from you and sense your reluctance to discuss the divorce.  If you remain open, not blaming, and calm in your discussions about the divorce, then the pertinent facts, feelings, and information will be shared naturally and comfortably with your child.
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  7. You must remember that your child is not your emotional confidant.  Sharing facts about your divorce is one thing.  It is a quite different thing to share these facts amid your feelings and discussing everything related to the divorce, because you have the need to talk and be heard.  When spouses divorce, they usually want to go over the numerous small events that lead up to the divorce and to share all the details of the divorce process with someone.  Do not make your children bear this burden; they are dealing with enough as it is.

CHILDREN MUST KNOW THAT THEY ARE NOT THE CAUSE OF THEIR PARENTS’ DIVORCE AND THAT THE CAUSES OF DIVORCE ARE NOT THEIR PROBLEM—THEY’RE THE PARENTS’ PROBLEM.

In order to effectively explain your divorce to your children, you need to understand the reasons for it yourself.  It takes months or years of considerable deliberation and unhappiness before most couples make the decision to end their marriage and even then, the reasons are often unclear to the divorcing spouses themselves.

Sometimes one spouse will decide that the unhappiness or pain that they are experiencing in the marriage is worse than the pain that divorce will bring to everyone involved, and divorce becomes the only solution for them.  This decision is not always so understandable to the other spouse or to their children.

There are also times in which the decision to divorce is mutual.  Both spouses may decide that their marriage is not working and they settle the divorce amicably.  With disruptions kept to a minimum, the divorcing spouses and their children will be able to begin rebuilding a different life.  Such divorces are rare; and even in such instances, the children will still experience loss and change.

The majority of divorces are the result of a complicated process between the couple.  Every divorce is unique, just as each marriage is unique.  It would be impossible to list of all the reasons why marriages that begin happily end painfully.  However, there are several main causes of divorce in the United States (some of these reasons are interrelated).  It is the couple’s inability to communicate, compromise, or change on these issues that finally results in the decision to divorce.

The preceding information has been excerpted from the workbooks: Kids are Non-divorceable, Tots are Non-divorceable and Teens are Non-divorceable and is used with the permission of the author Sara Bonkowski, Ph.D.

Dr. Bonkowski is the founder of the Myrtle Burks Center for Clinical Social Work in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, and an Associate Professor of Social Work at Aurora University in Aurora, Illinois.  She can be reached at (630) 469-2000.

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Richard and Kari are staunch advocates of the non-court approach to divorce, and are also active and seasoned litigators with over 60 years of combined trial experience in the Illinois divorce courts of Cook, DuPage, and Will counties.

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