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Family Matters: Nov 19, 2009

Q. After trying to make the marriage work, we have decided to get divorced. What's the best way to tell our children?

-- Annie and Chris

A. If you tell the children together about your intention to divorce, you are off to a good start toward a healthy restructuring of your family unit. Your joint message will show the kids that mom and dad are taking this difficult and life-changing step together. It's the closest you can come right now to telling them, "It's all going to be OK."

Talk with them before one of you actually moves out so they have time to adjust. If you speak separately to your children, perhaps because conflict is high in the marriage, it is important to acknowledge the arguments and explain how you will work hard to stop. Be sure to tell your children you don't want them to take sides; nothing damages children more in their development than being required to choose one parent over the other.

Tell them that you are getting a divorce, and in age-appropriate language, explain what that means. Describe what will happen: where will the children live; what school will they attend; can they still see friends; how often will they see each parent? It's a crucial moment to let the kids know they will continue to have a relationship with each parent, and that the parents will work together to take care of the children.

If they ask why the divorce is happening, do not blame or point fingers at your spouse. Offer a brief answer that says mom and dad are not happy together, aren't getting along anymore, and don't want to live together. Watch the tone of your voice - no anger or harshness. Avoid telling them inappropriate details about why your marriage ended. It's none of their business and is really more information than they need. Reassure them that your love for them will never stop and that you'll still be their parents after divorce. Take your time in telling them; this is new to the kids. Go slow and give them a chance to process what you are telling them. Let them be emotional and ask questions.

It might be a difficult, but you must have this discussion; your decision to divorce will change things for them and they have a right to know what to expect. When speaking, you can be sad and even cry, but don't be so hysterical that your kids hide their feelings because they're worried about overwhelming you. You must present yourselves as capable adults who can handle your emotions and be a container for the children's fear and worries. Tell the kids that the decision to divorce was not easy. Reassure them that the divorce has nothing to do with them and is not their fault. Keep the first conversation short but leave time for them to ask questions.

Unfortunately for many children of divorce, parents avoid talking about what's going on, and the kids are the last to know, though they are quick to pick up cues. The child is left anxious and confused.

The first discussion should not be the only conversation you have on the subject. Be available when your children show up with more questions or concerns. Separation and divorce are times of upheaval for all of you. As parents, you hold the mold for a healthy divorce. How and what you tell the children is the first step in that process.


Tell the children together about the divorce.

Talk with them before one parent moves out.

Reassure the children that you'll both continue to be their parents during and after the divorce.

Be available to answer questions with age appropriate information.


Don't try to keep the divorce a secret from the children.

Don't tell them the messy details about why you've decided to divorce.

Don't keep them guessing about important issues (like where they'll live or go to school)

Don't avoid their questions and concerns.