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Telling the children about divorce

from Find Your Way Through Divorce by Jill Curtis

All children will want to know what a divorce will mean, how it will affect them, and what changes are likely to take place. How you tell them will depend on their ages and the particular factors affecting your own situation. The best way is for both parents together to tell the children about the separation, in a way they can understand. But even parents who both accept that this is the way things should be handled often fail at the job because what the children will be told has not been worked out in advance. The moment when this is going to happen must also be thought about. It cannot be left to luck. If it is, then the chance something will be blurted out in the heat of the moment increases a hundredfold. Couples who spent months planning every detail of their wedding, neglect to put the same amount of care into their divorce. Yet it is especially important that painstaking care is applied to every aspect of a divorce if you are parents.

I have already said that the best way to help the children is to be together as parents when you break the news to them, yet I am aware that this is not always possible. If you are on your own then careful preparation is all the more important, because you will be setting the scene for the future relationships in the family. If you have fudged over the issue of why the other parent isn't at home – 'Dad is working away for a bit' or 'Mum has gone away for a rest' – then it could be difficult to tell the children the truth now. You will have to explain to them why you told them that. It may be that you were unsure yourself about what was happening, or perhaps you gave your partner time to decide whether or not to come home. They need to feel that they can trust you now to tell them the truth about what is happening to the family. Keep in mind that if you have children of different ages, you may need to have a further word with the older children later. Indeed, it is a good idea to answer any questions which they may not have liked to ask with the others present.

'We agreed to tell the kids together and do it the “right” way as parents. When the time came he didn't turn up, so the kids heard my version of it all. We all huddled in a heap and cried and cried.'

'Oh, how I wish I had protected the kids from seeing their dad leave with his suitcases with us both red in the face from shouting. They were both white from shock'

'Yes, yes, yes, I know now how we should have done it. All thoughtful-like – but you should have been there, it was hell, pure hell.'

'Tell the children? I couldn't even tell myself that the marriage was over'

Of course if the family has been in chaos for some time, then the separation is likely to be chaotic too. But, if at all possible try to agree together what and how you will tell the children. Listen to what they say too, and have answers ready. Don't be afraid to say, 'I don't know' if they ask you something you cannot answer. This may be in reply to a question which you judge relatively trivial, but it may be of supreme importance to them, such as, 'Will Daddy come to my concert?' In answering questions on more fundamental matters try to be as honest as you can without overloading them with details. If a parent is moving out, or has already gone, the children will need to know where he is living, whether they will be able to see that parent and if they can visit.

Prepare yourself for your children's reaction. Even if you are forewarned, it is going to be difficult and painful ground to cover. One child may appear not to hear at all, and just seem to get on with what he is doing. Another may run from the room in an attempt to deny what is happening. Yet another may break down with grief or burst out in anger. It may be that you will find that you are on the receiving end of their fury, which is extremely hurtful if you are the parent who is telling the children something you would rather not have to let them know! You will need to brace yourself for their reactions, and you will need to keep in mind that telling them is only the start of helping them understand and face the collapse of the family and all the difficulties that go with it. In no way is it the end of the matter. Talking will go on for a long, long time. They will need to be updated as the situation changes, and you will find that issues you thought had been clarified will have to be gone through time and again.

Of course, it is not only young children who may have to be told the news of the separation of their parents. 'Adult children', who may even be parents themselves, can be shattered to the same degree when told what is happening.

The cruellest of all blows is if you have to tell a child that the other parent has gone and you don't know if or when you can arrange a meeting. I am afraid this does come about all too often. If this is what is happening to you, it is important that you still tell the children the truth and don't try to protect them by lying. For instance, there are parents who cannot deal with the disappointment felt by their children when the expected birthday gift from an absent father or mother does not arrive. However, giving a hastily wrapped present to fill the gap merely prolongs the fantasy that there is another loving parent 'out there'. After this the fall, when the truth is eventually discovered, can be utterly devastating.

Explain to the children some of the difficulties which mean that the marriage cannot continue, especially if they themselves have been affected by them. It will also help the children if, over the next weeks or months, you can speak of past happy times too. They will need to be reassured that the family they believed they belonged to previously did, in fact, exist. Children need to be reminded of the good times because they will get comfort from remembering when all was well between their parents. Make sure there are some photographs around too of happy family occasions. Do you have some early photographs of you all, perhaps taken within minutes of a birth? Tell the children that although the family is changing and in the future things will be not the same, it is not the end of the world, and that together you will cope with the differences. It is the best you can do.

'I tore up all the photos with her in the moment she left. I regret that now, and have since been glad my parents kept some and I can let the kids have them'

How to tell the children about your divorce

  • Try to agree as parents what, when and where you will tell the children
  • If your partner will not cooperate, decide for yourself
  • Vow you will not make your child 'take sides'. Nobody wins that round
  • Choose a moment when you are not rushed and can give the children plenty of time
  • Tell them in an age-appropriate way – this may mean giving older children additional information separately
  • The children will need to know about the break-up – you cannot protect them from this
  • They will need to know how it will affect them
  • They will need to know about any changes which are going to take place, immediate and long term
  • Do tell the truth. Don't think you are protecting the children by fudging issues
    Don't put all the blame on the other parent. Remember to children Mum is Mum and Dad is still Dad

from Find Your Way Through Divorce
By Jill Curtis
ISBN: 0 340 78587 X

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Woolley & CoWoolley & Co

Woolley & Co, solicitors are divorce and family law solicitors with lawyers based all over the country.

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