B Y  C A T H Y  A S H B Y


YOUR NEIGHBORS have done it. Your coworkers have done it. Someone in your own family has probably done it. This year, over one million couples in the U.S. will get divorced. In fact, over half of all marriages end in divorce. Somehow that doesn't make it any easier when it's your turn.

You've made every effort to work things out, but the decision is now final: you and your spouse are getting a divorce. In addition to dealing with your own emotions--which vary hourly from pain to anger to guilt to relief--chances are very good that you're agonizing over how and when to tell your children the difficult news. Unfortunately, there is no easy or right way to have this conversation. All children react differently to the news that their parents' marriage is ending. However, when combined with your own knowledge of your children and their coping mechanisms, the following expert advice might help you find the best way to approach the subject with your family.

It is best if both parents are able to sit down with the children and explain the situation together. However difficult it sounds, if it is possible, the two of you should break the news as a team. This way, your children are less likely to believe that one parent wanted the divorce while the other did not (even though that may be the case). This will also help alleviate your child's feelings of anger or resentment toward one parent. In their book DR. SPOCK'S BABY AND CHILD CARE (Pocket Books, 1998), Benjamin Spock, M.D., and Steven Parker, M.D., assure parents that jointly and calmly telling a child the news of divorce is definitely in the child's best interest. "It is important for children to believe in both their parents, in order to grow up believing in themselves," they write, "so it is wise to avoid bitterly heaping blame, which is a natural temptation."

M. Gary Neuman, L.M.H.C, agrees. In his book HELPING YOUR KIDS COPE WITH DIVORCE: THE SANDCASTLES WAY (Times Books/Random House, 1998), Neuman writes that the team approach "gives your children their first opportunity to see that even though your marriage is ending, you will still be working together as parents. It also tells them that you are both equally committed to them and can and will separate your relationship as spouses from your relationship as parents. This arrangement also prevents one parent from dominating the floor, as it were, and using this important, sensitive moment to present his or her 'case' in a (perhaps unconscious) attempt to manipulate or confuse the child."

Be honest with your children, but keep it simple and express yourself in very clear terms. There is some question as to how long children will actually pay attention to what you say after you break such devastating news. Whether it's two minutes or 10, be prepared to abandon your rehearsed speech in favor of a question and answer session if needed.

The details of what you say will, of course, vary depending on your child's age. Younger children may not even know what the word "divorce" means. Some parents choose not to use the word "divorce" at all during the initial conversation with a young child. For their purposes, the phrase "Mommy and Daddy won't be living together anymore" gets the point across just fine. Older children may already have formulated questions by the time you finish your introductory sentance: "There's something your father and I need to discuss with you." They will, no doubt, have had friends whose parents divorced. Their questions may arise from their friends' experiences and situations. Address these questions carefully and honestly. Don't make your children feel silly or uncomfortable asking for information.

Whatever their ages, try to focus not on the reasons for the divorce, but on the concrete and specific ways it will--and will not--affect your children. For example, they will find comfort in knowing that they will continue to have contact with both parents, and they will find even greater comfort in hearing the details of how that will work. Where will they live? With whom? When will the new living arrangements begin? Who will pick them up from school? Who will drive them to soccer practice? What about holidays? Will they still get to visit with both sets of grandparents? The more details you can give them, the better they will feel. Realistically, of course, you and your spouse might not have worked these issues out yet. If that is the case, simply tell your children that you aren't certain what will happen with a particular situation, but that you understand it is important to them, and you'll work it out as soon as possible.

Consider creating a large colorful calendar for your younger child's bedroom wall; using stickers and magic markers to highlight upcoming holidays or visits with each parent. Older children could include the schedule details on their school assignment calendar, or they might choose to try a computer program to help them keep track of deadlines, special dates and visitation days (or weeks).

Claudia Jewett Jarratt, author of HELPING CHILDREN COPE WITH SEPARATION AND LOSS (Harvard Common Press, 1994), also recommends that children be "told plainly that there is nothing they can do (or could have done) to have kept their parents together or to bring them back together now." At the same time, they should be assured that they are in no way to blame for the separation. Almost all children, regardless of their age, when faced with the news of their parents' divorce, will feel at least some sense of guilt. If only they had been a better child; if only they had gotten better grades; if only they had taken the dog for more walks. It might sound ridiculous to you that they could assign to themselves the blame for your failing marriage, but your children will take this feeling very seriously. As Drs. Spock and Parker write, "It is very important to tell the child over and over again that it wasn't anything she did that made her parents divorce. Young children are very egocentric and will imagine that it was their actions that caused the parents to separate."

Make no mistake about it--young children aren't the only ones who can blame themselves for their parents' divorce. Anyone who lives with a teenager will tell you that the egocentrism of youth doesn't disappear magically at age 10. Even adolescents will have anxiety about what they might have done to cause the divorce and about what they might have done to halt its progress.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember to tell your children at this time is that you love them. Assure them that you and your spouse still love them and will continue to love them no matter who lives where.

"Children are always aware of and disturbed by conflicts between their parents, whether or not divorce is being considered," write Drs. Spock and Parker. Because children are so perceptive, it is critical that you and your spouse be prepared to discuss the separation as soon as possible.

In many cases, even that is not soon enough, warns Neuman: "No matter how little you think your children know, you should assume that they have picked up on more than you realize. If things are not going well, even if you (and, ideally, your spouse) plan to make the announcement tomorrow, you should be prepared to answer a child who says, 'Are you and Daddy going to break up?'" Even though you may be tempted to go ahead and get the bad news out in the open, or worse, deny that you are having marital problems, Neuman cautions against rushing things. "Don't paraphrase what you planned to say--with your spouse--at a future date, or dismiss your child's questions out of hand ('Oh, honey, your father and I are fine, don't worry'); the stakes are too high. ... If, despite your best-laid plans, your child springs the question and you blurt out a half-baked answer, seize the first opportunity--and I mean minutes, not days, later--to sit your child down, apologize and start over again."

When choosing a time to have your discussion, be extremely sensitive to the goings-on in your child's life. Weigh your options carefully. Your family's situation may dictate your course of action in this instance. For example, if your son's birthday is coming up next week, you may choose to wait until after his celebration is over. On the other hand, your daughter's school play is beginning a two-week run next weekend; can you really wait three more weeks before you tell her (particularly if your husband is planning to move out in two weeks)?

Your children, no matter what their ages, may have difficulty believing you at first. Preschoolers, in particular, may feel so frightened by your announcement that they will deny--even to themselves--ever having heard you mention it. Neuman says, "Children at this age can hold on to denial tenaciously; it is, after all, a defense against the pain of their loss."

In YOUR BABY & CHILD (Knopf, 1997), author Penelope Leach, Ph.D., warns that the strength of your child's defense system may surprise you: "Don't expect a young child to believe in the separation. Having nerved yourself to tell him, and evoked tears in reaction to the extreme tension he senses in you, it is easy to feel that you have 'done it.' But by the next day he may appear so unmoved that you find him unfeeling, and by the following week, when he suddenly asks, 'Where's Daddy?' you're liable to scream at him. Certainly at 3 and at 5, he still half-believes in his own magical power to alter the world by wishing. You will have to keep on telling him the unwelcome news."

Drs. Spock and Parker also encourage parents to provide gentle reminders of the separation and to make themselves available to answer their child's many questions during the weeks that follow the initial announcement. Although it is a difficult subject to talk about, your children will be comforted by consistent and specific reassurance about their future.

Do not deny there is a problem if your child senses a conflict.

Do not wait until your child hears about your divorce from someone else.

Do not assume your child understands what divorce is all about.

Do not tell your child the sordid, painful and often intimate details behind your divorce.

Do not ask your child to side with you over your spouse.

Do not make negative comments about your spouse or put him or her down in front of your children.

Do not make your child feel guilty for continuing to love their other parent.

For Parents

HELPING YOUR KIDS COPE WITH DIVORCE: THE SANDCASTLES WAY (M. Gary Neuman. Times Books/Random House, 1998. $25) offers 450 pages of age-specific advice about divorce, based on the nationally known Sandcastles program, which is now mandated by many family courts nationwide.

For Young Children


ALWAYS MY DAD (Apple Soup/Knopf, 1995, $17)

For Teens

DIVORCE IS NOT THE END OF THE WORLD: ZOE'S AND EVAN'S COPING GUIDE FOR KIDS. (Zoe, Evan and Ellen Stern. Tricycle Press, 1997. $8.95)

In the event that you are simply too uncomfortable or emotional to tell your children about the divorce, you may choose to enlist the help of a professional. A doctor, a school counselor, a family therapist, a clergy member or some other individual with experience in family situations may have additional advice which can be tailored to your family's unique situation. An objective viewpoint may make it easier for you to formalize your thoughts and prepare yourself to talk with your kids; an "outsider" can also be an effective mediator if relations between you and your spouse are particularly strained.

"Remember," says Neuman, "You are more than the bearer of bad news here. You are also--still and always--your child's protector, his comfort, his shelter. While it may be difficult to ignore your own intense personal feelings toward your future ex and the divorce itself, your whole family will benefit enormously if you can focus on the positive results of handling this correctly."

Cathy Ashby is the associate editor of CAROLINA PARENT.

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Break it to them gently.