FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) about Children and Divorce

Content taken from Mediate.com and edited by Papa & Roberts, PLLC

Question: When should we tell the children about our impending divorce?

Answer: Several factors influence when you should tell your children about the divorce. Sometimes, a child may ask directly about the divorce; at that point, it is best to be honest. Clearly, your child has some awareness of the divorce situation and you do not want say something that you will have to correct in a short time. You can emphasize that this is not yet a settled issue. Denying something that eventually occurs can destroy trust with children. If your child doesn't ask the divorce question, you will have more control of the timing. In my experience, there are generally two opposing factors influencing the decision to disclose information. On one hand, parents want to have enough information to appropriately handle questions a child may ask. For example, your child may ask if he/she will continue to live in your home. That decision may not be made in the early stages of the divorce process. Waiting sometimes provides the opportunity to answer with concrete information. On the other hand, as time goes on, more people will know about the divorce including family and close friends. Children should hear about the possibility of divorce from their parents rather than a friend or third party. You should your children before someone else does. Sometimes circumstances force the issue. If one parent is moving out of the home or to a different bedroom, children will have questions. Be prepared to answer their questions then.

If you reside in the Nashville, TN area and have a question about divorce, please contact Attorney Benjamin Papa

Question: How and where should we tell our children about our divorce? What will be the effects?

Answer: Both parents should tell the children together, if possible. Try to tell them after you have had time to recover from the initial impacts of the divorce issues. It is understandable to show sadness when discussing the issue but the parent should maintain his/her composure and provide reassurances to the children. If possible, tell the children when they have some time to digest the information and deal with their emotions. Never tell the children prior to important events or a designated special day. For example, early in a weekend or school seasonal break is better than before they are going to a play date or off to grandmother's house. Tell them in a private place where they can feel free to express their emotions and ask you questions. Restaurants don't work well as they can inhibit the child's normal reaction. Avoid places that are special to them such as bedrooms or playrooms. Those are places where children tend to relax and feel safe. These spaces should not be disturbed by an event that will probably be upsetting to the child. Also, if one child knows, all children should be told. It is a burden for one child to keep this secret. Having siblings who understand what you are going through is an enormous help. Occasionally, children will be relieved that their parents are getting divorced. They may have witnessed arguments or even violence that has upset them. Be aware that these children may still have negative feelings about the divorce, that arise later. They will just have a different starting point. Plan to check with your child for follow up questions. If your child is surprised by the announcement of the divorce, she/he may need time to formulate.

Question: What should we tell the children about the divorce and how might they be affected?

Answer: Children are very perceptive and often know more than you think. Their concerns will revolve primarily around their own needs; they want to know how the divorce will affect them. Will they have to change residences? May they still keep their pets? Will they still be vacationing in Florida this year? One friend mentioned that the second question that her children asked her is "Will we have to return to dial-up internet?" Be prepared to give them information about how the divorce will affect their 'day-to-day' lives. They don't want to give up friends or change schools because you are getting divorced. The age of the child is an important factor to consider in what you say. A simple and direct summary of the situation is often a good beginning. Very young children will have a limited understanding of the meaning of 'divorce,' while older children will have more questions which guide the conversation.

Be careful how you present the situation to your children. Frequently, parents want to soften the impact of the discussion by implying that the divorce is not certain. If you are going to counseling and working on the marriage it is fair to say so and to let the children know that the outcome is uncertain. However, if the divorce is planned, then it is best to be honest about that. Giving children hope when there is none prolongs the process for them. The children need time to process their grief. By denying the inevitable, you are prolonging one of the most difficult situations for them. They may remain in a painful period - hoping that their parents will reconcile, trying to influence the outcome, and desperately trying to read the signs as to which way the marriage will go. They cannot begin the grieving process and move on to eventual acceptance until they can let go of the expectation that their parents will remain together.

One of the most difficult issues involving divorce is how much to tell the children when one parent may have 'caused' the divorce. For example, if one parent is having an affair, how much should you tell your child. Often the other parent wants the children to know the 'truth' because he/she doesn't want to be responsible for 'destroying' the family unit. While those feelings are understandable, I do not recommend the children be given that kind of information. The greatest gift you can give children who are impacted by divorce is to shield them from such adult issues. There is no benefit to destroying the image they have of the other parent. When you criticize the other parent, it is as if you are criticizing a part of them. It shakes their confidence. They still love the other parent. Most importantly, you do not want to give your child the okay to marginalize the other parent. This could be a critical issue when your child is a teenager and both of you will need to stand 'united' as your child flexes his/her independence. It is better to say that you are not getting along and know you will be happier apart. Be aware that the 'bad behavior' may be exposed by others or by the spouse despite your best efforts.

Children often blame themselves for the divorce. I am frequently amazed that a child will be living in a difficult situation for months and focus on one event which proves to him or her that he or she caused the divorce. In one case a child told me he caused the divorce because he cried when his drunk father had pushed him. His parents had been arguing about drinking issues for a few years; however, he was convinced that if he had been quiet his parents would not have divorced. It is such a common misconception for children. I recommend you explicitly reassure your children during your talk that they had nothing to do with the divorce. It is also important to let your child know that, while parents can divorce, the parent-child relationship lasts forever. Some children have a secret fear that mom may send them away or dad may desert them if he gets upset with them. Young children especially have expressed this concern to me. Of course, one of the most important issues for children in the long run is the well-being of their parents. It is so important that the children are reassured that both parents will be fine after the divorce. In my experience, the difficulties for children arise when they start worrying about their parents instead of focusing on being kids. Divorce is most difficult for them when they become concerned about our adult issues. If a parent is struggling during and/or after the divorce, the child may be reluctant to discuss his/her own concerns for further upsetting the parent. If a parent is anxious or depressed, the child can become consumed with helping the parent feel better rather than doing activities that are appropriate for his/ her age. It is the adult's responsibility to find the help he/she needs to be a fully engaged parent. This may include a supportive social network or compassionate family members. A therapist familiar with divorce issues can be enormously helpful.

Question: My child doesn't seem to be affected by the divorce. How should I interpret this reaction?

Answer: Divorce is usually a difficult time for all family members, however, the majority of children come through the divorce process intact. Children are resilient and typically experience several other emotional events during childhood, such as the best friend who moves away, the death of a grandparent or favorite pet, or a family move. Children can handle some stress in their lives. Most children will feel sad that their family is divorcing but they will recover and grow from new experiences.

Many children have significant difficulties during the divorce process. They experience fear, anger, sadness and some grief. They often keep these feelings to themselves during this difficult time because they do not want to burden either parent. Parents tell me how well their child is dealing with the ongoing divorce. However, when I see the child in therapy he/she expresses deep emotions and concerns. Sometimes a few sessions with a mental health professional alleviates these fears and improve communication. In cases where the child is acting out by performing poorly in school, becoming aggressive or withdrawn, or experiencing frequent crying spells, the family should seek a mental health professional as soon as possible. Some children are vulnerable and will have a more difficult time during the divorce. If your child has experienced past difficulties with change or has had issues with anxiety or depression in the past you should seek some professional guidance.

Question: What can I do to ease my children through this period?

Answer: This time is similar to any other time in your child's life. Children need their parents support them. This is important because the parents are going through a very difficult period of their own. Parents are experiencing a wide range of emotions too. There can be changes in the household that makes a parent less available to the children. For example, a stay-at-home mom may return to work. She is dealing with her own disappointment regarding the divorce and the difficulties of beginning a new career or position. It is critical at this time to remember that your children still need you. Make time to have dinner or make cookies together or read a story before bed. If the father or mother has moved out, he/she should continue to be involved in sports or activities that he and the children shared. Frequent visits that continue traditions will be most helpful to the children. Consider this permission to put aside your housework or work projects to focus on your children.

Attorney Benjamin Papa serves the Nashville area with divorce mediation services. Contact Attorney Papa.

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