Breaking the News Navigating Separation and Divorce in the Best Interest of the Child
by Tracy Lamperti, LMHC, BCETS
***This is part of the Navigating Separation and Divorce in the Best Interest of the Child Series
“Understand that the child now has a weight on their shoulders that wasn’t there before.”
When there has been a lot of conflict, fighting or obvious tension, it can sometimes feel easier to tell children. It is as if there is a “good reason” for separating (because of the fighting).
But it wouldn’t be fair to say that there is ever an easier scenario for divorce, for parents or children. When marital troubles have been concealed well by the adults, this presents a whole different scenario, one of shock and a kind of surreal feeling.
Either way, it is very hard.
It is best for both parents to be present when telling the child. Agree on what you are going to say, who is going to be the spokesperson and what is going to be said ahead of time.
Speak to the child with their developmental level in mind, but no matter what stage, be sure to convey that divorce is completely the adults’ responsibility. It is not the child’s fault. Reassure the child that you both love them very much and nothing can change that. A child can never do anything that would cause parents to break up.
Give children enough information so that they won’t be saying to themself, “I don’t get it. What are they saying?” But also know that the child may not take in some of the details of what you are telling them and you may have to say things again. It is even good to say, “This is hard for us to tell you. It is a lot for all of us. You might not hear everything all at once and that is ok. We want you to ask us if you have questions.”
If there are things that you cannot answer, explain that you will tell them just as soon as you can. Some details you just might not know. Some details are not appropriate at their developmental level.
Who will I live with?
Where will I go to school?
Will I move?
Where will each parent live?
WAIT! When is this going to happen????
What about Christmas morning?
What about the winter ski trip we take every year?
Will I still get to see my friends?
Will I have to go to a different school?
Do Grandma and Grandpa know?
Is this a secret??
Can I still do my favorite activities?
Understand that the child now has a weight on their shoulders that wasn’t there before. Even if there was a lot of conflict or tension from silent fighting, the child’s story had just started a new chapter. Consider whether it is appropriate to share the information with the childcare provider or teacher.
Adults should be open to suggesting other adults to the child who know about the separation and are available to listen if they want to talk. Tell the child, “Auntie Sarah and Uncle John know that mommy and daddy are going to live apart and if you want to talk about it with them, they will listen.” Make sure this person is a good listener and not one to interject a lot of commentary or negativity.
I often encounter cases where there is conflict about the logistics; visitation, where the child will primarily live, etc. If you are unable to resolve these differences on your own, a mediator may become involved or the matter will end up in court. If the child becomes aware of these conflicts, it is ok to tell the child that mommy and daddy are having a lot of trouble agreeing on some things, so a Judge, kind of like a referee or umpire will hear both of our sides and make a decision for us.
Please consider getting support if you are going through a major separation, married or not married, especially if you have children. Family and friends can be very helpful, but even just a few sessions with a specialist can make a big difference.
Tracy Lamperti, LMHC, BCETS
Please see www.tracylamperti.com for more information about marriage and divorce.
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