What Do We Tell Our Children?

Having litigated family law custody cases in California for over 20 years, as a Certified Family Law Specialist, certified as a specialist by the State Bar of California, Richard Ross has often sadly observed minor children repeatedly caught in the cross-fires of the parent's war of the roses. When this tragedy occurs and parents lose sight of the reality that their children are their greatest assets, more important than any riches they have accumulated, they will ultimately discover that there are no winners in divorce litigation because their children have been damaged in the process.

The separation or divorce of their parents is a monumental crisis for most children. Learning that their parents are separating turns the world of children and adolescents upside down. What should we tell the children? This discussion is based on the article by Joan B. Kelly, Ph.D. with assistance from Professor Mary Kay Kisthardt, J.D., LL.M, published by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers in a brochure titled, "What Should We Tell the Children?"

Why It's Important to Provide Your Children With Answers

Children often react with fear, sadness, confusion, anger, stress and anxiety. The children will want to know what the separation means for them. What will happen to them? Where will they live? Will they be able to see each parent on an ongoing basis and for how much time? Will each parent continue to love them? Is it okay for them to love each parent, or will that upset the other parent? Must they take sides? Will they have to change schools? Will they still be able to see their friends? Can they continue in their activities?

To calm themselves, provide structure, and help organize their thinking, children need answers, relevant information, to these kind of questions, as quickly as possible. This is an extremely important discussion that needs to happen between parents about to separate and their children. Parents should plan ahead for this important discussion, but sadly, not many parents do so. Most parents dread telling their children about the separation. How will the children react? Often, unsure what to say, these parents put off telling the children entirely or say very little.

When Should You Start Discussing the Situation With Your Children?

Experts conclude that it is best to talk to your children before you actually separate. If the parents are able to sit down together with the children in a civil manner, the children will benefit. Yet, surprisingly few parents sit down together to do so.

There is no perfect time or single rule when to have this conversation with your children. Children's age and maturity should be the guide. Expect that it will be difficult for everyone no matter the timing. In general, talk to them as soon as possible to help them make sense of what is going on.

How Much Information Should You Disclose?

Regardless of the children's ages, they do not need and should not hear too much detail, and certainly no comments that are inappropriate for children or destructive of their relationship with either parent.

Unless special circumstances exist, try to reassure the children that despite the separation, you love them now and forever and will always be their parents. You simply will love and care for them in different homes.

Tell the children that the decision to separate, or divorce, was not caused by them. It was not their fault in any way. The decision was made by their mom and dad due to problems in their relationship that could not be reconciled. You might say that you were not able to continue to live together and be okay. If counseling was tried, tell them that it did not help you to be nicer to each other, or love one another again.

Don't rush. Allow time for children of all ages to react to the news. Accept the anger. Don't be defensive. Tell them you understand how hard it is for them at this time. Try to answer their appropriate questions as best you can. Set a future time to answer additional questions after they have had some time to process things.

Remember That Every Case is Different

This discussion cannot be exhaustive of all types of scenarios. It is always advisable for parents about to separate to have a discussion with a mental health professional to devise a plan what to tell their children based on his or her own circumstances. But, for example, are three possible fact patterns and what might be said in each. This language is appropriate for those children 5-6 years old and older.

Different Possible Scenarios

"We have been very unhappy with each other. We just don't get along. We tried to make things better by talking about our problems and going to a counselor for help. It didn't work. It is hard to stay together when you feel unhappy with your partner all the time. We both decided it was better for us to separate and divorce. When we got married, we loved each other and now we don't. Many things changed. We changed. But we love you dearly and that will never change."

"You've seen us fight. You've heard us shout at each other. You've seen your dad leave the house in anger. You've heard me tell him I hate him. This is a terrible way for adults to behave, and it must have been really hard for you to see this. We are sorry. I decided to get a divorce. Your dad (mom) does not want a divorce, and he/she is very upset that I have decided to separate. I understand that. It is sad and hard for everyone."

"You know that you mom went to a special treatment center last year because she was using bad drugs and had trouble taking good care of you. Things were good after that, but then she started using drugs again. This is not a good thing for families and especially for you. I have decided that we are going to separate, that your mom will move into an apartment and you and I will stay here in the house. This will happy next Saturday. Your mom is very unhappy about this. I hope that mom sees that she has to get drug treatment again, and will become a good mom again."

Reassure the children that a separation between mom and dad will not separate either mom or dad from the children. Tell them that you will always be their parents.

"Children are one third of our population and all of our future." Select Panel For The Promotion of Child Health, 1981

Contact a Thousand Oaks Divorce Lawyer Today

If you are going through a separation or divorce and have children, it is always advisable to seek the consultation of an experience family law attorney. For more information on Richard Ian Ross, Esq., CFLS, contact us online or call (805) 410-3407.