Cincinnati Family Law & Divorce Blog: How and When Do We Tell the Children?

BethSilverman | Cincinnati Divorce Lawyers - Family Law

The biggest fear for many people who have decided to end their marriage is when and how to tell the children. This post is not a substitute for seeking professional advice from a trained therapist who can help you answer this question based on the particular needs of your children and their ages. Parents should seek professional guidance at such a difficult time in everyone’s life. I want to share what I have learned, from being present at many meetings when trained therapeutic professionals have been asked “when and how do we tell the children”?

Often, it is recommended that both parents are together when the children are told. Ideally, there would be a general understanding of what will be said and most importantly, what will not be said. When parents don’t do this, and one parent tells the children without the other parent’s knowledge, it can feel like a betrayal, or an effort by one to give a narrative that the other parent may be uncomfortable with. Imagine how a child feels hearing different things from their parents, not knowing who to believe and wondering how this is ever going to be resolved. Talking to the children together can reinforce a message that the parents are in agreement, and are choosing to work together to reach a satisfactory resolution for everyone. The hope is that this fraught conversation can be reassuring to children, who probably already have sensed discord. It’s important that they feel their parents will remain so . Although the family may look different, it will still be a family.

Some parents feel it is best to say nothing to the children until all decisions have been made. This can be helpful so a child can know what to expect, such as when will the separation occur, what time will the child be spending with each parent, and where everyone will be living. It can be recommended that even when parents have made decisions, the children are not told terribly far in advance because of the anxiety this may produce. It can be confusing to children if their family seems to still be the same as always and yet there is going to be a divorce. However, in some situations, where there is a great deal of unspoken tension or a great deal of fighting, children may be left to wonder if they are imagining conflict that doesn’t exist. In these situations, it may be appropriate to acknowledge to the child that they, the parents are working through some things, and the most important thing to them, is to make good decisions for the family. Children may be comforted to know that their parents realize that things have become bad at home, and are trying to figure out a path forward.

One thing that most professionals seem to agree on is that parents don’t owe their children an adult-like explanation of what led to the breakdown of the marriage. I often hear parents objecting to this advice, saying things such as they deserve to know “the truth”. This is often expressed when there has been infidelity, and one parent wants the children to know it’s the other’s fault. Often it is expressed as “My kids need to know that I wanted our family to stay together but it was their mother’s choice.” I don’t think I have ever heard a professional encourage that a detailed explanation is given to children. In a marriage, parents choose not to share intimate details of their relationship with the children all the time, because it is inappropriate. This is no different and while at the moment it may feel satisfying to encourage the children to be mad at the other parent, this almost never turns out well for the child. At a time like this, children want to know that their parents are handling their issues. Children never want to choose sides and it is inappropriate and can be harmful if a parent encourages this.

Some parents think that these principles don’t apply to adult children. Yet, children of all ages want to know that their parents don’t hate each other. It is common for adult children to immediately wonder how the parents will behave at their wedding, or at their own children’s birthday parties if both will be present. It is a gift to give to a child the comfort of knowing that his or her parents want to be able to attend milestone events together and be civil or even friendly.

Children of all ages want their parents to be happy. At a difficult time like divorce, it’s hard to hide feelings of sadness, loneliness or anger. Yet, be careful to avoid a situation where a child thinks he they must take care of you, and make you happy. A child may feel it is disloyal to see their other parent or worry that his the other parent will be too lonely if he leaves the house. The goal, to the extent possible, is to assure a child that you will be okay, and it will just take some time to get used to the changes in life.

I recommend the following aspiration: Make your children proud when in retrospect they think about how their parents handled their divorce. It is far better if they are grateful that their parents kept the children out of the middle, and did everything possible to preserve stability for their children. It is a gift that you can give your children.