It looks like my husband and I are going to get divorced. How should I explain it to my son?
MOLLY: This was submitted from a reader in Denver, Colorado. She added that she wants to make sure her son is mentally prepared should they get a divorce.
Dr. Susan Rutherford (MOM): I think that you’re right to think ahead and get as mentally prepared as you can. Although truthfully, I don’t know if you can become totally prepared for telling your child about a divorce. It’s really one of the hardest things for a parent to do.
So there are a couple things she will want to do as a parent. First she will want to lay it out that basically that this is an agreement between the parents and it has absolutely nothing to do with the child.
I know that that’s advice that everybody gives but it’s really important advice. It’s important to say this out loud to the child and reassure him that it’s not his fault and that he has nothing to do with this decision.
More often than not I’ve found that children are most concerned about what’s going to happen to them. So that’s something she’ll want to spell out to her child. Where he’s going to live? Where is his home base going to be? When is he going to see his Dad or his Mom? The parents should work out those issues about how the child is going to live before they tell their son the news so that he has a clear idea about what’s going to happen to him. That’s the most important way to allay his anxieties and fears.
She’ll want to offer security to him: reassure him that he’s not going to get lost in the mess and that his parents are going to work as hard as they can together to limit the amount of disruption in his life.
MOLLY: You probably don’t do this until you’ve truly decided to get separated, right?
MOM: Right, you would not do this until the couple has made the final decision and somebody has figured out where they are going to move to when they leave the family house.
The other thing to consider is the age of the child (in this case I don’t know the age). That would determine how much information to give.
It’s very important to answer a child’s questions as honestly as possible, without getting into details that a child doesn’t really need to know about, that are of a more personal nature.
MOLLY: So keep the conversation at a high level?
MOM: Yes, take the high ground?
MOLLY: Now of course, you’ve told me before, the mantra in a separation or a divorce should be: “don’t speak badly about the other parent. “
MOM: Yes, that’s a one big No-No. As in, never. Never speak badly about the child’s other parent. First of all, it’s doing a disservice to the child as well as to the other parent, and secondly, criticism will usually boomerang back on the parent who tells the child these things because the child will automatically want to defend the other parent. If you think you’re making a good case for yourself, you’re really not. Negative talk about the ex will interfere with the relationship with your child.
MOLLY: What are the long-term issues she will need to be aware of?
MOM: There are a lot of long-term effects of divorce and how parents tell their child about the divorce is important because it’s something kids usually remember. The long-term consequences very much depend on how much fighting is going on between the parents. Studies have shown that the divorce itself isn’t so much the issue that plagues the kids but rather the continual fighting that goes on between the parents that is much more distressing to them.
MOLLY: Should the parents sit down together to tell the child?
MOM: Well, I think that people do it differently. I don’t think there are any rules about that. Sometimes one parent refuses to sit down and tell the child because they don’t want the divorce in the first place. It’s really something that the parents have to work out between themselves but should be agreed upon ahead of time.