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Explaining divorce to your children

by Sarah Horrocks Published on 16 June 2008

With high divorce rates today, the official end of a marriage can be trivialised, but it can still be very painful, and especially for children. Here's how to help them overcome the pain of divorce.

1. Find the right words
As a rule, separation doesn't just happen overnight, and often there are warning signs (arguments, crises, criticism, animosity in the air etc), so your children will probably have realised not all is well. If possible, together, explain what's happening. It’s important that your children know your split is a mutual decision so that they don't blame one parent. Explain that mum and dad loved each other very much but that today they're struggling to get on and live together. Reassure them by reminding them that you’ll always be their mum and dad and that nothing changes the love you have for them.

What not to do: enter into details about the split, especially if there's a third party involved.

2. Be honest
Being a parent means protecting your children. However, don’t deny your pain or theirs. You can tell him that it's normal to be sad and that you both are as well. You shouldn't minimise the importance of the disruption to the family. Don't let your children feed on false hope if your decision is irreversible. Don’t let them believe that it's only temporary and you might get back together again just to protect them. Explain in the simplest way possible how events will proceed from now on: filing for divorce, waiting for a judgement and a decision about custody. Try to reassure them by telling them that mum and dad will find the best solution for eveyone.

What not to do: confide your grievances to your children. They shouldn't feel as if they have to take sides.

3. Get rid of your guilt
Children always think that they have done something wrong and are responsible for the separation. They dwell on details and imagine that not tidying their room could somehow have triggered the problem. It’s very important to explain that it's your fault, not theirs, that you're divorcing.

What not to do: let your children overhear heated arguments about financial arrangements, custody, child support etc. This should remain between you and your ex.

4. Make sure life goes on as normal
Your children will feel that their world has fallen apart and that everything will change when you announce the news of your separation, so it’s very important that you ease their worries as much as possible by getting on with daily activities and new ones. Explain that they'll continue to see both mum and dad but on different days of the week, for example, and say what the arrangements are if you already know them. Also, prepare them for any moving or splitting their time bwteen a second home. Include them in the preparations, choosing wallpaper, lamps, what toys to take for the weekend, etc etc.

What not to do: tell them that nothing will change, because it’s not true! Tell them there will be changes to cope with and lots to sort out.

5. Answer their questions
After the announcement, your children could either go into their own silent world or could start firing questions at you. Take the time to answer every question patiently and be ready for anything...
‘My friend's parents are divorced and she never sees her daddy. Will that happen to me?’
‘Does Mummy have a new boyfriend?’
‘How will Father Christmas find me?
‘Will I still see Gran and Grandpa?’
‘Will you tell my teacher?’

What not to do: Lie, except about Father Christmas! If you and your partner are both unsure about the new living arrangements as yet, then tell your children honestly that you don’t know yet but that you'll tell them as soon as you do.

by Sarah Horrocks

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