Parents on the brink of separation or divorce have a lot of questions. Who will tell the children? When? What should they say? What should they not say? Dr. Dauber provides common-sense guidelines.
Who should tell the children? When?
If at all possible, talk to the children together. Let them see that although things will change, you are still a family and you and your spouse will cooperate in making this transition as smooth as possible. While it won't be possible to anticipate all their questions, plan in advance - and agree on - what you will say. Don't contradict each other or argue in front of the children. Your goal is to reassure them that you will both still be there for them and will continue to collaborate to ensure their well-being. And don't delay the conversation. Talk to them as soon as the major questions that affect their day-to-day lives can be answered and before a parent moves out.
What should you say?
Tell them the truth. Tell them why you're splitting up but keep their ages in mind and omit details. If there has been open discord in the home a simple acknowledgment of what they already know may suffice. Make sure they know that there is nothing they've done to cause this and nothing they could have done differently to prevent it. Tell them that many aspects of their lives will stay the same but some will change. Be specific about important things like living arrangements. Reassure them that what will never change is your love for them and that you will both always be there for them.
Encourage them to be honest about their feelings. Children may feel the need to put up a brave front or they may have difficulty expressing how they feel. Be patient. Let them know that it's OK to be sad or angry and that you understand and will help them get through this. Acknowledge that it may not be easy but things will work out. Bolster their sense of security by reassuring them that you will maintain routines as much as possible and that familiar rules, rewards and discipline will still apply.
What should you not say?
Don't blame your spouse. Avoid even subtle criticism or any words or actions that position you as the better parent or encourage them to take sides. Their long-term well-being depends on having good relationships with both parents. It's natural for children to hope that their parents will get back together; don't give them any reason to think that is possible.
Don't make your child your confidante. Don't lean on them for comfort or support or expect them to step up to a level of responsibility and maturity they're not ready for. Don't use a child as the go-between to your spouse.
Don't overcompensate by plying the children with gifts or relaxing discipline.
"The decision to end a marriage ushers in a period of uncertainty and anxiety for parents and children," says Dr. Dauber. "It's important to maintain stability in a time of change. Routines are important for youngsters even if new routines have to be established. And the structure that is provided by consistent rules and discipline will help children adapt to new circumstances. Most important, parents can help their children adjust by helping them express their feelings, listening carefully and reassuring them of the love and support of both parents "
Richard B. Dauber, PhD., is a clinical psychologist with over 25 years of experience, specializing in family therapy and child and adolescent psychology.
Morris Psychological Group, P.A. offers a wide range of therapy and evaluation services to adults, children and adolescents.
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