The Taconic Counseling Group

Marsha L. Shelov, Ph.D. & Maria Alba-Fisch, Ph.D.

Preparing Children for Divorce


For the past 10 years, we have been working with parents to help their children through divorce.  Divorce is a psychologically disorganizing experience for families.  Parents themselves often feel bereft, powerless and angry. The adults often need validation and support to reorganize their own lives to enable them to parent their children. During and following the divorce children need their parents to distinguish between the parenting relationship and the marital relationship. The marital relationship is ending, but the parenting relationship continues. The needs of children in a divorce are different in at least one important way from the needs of each parent.  While parents may be antagonistic and yearn to have nothing to do with each other, it is better for the youngsters if both parents can collaborate in parenting their children.


The following guidelines are based on our clinical work and the professional literature on the effects of divorce.


We have developed them so parents can help their children during the divorcing process.


 1. Parents can help prepare their children for the separation. Children should be told about the separation after the decision is definite. Although families have different constraints regarding their initial steps and time tables, it is better for the children to be told between several days to a few weeks before a parent moves out. Parents should tell the children together.. This joint announcement communicates that even though the parents are separating, they are prepared to work together to take care of the children. Telling their children at the same time also mobilizes the sibling support network. Later, each parent can speak separately to each child and address individual needs and questions. There are, of course, exceptions to the guiding principle of parents together telling the children. For example, if this is a remarried family, it might be more appropriate for each parent to tell his/her own children first before sitting down in the larger blended group.


2. Children should be given a clear, age appropriate and truthful explanation that is endorsed by both parents and that is sensible according to the children's concrete experience.  A sense of further unspoken secrets can serve to increase the already anxious home environment. Each couple has distinct reasons for divorce, but the following examples could be a helpful guide.


.        If parents have been arguing frequently one explanation might be: "You have heard Mom and me fighting a lot.  We have tried but have been unable to agree on issues or to stop fighting." Another example for parents who have grown distant: "You may have noticed Dad and I don't talk or laugh much together, we are no longer able to feel close to each other, and we can not make it better."


.        A difficult issue can arise if one parent has entered a new relationship before leaving the marriage.  Parents may think children don't know, but, often, children are aware of more than parents think, and secrecy increases anxiety. How to handle this issue is complex. A useful guiding principle is that the parents agree on what and when to tell their children.


3. Parents need to attend to their children's feelings about the, news.  Parents can and should express their own sadness, disappointment, failure and anger simply and honestly. Nonetheless, it is important for parents not to break down into an uncontrolled expression of feeling. If parents state their feelings honestly, it can permit the children to express their feelings.  The focus of the discussion should be the children's feelings.  Once feelings are voiced directly, children may be more likely to turn to their parents with questions, and for support and comfort.


4. Reassure the youngsters that the parents are separating from each other and not from the children. Many children are fearful of abandonment and the earlier this reassurance begins the better.


5. Children worry about how the divorce will affect them. They are concerned about the details of daily life. As soon as the living arrangements are settled, they should be shared with the youngsters. Who is living where and with whom? What changes will there be in childcare, school routines, schedules, etc.? Input from the children regarding their wishes should be considered when possible. They feel powerless about what is happening to their lives and incorporating their wishes about details can help. If the details have not been worked out, then children should be assured that they will be told as soon as things are clear.


6. Assure youngsters specifically that they will be told of all future major decisions.


7. It is natural for divorcing parents to argue. However, children feel they are to blame if they are the focus of the conflict.  It is important to avoid arguments in front of the children, especially when they are about arrangements for the children. When fights do occur, parents can acknowledge that they do argue about the children, but it is not the children's fault and it is not what caused the separation. They can restate that they (the parents) have trouble agreeing on how to handle homework, curfew, T.V. time, etc.  However, it is best if such conflict can be handled without fighting and, especially, not in earshot of the children.


8. As life goes on, divorcing parents tend to feel the other parent is not doing the right thing. Focus on what you need to do with and for your children and try not be distracted by your former spouse's behavior.  Further, it is very distressing to children to have one parent devalue, sneer and grumble about the other. Children hope that they will be able to maintain a relationship with each parent, and "bad mouthing" often makes them feel they will have to pick one or the other.


9. We encourage parents to mobilize their own support networks and not to rely on their children for support.  Their emotional well being is important to the long term adjustment of their children and themselves; finding their own sources of support is essential.


Recommended Reading:


Kids are Worth It: Giving Your Child the Gift of Inner Discipline, Barbara Coloroso, Avon Books, New York, 1995.


This is a book that thinks through the parenting of children in ways that foster mutual respect, give children a sense of power in their own lives, help them to make decisions, to take responsibility for their actions, and to learn from their own successes and mistakes. Rejecting the 'quick fix" solutions of punishment and reward, Barbara Coloroso uses everyday family situations -- from sibling rivalry to teenage rebellion -- to demonstrate sound strategies for giving children the inner discipline and self-confidence that will help them grow into responsible, resourceful, and resilient adults.