An often asked question when couples have made the decision to separate is “What do we tell the kids? ” There are child therapists skilled in these matters, and seeking their assistance may help you with how to approach your children, but ultimately, the difficult job is yours. While your children deserve a well thought out script, you must also know that there is no “perfect” explanation.
The following, taken from The Truth About Children and Divorce, by Robert E. Emery, Ph. D., should help to guide you through this conversation:
(1) Be loving. This is a time of intense uncertainty for the children. Both parents must reassure the children of their love for them throughout the conversation.
(2) Be open. The children deserve an explanation about why this is happening and that they are allowed to feel however they are feeling, be it sad, relieved, angry, or any other feeling.
(3) Be honest. Your explanations should be accurate, age appropriate, and understandable to all children, regardless of age.
(4) Follow up. Older children will require more explanation and answers. Follow up with them privately, and make it clear that you are trusting them with more details, which should not be shared with the younger children.
(5) Watch your body language. Almost as important as what you say is what you do. Be careful of this when the other parent is speaking or your child responds in an emotional way.
(6) Be brief. Include only a limited amount of personal details, even with older children.
(7) Be patient. Expect that this will take time to sink in and for them to deal with. They will be seeking emotional understanding which takes more time than intellectual understanding.
(8) Encourage questions. They are sure to have some, maybe not right at the moment, but in time. Be available to them, but do not press them for questions. Know that you will most likely be talking about this topic again and again, and as they mature, their questions will become more sophisticated and your answers should match that level of sophistication.
(9) Predict the who, what, when. Be sure to tell your children the details of how life will look in the future for them. They will want to know the practical implications that this separation will have on them.
(10) Accept. You have limited control over your children’s reactions, no matter how well or much you tell them.