Separation and Divorce: Don’t Pretend the Kids Don’t Know
September 8, 2009 · Posted in Communication, Parenting, Separation/Divorce · Permalink

lrg5Talking to children of any age about your separation is a very scary and sad prospect. That is why parents often wait too long to fill their children in on what is happening in the family.  Children are open receptors and often know much more than we think.

Here are some examples of children knowing consciously and unconsciously, that their parents’ marriage is in trouble: A couple believes that their five year old daughter knows nothing about their pending separation. They bring her in for a play session because she is having trouble sleeping. She quietly sits down with the doll house and sets up the parents bedroom. She puts the parents in beds on either side of a wall of furniture that she builds.

Here’s another one: At a family session to help their 6 and 8 year old boys talk about their divorce the boys both tell their parents that they knew long before it happened. They heard fights late at night, knew their mom was very sad but were afraid to ask what was going on.

If you are in the midst of high conflict in your marriage and are deciding to separate assume your children know on some level what is going on. Even children as young as one or two will show their worries through behavior. Sleep difficulties, aggression in school, separation anxiety, and defiance are all signs that kids are worried about your relationship. Though you may not be clear on the future you can say things like:

“Mommy and I have been fighting a lot. It’s been a hard time.”

“We are talking to someone who helps work on these problems.”

If they ask if you getting a divorce and is a real possibility answer honestly–“Yes, that may happen.”

When you know you are separating make all the plans for it before you tell you children.  Who is going where, when will they see each parent, and if possible have the new place set up before you tell them.  Kids are very concrete and want to know what will happen to them. As hard as this is on you, your job is still stay in the adult role and comfort and guide the kids.

Separation and divorce is enormously painful, but when parents stick to the idea of “simple and honest” children can be protected from the fear and turmoil that comes with confusion. Worry about what they don’t know is still worse than the pain of what is actaully happening. Of course, this is all in a ideal situation. Most separations are messy affairs, so just do your best and remember that families can communicate and grow even through the most difficult of times.

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  1. Elissa
    September 16th, 2009 | 3:45 pm

    As a teacher of 3 and 4 year olds I know that kids know when their parents are having trouble. It is very hard to convince some parents of this fact. They think they are protecting their children. Some I report on play scenes in the housekeeping or block area to show them that their child is playing about the problems at home, not talking about them directly. This helps them understand and have a good conversation with their kids.

  2. Bonnie
    December 3rd, 2009 | 11:41 pm

    I was sure my kids didn’t know what was going on when we were planning to split. My daughter’s teacher called us in for a conference to talk about our separation and we were floored. What a lesson. As much as I sometimes want to believe they are protected from what is going on I make myself stay honest and talk more openly with my kids. It’s a strange good by-product of our divorce.

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