By: Ashley Tate Cooper, Esq.
Partner at Weinberg & Cooper, LLC, Hackensack, NJ
"...But how do we tell the children?"
Once the painful decision to divorce has been made, telling the children is most likely the next most difficult step. As a matrimonial attorney, clients often ask me for help at this critical stage. The advice is different based upon the age of the children involved. A five year old will not process the information in the same manner as a ten year old. Similarly, parents should be prepared in advance as to what they are going to say. Parents should be on the same page as to how (and when) they are going to (calmly) tell their children.
Regardless of the children's ages, I always recommend the use of therapists or other mental health professionals to assist the parents and provide the coping skills needed for all involved. One such expert, Dr. Rachelle Theise, a licensed psychologist and Clinical Assistant Professor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the NYU Child Study Center, provides the following professional advice on how to tell children based upon their age:
• Birth to 2: Children cannot process information about divorce at this young age. Try to keep established routines, maintain consistency in daily activities, and provide your children with the same amount of love, care and attention. You can have the conversation about the divorce when they get a little older.
• Preschool: With basic cognitive, language, and emotional processing skills, children in this age group focus mainly on two things : 1) what the change means for their daily lives and 2) if everyone will be okay. If they can sense that a parent is extremely upset or angry, these children will be confused and struggle more. Parents should keep the conversation basic, calm and positive. Talk about how daily life will be a little different, but most things will stay the same (Daddy will still take you to soccer practice and Mommy will put you to bed at night).
• Early Elementary: As children are more aware of their own relationships with peers and are more skilled in understanding and expressing emotions, they are likely to have questions about their parents' relationship and wonder about the change. They might ask more questions about whether parents like each other, if they got in a fight, or if they are sad. Alternatively, some kids have these thoughts but do not express them, so be mindful of ensuring that more internal and shy children have a chance to regularly check in about their thoughts and feelings. Parents should always communicate a calm, safe, and confident presence in which, although things will be different, they are confident everything will be okay.
• Middle and High School: Young adolescents are likely to have well-developed
language, communication and social-emotional skills. They might be very aware of their parents' problems, and be able to express a range of feelings such as shock, anger, betrayal or relief. Parents should be ready to have fairly honest and open communication, without badmouthing the other parent, but telling a truth that relationships are hard and parents have decided they need to be separate right now. No matter what, this does not change how much they love their children and will do their best to make them happy, as always.
In sum, it will not be an easy conversation to have; however, as Dr. Theise advises, "Parents should try to stay calm and avoid crying or badmouthing the other parent. Ideally, they should write down some notes about what they want to say, because in the moment, emotions are high and it can be hard to find the right words." The most important component is to make sure parents convey this new direction for the family in a calm, respectful and regulated manner. If parents can do that, children are much more likely to feel safe and secure. And it goes without saying, but always assure your children that they are loved by both parents no matter what.