What To Say To Your Children

© 2012 Marvin L. Chapman, PsyD, LMFT, CFC
All Rights Reserved

It is usually best to be direct and simple in telling your children what is happening and why, doing so in a way your child can understand. Exactly what to say to your children will vary with your circumstances, as well as your children’s ages and level of maturity. However, a generally accepted rule of thumb is: If they are old enough to ask, they are old enough to know.

Many parents do not prepare their children for their separation and will not talk frankly with their children about what is going on. The worst course of action is to try and hush things up and allow your children to feel like they must not talk, think or feel about what they sense is going on. Children need explanations in order to process events, especially unpleasant events. Talk to your kids, be honest.

However, in your honesty, DO NOT disparage the other parent – it will come back to bite you. Stay out of the garbage pit.

Upset feelings are natural and inevitable in your children. These feelings come from watching their family structure disappear right before their eyes. They do not yet understand the concepts of family reorganization. They need your calm explanations.

You will want to reassure your children they are not to blame for the breakup. You may need to repeatedly assure them they are not and will not be rejected or abandoned by either parent. You will want to instill security in your children by assuring them of the continuing love of both parents. These explanations need to be brief, prompt, direct, and above all honest.

You may need to retell the story of your breakup after your children get older and consider life more maturely, another reason your explanations should be direct and honest.

However, direct and honest does not mean tell your children horror stories about the other parent, even if the horror stories are true. Children have very good perceptions of what is going on. If you attempt to force or encourage your children to take sides, it will always hurt your children by creating frustration, guilt and resentment.

Additionally, forcing and/or encouraging your children to take sides in your adult problems will typically come back to haunt you. Most children will eventually turn on the parent who previously forced or encouraged them to turn against their other parent. Your children are going through enough emotional trauma already, don’t add to it by requiring them to make adult decisions. Stay out of the garbage pit.

During this time, many parents subject their children to confrontations, allegations and displays of verbal abusiveness towards each other. Stay focused and assertive, but do not subject your children to your problems. Stay out of the garbage pit.

Some parents use their children as confidants or sometimes as little spies to get the “goods” on the other parent. When you do this you are asking your children to become involved in matters which they have no control over and about which they have very little understanding. Whether they do what you ask or not, they are going to feel guilty, disloyal and confused. This is the perfect opportunity for them to blame themselves for what is happening. Stay out of the garbage pit.

Sometimes a parent (typically the father) will disappear from their children’s lives altogether and the other parent (typically the mother) will be much less available for the children due to their own needs and wants. Stay out of the garbage pit.

If the other parent attempts to turn your children against you, you need to understand it is because they are putting their own needs above those of your children. When a parent puts their own needs above those of their children, they are undermining their own relationship with their children by burdening them with guilt and a sense of responsibility about things over which the children have no control.

Eventually, parents who attempt to turn their children against the other parent will one day themselves be rejected by their children. It is not your responsibility, nor is it your right, and it is not OK, to encourage or facilitated your children’s rejection of the other parent; no matter how much you internally want to payback the other parent for their destructive actions against your children. Stay out of the garbage pit.