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Divorce 101: Telling the Kids

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Christie Brinkley's divorce drama revealed the right and wrong way to tell a child about divorce.


The messy divorce battle of Christie Brinkley and Peter Cook may be over--she got custody, he got cash-- the children, however, will have to live with the aftermath for the rest of their lives. As with any divorce, it all begins with one conversation.

To explain to a child that a marriage has run its course is so heart-wrenching it might be tempting to put it off for as long as possible. Not a great idea, says Betsy Brown Braun author of Just Tell Me What to Say, Sensible Tips and Scripts for Perplexed Parents.  "Not telling a child about a pending divorce is not a choice, they are acutely tuned in to the emotional climate of their homes."

On the stand last week, Christie Brinkley recounted how she told her young children, Sailor and Jack, "I think Daddy has fallen out of love with me. When this happens people move apart, but that doesn't mean Mommy and Dad don't love you."

At first glance, the former supermodel did a good job of divulging the bad news. But upon closer examination, there were some major flaw in Christie's message.

"Children have a difficult time differentiating the love between a man and woman and the love parents feel for children, says Braun, "There's the fear that if Daddy fell out of love with Mommy, the same thing might happen to them." What's more, says Braun, "Saying that 'Daddy fell out of love with Mommy,' puts the blame squarely on the father. This sets up an adversarial relationship between the child and the parent."

How do you get it right when you have the worst possible news to deliver? Blurting it out suddenly isn't advised. Careful consideration should be made as to the time and place and circumstance:

Waiting until you're sure
: Children don't do well with mights and maybes, it's either happening or it isn't. Be sure you are going though with your divorce before you broach the subject.

Tell the news together: Divulging the news as team removes the possibility of the child hearing different stories from each parent. It also gives your child a first taste of co-parenting to show how mommy and daddy agree and can work together.

Choose your time: Time your talk at a time other than right before bedtime or just before school. Have a plan to be able to be spend time with the child after the talk is over. Plan an activity after the discussion that will be a distraction.

Now that you've set the stage here are ways to keep your message on track:

Be honest: Don't try to shield your child from pain by inventing stories. If you husband has already moved out, don't be tempted to say he's on business. Tell them the truth if he's staying in a hotel or at a friend's house.

Keep it simple: Your child does not need to know every minute detail or reason for your decision. Use short phrases to make your point. Mommy and Daddy have decided not to live together in the same house. That means we will each still take care of you, but not in the same house.

Love is confusing: Instead of introducing the concept of love gone bad, explain, "Mommy and I have different feelings for each other." You cannot stress the point enough that you will both continue to love them regardless of how you feel about each other.

The "why" question: Don't misinterpret when your child asks "why." You might be tempted to explain the whole sordid reason for your break-up. When a young child asks "why" he's really just protesting the news.

No matter how you proceed with the news, be sure to keep these key phrases in your conversation:

  • It's not your fault.
  • We will both take care of you.
  • I am still your mommy, and daddy is still your daddy.
  • Mommy and Daddy will both love you always and forever.

For more scripts on how to talk to your kids about difficult subjects, check out Just Tell Me What to Say by Betsy Brown Braun.

next: Mom Competes with Own Daughter
9 comments so far | Post a comment now July 11, 2008, 6:23 AM

Excellent article. The advice regarding “differentiating the love between a man and woman and the love parents feel for children” is particularly important.

Vivi July 22, 2008, 7:08 PM

I agree with the first post. Now, I’m going to be very honest. I HATE, seriously and truly do hate my exhusband. But I recall that when my parents divorced my father very much hated my mother and as we lived with him, we heard about it a LOT. I remember feeling very disloyal to both of them for loving my mother and hating her too. I vowed NEVER to do that to my children and to the best of my ability, I have not. I keep my mouth shut when it comes to finances, his affairs, his temper - everything. My son sees what he sees and hears what he hears and he will make his own mind up about his father. I protect him, support and encourage him and I try to help him improve his relationship with his father whenever possible - and within safe boundaries. I was also lucky though, as my ex traveled a great deal so my son was not really used his father being home anyway. When we seperated, we didn’t even file for divorce for a year. My son took the whole divorce thing pretty well, he was glad not to live in the same house with his dad. He loves his dad but wishes he’d grow up a bit! We spent a large portion of our marriage apart so divorce isn’t too much different - yes, my son and I are lucky in that respect. I suppose the thing I regret is that my son has yet to see a “normal” marriage or couple, two people that love each other, support each other, are affectionate, kind to each other a team. Do you think that at nine it is too late for him? I mean, I’m not in a hurry to date again!!!! But, should I find someone with whom I can have that kind of a relationship, is it too late for it to have an impact on my son in a positive way (with regards to how he views a romantic relationship or marriage)?

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