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How to tell the kids about marriage break-up

Correct timing and a united front are crucial for this very difficult conversation, says "Today" contributor Dr. Ruth Peters.

Q:  My husband and I are considering a trial separation in the near future. Obviously, we wonder what is the best way to tell our three kids, ages nine, twelve and fourteen.  He feels that we should tell them immediately since we know that we will be separating, but I would like to wait as long as possible to do so since I believe it will upset them.  In your experience, what is the best time frame for telling kids and what’s the best way to do it?

A:  Parents separating, and therefore disrupting the children’s home, is one of the most traumatic experiences that many kids go through in their formative years.  The timing and manner in which it is presented can make the difference between a tolerable situation and a frightening, traumatic event.  Rarely is separation a relief to kids, generally it is a confusing and fearful time.  Expect unpleasant effects on the children no matter how you tell them, but try to hold these to a minimum.

First, if at all possible, tell the kids when all of you are together.  You and your husband should hold a family meeting and discuss what separation means, why this is occurring (general reasons are usually sufficient – too many details can be either unnecessary or disturbing) and try to answer as many of their questions as possible.  The types of questions may surprise you since kids are usually concerned with how the separation will affect them, not with the larger emotional issues that the two of you are most likely focusing upon.  They may be concerned with whether they will still receive their allowance, clothing money, and transportation to social or athletic events.  Don’t be upset if these are their concerns – this is normal for children of their ages.

In terms of timing, in order to alleviate as much anxiety as possible I usually suggest waiting until about two weeks before the separation is to occur.  Telling children too far in advance may give them too much time to ruminate upon the upcoming event and may distract them in their school work.  A few weeks is generally enough time for kids to ask questions and express their feelings.  In addition, if you tell them too early you risk dealing with the possibility that you and your husband change your minds and decide to stay together, making the situation even more confusing to the kids.

When discussing the other parent, try to stick to the rule of not saying anything negative.  Kids often feel badly about themselves if one of their parents is put down, especially by the other one.  Also, children often become defensive and will resent the negative comments (even if they are accurate).

If the kids ask if you are going to be divorced, tell them the truth.  If you know that divorce is a certainty, tell them.  If this is a separation in which the purpose is to consider alternatives, to deal with hurt feelings, or to make changes in behavior, let them know that you’re not sure of the outcome and that it could go either way.  Also confirm that the separation is made by – and for -- the parents and that the kids do not influence the decision to stay together or to divorce.  This will take the responsibility off of the children so that they will not feel blame or responsibility for the separation and possible divorce.

Finally, let them know that no matter what happens, they still have two loving parents, although they may not be living together.  Focus on some of the positives that may occur – such as a less stressful household, set times spent with each parent that the kids can count on, and the hope that each parent will be happier in the future as the situation becomes resolved.  The kids may not like your decision, but if they see it as an adult choice and if they are dealt with honestly and openly, your children will learn to accept it, especially if you follow these guidelines.

Ruth A. Peters, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and regular contributor to “Today.” Her most recent book is "Laying Down the Law:The 25 Laws of Parenting" (, 2002).  For more information you can visit her Web site at . Copyright 2004 by Ruth A. Peters, Ph.D. All rights reserved.

PLEASE NOTE: The information in this column should not be construed as providing specific psychological or medical advice, but rather to offer readers information to better understand the lives and health of themselves and their children. It is not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician, psychiatrist or psychotherapist.