When telling your children that you and your spouse are separating and/or divorcing, in most families, the children (unless they are very young) already know on some level. ( I also use children, even though we may be speaking of a single child).

They may be asking one or both of the parents, they may be acting clingier than they have in years, or they may be acting out and getting into trouble as a way of saying, “Don’t do this! I need you both together.” Other children act as if they don’t know anything, but later on may tell you that they did know and site an incident that they believed caused the decision. As I’m sure you know children have a tendency to blame themselves for a divorce.

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“If I was only better behaved”; “If I only cleaned my room more, if I was only smarter, if I was only a better student or athlete, etc., etc., etc.”
For children, it is their childlike omnipotent way of trying to believe they could have had some control over their parents separating; even if the idea makes them feel guilty or bad about themselves. For many children this is preferable to feeling completely helpless over the decision (which they actually are).

So below are the pointers to telling your children you have decided to separate:

1. Make sure you tell them together. No matter how tense things are between the two of you, it is critical that you pull it together, act like grown-ups and tell your children together in as calm a way as possible.

2. Tell them at home, not too close to bedtime, and make sure that whoever is moving out does not move out for a few days or a week. You want them to have time to get used to the idea. If things are very tense between you and your spouse, give the kids the time, but just work it out so one of you is out when the other is home, but try to sleep in the same house (separate rooms are fine).

3. When you tell the children, make sure you tell them (whether it is true or not), that this is both of your decision. It should go something like this, “We, your parents, have something to tell you. Please don’t interrupt until we’re through talking even if you really want to. You all will get your chance to talk when we are done. We have decided to separate. We love you all very much and none of you have done anything to cause this. Please remember this. This has been a very hard decision for us to come to, but we don’t love each other in the same way that we used to. We love all of you very much and wish things were different, but we are not comfortable living together anymore.

“We’ve really tried to work this out, but we just haven’t been able to. The last thing either of us wanted for our family was to separate and (if you are certain it will be a divorce say divorce). What we will promise you is that we both will always love you the same way and still be your parents. We’ll do our best to make this as easy as possible on you, even though we know it’s not easy. We are both deeply saddened for our family and know that it will be hard for everyone for a while. We believe we are doing what’s best for all of us. Having two parents that are not happy together anymore can be harder for a family than separation (or divorce). Okay, now let’s hear from each of you one at a time.”

4. Know that your children will be interrupting and probably crying as you tell them this. You and your spouse may be crying also. This is one of the hardest things you will ever do! It is important to keep on track and finish what you are telling them – no matter how hard it is. It is also very important to tell the children who will be moving out and what kind of a visitation schedule they will be having with each of you. These are called temporary custody and visitation schedules since your divorce is not final or the custody and visitation schedule has not been finalized by a mediator, private judge, or the court. Hopefully, you both will be able to come to an agreement on your own that is good for your children and it can just be written up by a mediator or your attorneys and have it filed with the court as a final agreement (called a stipulated judgment). Temporarily, it is important to make sure the children have as much access to each parent as possible. If you and your spouse are unable to get along, this is considered a high conflict divorce and even the temporary custody plan must be written out very specifically.

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About Alice R. Berkowitz

Dr. Alice R. Berkowitz has been in practice as a Clinical and Forensic Psychologist since 1986. Her psychotherapy practice is currently located in Beverly Hills, California, after over 28 years at the prestigious Cedars-Sinai Medical Office Towers in Los Angeles, California.

Serving a wide variety of clientele, Berkowitz sees many high profile personalities in the Los Angeles area, is certified as an addiction specialist and travels doing consultations all over the country. Berkowitz is also trained as a neuropsychologist, and is well versed in the effects of addiction on the different areas of the brain.

In addition to her work as a clinical psychologist, Berkowitz has also worked as a Child Custody Evaluator, Expert Witness, Mediator and Reunification Therapist in Family Court since 1986. Her areas of expertise are in the area of parental alienation, parenting plans, parenting training and coaching, dealing with high-conflict families, divorce coaching, conjoint therapy, domestic violence, substance abuse, reunification therapy, PTSD, parent-child relationships, child sexual abuse and allegations of alleged sexual abuse.