Campbell, seven years old, was sitting in my office, trying to learn how to get along better with children on the playground. In the midst of describing how difficult it was to remember which parent was supposed to help her with her homework that night, she whispered: "Can I tell you a secret that really bothers me?" She knew why her parents had recently divorced. Last year, her two-year-old brother was really annoying her during dinner, so she pushed him and he spilled his milk all over the floor. Campbell vividly remembered her parents' argument over who would clean it up. Her mom had screamed, "You never do anything around here. You are never home." Her dad had yelled back, "If you did a better job with the kids, they wouldn't be fighting all the time." Several months later, her parents announced their separation. But Campbell knew why: It was her fault -- she had hit her brother, he had spilled his milk and that had caused the fight and then the divorce. Campbell's parents had never told her why they had gotten divorced, leaving it up to Campbell to figure it out in her own way.
You need to be honest, real and effective as you convey the news to your child that the two of you plan to separate and divorce. Honesty is so important at this point because divorce breaks a primary trust. Children instinctively believe that, "no matter what, my parents will always be there to support and protect me." Divorce shatters this fundamental trust. With this news, the child's world is irrevocably altered. The quake of divorce reverberates throughout the early stages of parental divorce and separation. Questions and disturbing thoughts now rush through the child's mind: They always said they would be here for me...what else have my parents lied to me about? I thought they would always be together, that this is my home, this is my family. Now, with one sentence --"Mom and Dad are getting a divorce" -- the world I knew broke apart. They say they will continue to love me, but they used to say they loved each other. If they can stop loving each other, will they stop loving me?
That's why you and your soon-to-be ex need to sit down together to tell your child you plan to separate and divorce. Your ability to convey this news together in a caring and relatively non-hostile manner sets the tone for the child's perception of the future. How effectively you and your ex deal with your child at this very moment may well predict the effectiveness of your future co-parenting decisions.
Your child needs to hear and to see that this is a process the entire family undertakes together. Your message should be, "We love and care for you, our child, and that together we have made decisions that are best for you."
Don't tell your child what you think of your ex. You may think that your intentions are good. That your child needs this information "to know what she is up against, to protect herself." But when you belittle your ex before your child, you damage your child. You may not see the similarities between your child and ex, but your child does. If you take up a verbal hatchet to destroy your ex, you have destroyed your child.
Do not blame your about-to-be ex. Even if your ex has been having an affair with her boss for the last three years, or if you have just discovered credit card bills from sex toy shops, do not share this with your child. Your child needs to know only one truth: "Mom and Dad don't love each other anymore, the way that moms and dads need to love each other to stay together." Your child has absolutely no need to know the reasons Mom and Dad don't love each other.
There is never a good time to break the news. There is always some significant event coming round the bend -- an upcoming birthday, holiday, vacation, school test, parental trip, important soccer match, grandparent visit, best friend's birthday party, or anniversary of a family death.
Several days before one of the parents moves out of the primary residence is the time to break the news. That marks the beginning of the transition to co-parenting. After telling the child, the parents should not physically remain together. Parents may stay in the same household for several days, but they should sleep in separate bedrooms. This signals the coming changes to the child. If the stresses of the marriage have been open, the child will get it. An adolescent may well react with some understanding, compassion, and attempt to ally with her parents to offer emotional support. A younger child may only be confused and disoriented. Your job is not to win your child as an ally but to convey information and support the child in his own time of distress.
What should be paramount in this moment, as you tell your child that you plan to separate and divorce, is your capacity to comfort your child, to show him that, while the rules have changed, new guidelines and new structures are already being set up to regulate his life from now on. Be concrete and factual. Tell your child that you are divorcing and explain how this will affect her daily and weekly routine. Give her the information she needs to help her ground this new and scary reality. Throughout divorce, your child needs to see both parents making decisions about his life. You must start with this most difficult moment -- when both parents sit together with the child, even in the midst of their great stress, hostility, and turmoil, and together tell their child that they are separating and then outline the family's new living arrangements.