Michael Scott is a Licensed
Marriage and Family Therapist, and a child custody mediator. He has been a
therapist since 1982 and maintains a private practice in Santa Cruz, CA.
Since 1985, Michael has served as a child custody mediator for The County
of Santa Cruz Superior Court. He is an educator offering workshops both
nationally and internationally on marriage, divorce, parenting, education,
personal and professional development, conflict resolution, and the
developmental needs of children.
PO BOX 822 * Santa Cruz, CA 95061 * (831)423-0521
What Should We Tell the Children? Developing a
Mutual Story of the Divorce
- October 2002
- One of the most typical questions asked of me by parents who are
beginning the divorce process is, “What should we tell the
children and how should we tell them?” Most parents,
understandably, feel awful in having to tell their children about their
pending divorce and how all their lives are going to be permanently
changed. Such a task can generate tremendous pangs of guilt, sadness,
and anger. Moreover, parents want to protect their children from the
emotional pain of divorce, and want to protect their children from
viewing themselves as the cause of the divorce.
In the midst of these difficult and confusing feelings, many parents
do not even tell their children about the separation and divorce until
days or even weeks after one of the parents has moved out of the
house. However, not telling the children the truth in advance actually
leaves them feeling betrayed and deceived by their parents. It also
leaves them ill prepared for this major event of their lives. Child
development experts agree that deceiving or withholding the truth
about their parents' separation and divorce does not protect children.
Children always do better in hearing the truth than in hearing a lie
or misleading information from a parent. It is not the parents' job to
protect their children from truth. Rather, parents should give
accurate and truthful information, and then help their children deal
with the feelings that are generated.
- What to Tell the Children: The Mutual Story of the Divorce
- In my many years of working with divorcing families, I've learned
that one of the most important first steps that parents can take in
preparing their children for the changes ahead is to develop, together,
a “mutual story of the divorce,” and to tell it to their
children together as a family at the same time. If instead, each parent,
without conferring with the other, tells the children, separately and at
separate times, why they are getting a divorce, then the children
frequently will hear two different stories. And, because of the
complexity of marital relationships, these two stories are often
opposite, individualized versions of the couple's truth. What the
children typically report is some version of the following: “Mom
first told me why they're getting divorced, and then Dad, later, told me
the opposite. That leaves me confused. One of them must be lying to me,
but I'm not sure which one. Now, I don't think I can trust either
- Understandably, when parents divorce, each has his or her version of
the reasons for the split-up. Moreover, each parent typically attributes
the cause of the divorce to the other parent. Because marital
separations tend to be very complex, multi-layered matters, with
multiple contributing factors, both parents may be presenting accurate
realities from their respective points of view. However, children
believe that there can only be one truth about a given matter. The idea
that there may be multiple truths is beyond the grasp of most children,
since it requires a level of abstract thinking of which children are not
yet capable (except, perhaps, for older teenagers). Thus, in order to
help children come to terms with the fact of their parents' divorce, it
is most helpful for them to hear only one mutual and consistent story of
why their parents split up.
- The idea of telling your children the story of your divorce is rooted
in the time-honored ritual of story telling--a tradition that goes back
thousands of years. Children love stories. They typically loved to hear
the story of your courtship and your marriage, as well as the story of
their own birth and development. Most children ask to hear these stories
over and over, throughout their childhood. Story telling is a very
powerful ritual for bonding relationships and communities alike.
- While the suggestion to utilize a bonding tradition during a divorce
may seem odd, it is actually quite credible. From a child's point of
view, the best divorce is viewed not as the break-up of a family, but as
the re-organization of the family unit across two households. Moreover,
children are helped to process the divorce when their parents encourage
them to bond with both parents within the reorganized family unit.
- Children do not like hearing that one of their parents is the cause
for the divorce and is responsible for the pain of everyone in the
family. Children don't like having a “bad” parent, but
prefer to have two good parents. When the divorce is blamed on one of
the parents, the children, in effect, are being persuaded to relinquish
love for that parent, or, to feel confused and guilty about loving their
“bad” parent and displeasing their “good”
parent. If, however, both parents mutually take responsibility for the
break-up, then their children are set free from being caught in the
middle of a loyalty conflict.
- When I ask parents to formulate a mutual story of their divorce,
initially, many are unable. Most of us, when rejected by a person we
love or once loved, tend to protect our self-esteem by blaming another
for our failures. Certainly, divorce provides a golden opportunity to do
this. However, when each parent resists and rises above this tendency
for the sake of the children, the children are provided a chance for a
Arriving at a mutual story becomes easier after considering the ways
in which a given event can be framed. Several examples follow:
- Divorce Scenario #1:
- Consider, for example, a typical scenario of divorce. Mother and
Father had been emotionally drifting apart from one another for several
years. Father met an attractive woman at work and had an affair. Mother
found out about it, reacted with rage, kicked him out, and then filed
Mother, alone, might tell the children that Mom and Dad are getting
divorced because their father was unfaithful and cheated on her. She
might add that he spent all of his time at work, rather than with his
family, and that she is tired of shouldering all the responsibilities
of the family by herself.
- Father might explain to the children that Mother has not shown any
affection to him in two years, that she obviously doesn't love him, and
he is tired of trying to get her to love him. So, he finally has decided
to leave the marriage. He adds that he feels angry at her for forcing
the break-up the family and making the children lose their father.
These certainly are two accurate ways to describe this divorce, as
they each represent the respective emotional truths of each spouse.
However, if the children were told these two different stories, they
would certainly be confused and angry.
- A “mutual story” of this divorce might be something like
the following: “We have been married for 13 years, and we both
love you children very much. We used to also love each other a lot, and
we still do care about each other. But, over the years, we both realized
that we didn't love each other like married couples should. We have been
unhappy with each other for a long time. We've tried to make it better.
We even went to counseling, but it didn't help. We've tried really hard
to love each other again, but it just hasn't worked. We each feel that
we will be happier living apart from one another, and that we will be
better parents to you if we live apart and are happier. We will both
still be with you regularly and continue to take care of you, but at
- Divorce Scenario #2:
- In another divorce scenario, Mother feels that Father has been very
controlling and very angry at her, intensely dislikes her friends, shows
no affection towards her, and rarely spends time with the family. There
has been a high level of overt conflict between them for many years, and
the children have witnessed much fighting. Mother feels isolated and
lonely, has developed her own separate social life, and she finally
files for divorce.
Typically, Mother might separately tell the children: “Your
father has been trying to control my life for too long, and he has
hurt me terribly. He won't let me do anything I want and he always
tries to tell me what to do. You all know how he starts fights with me
all the time. You kids and I are leaving him so we don't have to take
this any more from him.”
- Father might separately tell the children: “Your mother doesn't
really want to be a mother anymore. She just wants to run around with
her friends, go out drinking, and not take care of you. She wants to
divorce me because she just doesn't want to be a responsible adult any
longer. I've tried to get her to listen to me and to be reasonable. I
wish she didn't want to abandon you kids. Then we could be a real
- A mutual story of this divorce might sound like this: “We have
not been happy with each other for some time. It seems that we have
grown apart and have very different interests now. We don't make each
other happy living together and, as you know, we just fight when we are
around each other, and we know that you kids really hate that. We have
decided that we will both be better off living apart. The fighting will
stop, and we each will be happier living separately. However, we both
still love you and you have permission from each of us to continue
loving both of us, even if we don't love each other enough to live
- In summary, parents should try to give their children a basic
statement as to the reasons for the separation, while sparing them the
adult details about the marital relationship. Even in the most difficult
and painful cases of marital separation, if the parents really want to
spare their children the pain of being caught in loyalty conflict, they
will figure out a way to develop a mutual story of the divorce. This
story should be one in which neither parent is a “bad guy,”
and each parent can continue to develop a separate and loving
relationship with the children. . The specific words used in the above
examples of mutual stories are just models of what are possible to say.
Use your own words to express these ideas, keeping the concept of
mutuality of the decision as your main focus.
- After offering the mutual story of divorce, then explain to them, in
as much detail as possible, how their daily routines will proceed and
the schedule for how they will be sharing time between their parents. If
you aren't sure of the final schedule for time-sharing of the children
after the separation, reassure the children that you two will work out
these details and will let them know just as soon as they are set in
- HOW to Tell the Children:
- Tell your children the truth about the separation and divorce in
advance, whenever possible.
- Both parents together should tell the children. If there is more
than one child, it is generally better to tell the siblings
together. This optimizes the support they will feel from each other
and from the family meeting together to discuss this important news.
The discussion should take place at a time that is distraction-free
and at a place, such as home, that is familiar and comfortable.
- Use words that are addressed to the specific developmental level
of your child or to each of your children’s level of
understanding. Talk to young children more slowly and with simple
words and simple phrases. Talk to older children and adolescents in
more adult ways.
- Set aside enough time to answer any questions that the children
may have about what is going to happen after the separation. Do not
tell them right before you have a business meeting, a phone
conference call, a hair appointment, or a soccer practice. Allow
several hours of unplanned time after this discussion.
- If parents work together in their divorce, even if they weren't able
to work together in their marriage, the children will benefit. Remember
that even if the first wish of children of divorce (i.e. that Mom and
Dad will get back together) can't come true, their second wish (i.e.
that Mom and Dad will cooperate with each other and not fight) can come
true. That is up to you. Please make it happen, for the sake of your
children. Begin with developing a mutual story of your divorce.
- © Donald T. Saposnek, 2002. This article was first published in
October 2002 online at: www.mediate.com/fam/falleditorial.cfm.
Reprinted with permission.
- Donald T. Saposnek, Ph.D., is a Clinical-Child
Psychologist, who divides his professional time between child custody
mediation, training and consulting, child and family therapy, and
teaching in the Psychology Department of the University of California,
Santa Cruz. He was the Editor of the Academy of Family Mediators' Mediation
News since 1993 and is currently the Editor of the Family
Mediation News, the newsletter of the Family Section of the
Association for Conflict Resolution. He is on the editorial boards of
the Family Court Review and the Conflict Resolution
- Dr. Saposnek has published extensively in the professional
literature on child custody and child psychology and, for two decades,
has trained mediators throughout the U.S. and Canada on mediation and
child custody. His prominent book on mediation, Mediating Child
Custody Disputes: A Strategic Approach, originally
published in 1983, has been updated and revised in its 1998
Thank you and please return.
Copyright © Michael Scott, 1996-2022.
All rights reserved.
Last updated 04/02/2022