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When Jews Divorce: What Do We Tell Our Children?

In consultation with a child development expert and depending on children’s developmental and emotional needs, spouses should agree on how and when they will explain their divorce to their children and how they will relate to their children following the announcement. It is best that children be told about the parents’ decision with both parents present.

It also is important that spouses agree never to speak ill of each other to the children.  Such action will not only be emotionally damaging to the children, but also will perpetuate the separated spouses’ own pain and delay emotional recovery.

What do children worry about and what do they need?

Children worry about being abandoned by one parent or the other. Some blame themselves for the divorce. Many suffer separation anxieties. First and foremost, children need to know that they are not responsible for their parents’ divorce, that there is nothing they could have done to save the marriage and there is nothing they can do to restore it. The onus of responsibility for a parent’s happiness should never be transferred to and assumed by children, regardless of their age. 

What should parents say when informing their children of a divorce, and how can you best support them?

The best way to explain to children that you have decided to divorce is to emphasize these points:  “We both love you. We will always be your parents. Sadly, we have decided that it would be better for us, as your parents, not to live together or to continue being married. Our decision has nothing to do with you, our children. We decided to do this independent of you. There is nothing you did that caused us to end our marriage and there is nothing you can do to bring us back together. We know that our divorce is deeply disappointing and distressing to you, as it is to us, and that you are very sad about it, as are we, but we believe that this change will be better for us, and we hope in time you will understand. We are both here for you. We both love you.”

How much detail should you share with your children about the reasons for your divorce?

It is not necessary to reveal the details of what went wrong in your marriage to your children. Although they may intuit or know that there are problems between you, they do not need to know the specifics.  Remember that your children are watching you. Everything you say and do affects them, and they will learn how to cope with difficult life challenges—including the end of your marriage—by the example you set. You need not be stoic in front of them, but neither should you display constantly how grieved, angry, pained, and disappointed you are. Try and keep their lives as normal as possible, and be open to hearing what they think and feel. Do not try to convince them that they are wrong to feel as they do, that they should “get over it” before they are ready or ignore the pain they feel. Accept what they say on their terms and simply affirm that their feelings are understandable and legitimate. Hug them a lot. Love them a lot. Tell them that you love them a lot. Close family, friends, clergy, and therapists if needed, can provide support. It also is important that you inform your children’s teachers about what is happening in your family, and let your children know why it is necessary that the teachers know.

What should you expect from your children in the initial period after they learn about your divorce?

As with death, the period following divorce is a time to grieve. Shock, denial, anger, sadness, and eventual acceptance are part of what you can anticipate from your children. During this time, they might act out in a variety of ways. Some, however, may not react during the first months, and their reactions will vary according to their age and relationships with each parent. As you move through this transition together, it is important the your children understand that they must speak respectfully to you and their siblings, even if they are furious at you about the change you have brought to their lives. Generally, it is a mistake for parents to overcompensate children in terms of what they allow and give them. Parents should not attempt to buy their children’s happiness. Perhaps the most important thing parents can do to make a divorce less damaging to their children is to strive to be on the same page with their former spouse relative to children’s expectations, privileges and punishments in each home. Although this can be difficult, if parents, despite their antagonisms, communicate and coordinate regarding the children, so that neither home is viewed as a sanctuary from the other home, then the stability and constancy children need will be more likely to occur. Counseling for children and the family can be helpful in reaching this goal and most health insurance plans will cover some of the sessions.

What about the custody of our children?

Depending upon the children’s ages, it is in their best interests to be consulted about where they are going to live and to have equal access to both parents. Whatever living arrangements are ultimately made, they first should meet your children’s needs and then yours as parents. Parents should make every attempt to live fairly close to each other within the same school district and close to their children’s friends so that it will be convenient for your children to share time with each of you and move back and forth between your homes. When the custody arrangements are set, each party should make every effort to live up to the letter of the agreement and cooperate with each other, particularly if adjustments need to be made from time to time. Parents should always examine and reexamine their motives for cooperating or not cooperating with the other parent. It is common for one parent to be overly protective of the children based on the behavior of the other parent regardless of whether or not the other parent has been a good parent. Some parents cannot help alienating their children from the other parent.  This behavior puts children in the unfair position of having to choose which parent with whom to side. If the custody arrangement has the children mostly with one parent and weekends and vacations with the other, it is common for the non-custodial parent to try to buy the children’s loyalty by spoiling them (e.g., “The Disneyland Dad,” who sees the children every other weekend and spends money on them, rather than being a responsible parent). Parents should make great effort to keep the children out of the parents’ disputes, understanding that as children grow their needs change and the originally negotiated custody agreement may also need to change. In the interests of the children, both parents need to remain open to different custody arrangements going forward.

Recommended Reading

  • Divorce is a Mitzvah: A Practical Guide to Finding Wholeness and Holiness When Your Marriage  Dies, by Rabbi Perry Netter, Jewish Lights, 2002
  • Living through Your divorce, by Rabbi Earl A. Grollman and Marjorie
  • L. Sams, Beacon Press, 1978
  • When Your Jewish  Child Asks Why: Answers for Tough Questions,
  • Ktav Publishing, 1993, pps 161-165 www.Ritualwell.org – on Separation and Divorce

Further Reading

This article was excerpted from the booklet When Jews Divorce and is part of the series Transitions & Celebrations: Jewish Life Cycle Guides, by Rabbi John L. Rosove of Temple Israel of Hollywood, CA. Download this booklet and the full series on the Temple Israel of Hollywood website (see Writings by Rabbi Rosove).

Rabbi John L. Rosove assumed his duties as Senior Rabbi of Temple Israel of Hollywood in November 1988. A native of Los Angeles, he earned a BA in Art History from UC Berkeley (1972), a Masters in Hebrew Letters from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, LA (1976), Rabbinic Ordination from HUC-JIR, NY (1979), and a Doctor of Divinity from HUC-JIR, LA (2004). His mission has been to build Jewish community and draw Jews and their families closer to God, the Torah, Jewish tradition, the Jewish people, and the State of Israel as a Jewish national home. He regards social justice work and high ethical practices as essential core Jewish religious values. Learn more about Rabbi Rosove and Temple Israel of Hollywood.

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