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Providers Talking with Parents About Divorce
Authors: Nithyakala Karuppaswamy with Judith A. Myers-Walls, Ph.D., CFLE

Talking with parents about divorce can be a delicate matter for a childcare provider. At the same time, it is important for you and the parents to have open communication about this topic, if possible. Working together, you and the parents can focus on the child’s needs. You also can work together to help the children find coping skills that will work for them. Such open communication will help you figure out what your role should be with the child and with the custodial and the noncustodial parent. It also is important for you to follow the custody and legal decisions connected to the divorce.

Some parents may be open about their divorce and talk with you about it. They may let you know as soon as their husband or wife has moved out, or they may tell you that they recently went through a divorce. They may even ask you to be on the lookout for signs that their child is upset. They may share their concerns with you about some behavior changes they have noticed in their child. Some of those changes might be bed-wetting, temper tantrums, withdrawn behavior, or thumb-sucking. Parents may even ask you how to help the child, or may ask for suggestions about how to talk to their child about the divorce.

Other parents may not talk with you about their divorce at all. They may be so caught up in the stress of the situation that they are not ready to talk about it. Still others might think that the divorce is a “personal family matter.” Some may not understand how childcare is related to the divorce. If you see changes in the child’s behavior or the child lets you know that he is upset, you may need to bring up the topic with the parent. This might not be easy. If the parent has not talked about divorce or marriage problems, you do not want to assume you know what is happening.

Sometimes the child may the first one who tells you that the parents are getting a divorce. You may then want to report to the parents what the child has said about this. You could say, “Jenny was telling me and the other kids that you were getting a divorce. Is that true? I was wondering if there is something I need to be aware of so I could help Jenny.” Or you may ask directly, “Are there any changes that I should know about? Are there schedule changes or changes in who will pick up Jenny?”

As a childcare provider you may begin the discussion by telling the parent that you have noticed changes in the child. You may say something like, “Tommy seems very quiet recently. He used to love to play with the other kids. Now he seems to stay by himself. Sometimes I even see him get very angry if kids want to play with him.” Or you may say, “Jennifer has been crying a lot. She cries when something doesn’t work right, and she cries when the other children don’t agree with her. She also is sucking her thumb, and she didn’t used to do that.” Starting the conversation this way can do two things:

1. This opening will help the parent know that the child was showing some changes in behavior. When parents are getting a divorce, they may not have the time or energy to notice the changes in their children. Sometimes parents have wrongly assumed that the child was too young to even be aware of what was happening at home.

2. Such an opening also can open the door for the parents to talk to you about the divorce. It does this without putting them on the spot.

No matter who brings up the discussion between you and the parents, it is helpful to have some idea about how to communicate with parents. Use effective communication techniques when you talk with them, and consider the tips below.


Tips for communicating about divorce to parents:

•  Choose a good time to talk, especially the first time. Make sure you can talk in a private place. Choose a time
    when you will not be in a hurry.

•  If both parents are involved with the child, try to talk to both of them. Talk with them together if they are comfortable
   with working together. Talk with them separately if they are not comfortable.

•  Listen. Give parents your full attention when they are talking to you. Listen to them without trying to fix, judge,
   criticize, or change their feelings.

•  Try to understand the parent’s feelings and perspectives. Repeat what you understand. Make statements such
   as “I can understand why you would feel that way,” “It sounds like you are...” or “That must be really difficult
   when....” Remember that understanding does not mean you agree with another person's perspective; it only
   means you understand.

•  Let parents know how you can help them with the child. Help parents feel that you are a “team.” Be a helpful
   resource or support system during this stressful period.

•  Avoid being judgmental. Parents might do some things that seem very unreasonable during a divorce. You do
   not need to correct them. You need to work together for the child, though.

•  Avoid taking sides or forming alliances with one parent against the other. Avoid joining with the child against the
   parent or parents. Be available to all family members as much as you can.

•  Keep a focus on the child’s feelings and issues. Don’t worry about the details of the divorce.

•  Check with parents before you reassure the child. For example, don’t say “Papa will come back home” unless
   you know that is really happening.

•  Check often with parents what you should tell their child about the divorce. Help them understand that you are
    trying to match what you tell the child with what parents are telling the children.

•  Think ahead about some of the changes that may come up. For example, a parent who has moved out may not
   remember to tell you about the change in address for emergency contacts. You may have to remind them and
   ask that they keep you informed.

•  Review your agency policies regarding family information and changes in information. Make sure you know about
   custody arrangements and any restraining orders.

•  When necessary, get help or find information and resources that will help you help the parent.

  Working with providers during divorce

Go to:  • Talking to parents about problems in development
           • Talking with parents about normal age-related fears
            Talking with parents about uncommon fears

           • Communicating with parents about parenting quality


For more information, contact Judith A. Myers-Walls, PhD, CFLE at jmyerswa@purdue.edu

Please feel free to link to, print off, redistribute, or reprint
  any of these materials as long as the original credits remain intact.

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