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Friends divorcing: What can you tell your kids?

QUESTION: My daughter is five years old. The parents of her best friend are getting a divorce and they will be moving away. This is the second time, this year alone, that a family in our neighborhood is breaking up. How can I explain this to my kids -- aged five and eight?

ANSWER: Your children will experience the loss of a friend that is moving away. If you feel it is appropriate, suggest ways that your children can stay in touch with friends that move. Writing may create a pen pal and prove beneficial to your child's development. Still, the spectre of a family in the throes of divorce will need special attention:

1. Clarify your own feelings
Be aware that your children will follow your emotional lead in understanding the experience of divorce. Consider your own feelings. It is natural for a divorce to bring up fears about your own relationship. Clarify what relevance your neighbor's break up has for you, before talking with your children.

2. Strengthen your couple's relationship
Connect with your spouse by speaking about the break-ups around you. What effect do they have on your husband's feelings? Clarify your own concerns about your relationship if you have any. Expressing your feelings and putting issues on the table will allow you to separate fears from reality. If there is unfinished business, this is an opportunity to prevent dissatisfaction in your marriage, by taking stock of your relationship. The opportunity is also there for the two of you to re-discover and name what feels good about your relationship. Your connection with each other will help you talk with your children.

3. Answer your children's questions and make room for expressing feelings
Express you feelings naturally. Let your daughter know you are sad about her friend's predicament. Answer your children's concerns as truthfully as possible, at a level they can understand. For example, "I am sure that Johnny is very sad about his father and mother living apart. And I am certain that his parents both love him and will continue to take care of him, separately." Explain what you do know of the situation, as your children ask you for information. Be truthful and reassuring. And be sure to make room for their feelings, too. Ask them, "Does it make you sad?" if your child looks saddened, or "Is that upsetting to you?"

4. Accept a range of feelings over time
Continue to discuss the situation only as much as your children bring it up. Perhaps they will say nothing about it for two days, then ask you suddenly out of the blue following an argument with your spouse, "Mommy, are you and daddy going to divorce like Johnny's parents?" Do not be shocked. Instead, use this kind of question as an opportunity for further discussion and reassurance. "No, honey, what makes you think that?" Allow your child's fears and fantasies to be expressed. Doing so, will help her separate her family life, from her friend's family crisis.

Remember, that the better you and your spouse are at being able to express and successfully remain connected while negotiating conflict, the healthier your marriage will be. Helping your children see the value of successful arguments will not only reassure them that not all fighting leads to divorce, but will help them learn healthy negotiation skills to benefit their future relationships!

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Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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