Dear Tzippora,

My husband and I are divorcing. We have three young children, ages five, three, and one, and I'm very concerned how my children will respond to this upheaval. How do we break the news to the kids, and what should we tell them?

Divorce-Bound Mommy

Dear Divorce-Bound Mommy,

First of all, let me commend your maturity and your commitment to your children's welfare. It must have taken a lot of self-control to put aside your own pain and write this letter. Divorce is a trauma that sometimes makes it hard for parents to separate their children's best interests from their own.

The fact is that it is almost always in the children's best interest to grow up in an intact family. Research has shown that the trauma suffered by children whose parents have divorced lasts well into their adult lives, and even impacts their own ability to choose and commit to a marital partner. Therefore, divorce should truly be a last resort, and only considered once an extended course of therapy, i.e. at least six months, with a professional and licensed therapist has not been successful at improving the situation.

Furthermore, while divorcing couples may wish to get as far away from each other as quickly as possible, it is simply not in their children's best interest for them to do so. Rather, what children need from their parents at this time is that both parents demonstrate their commitment to continue to parent them and to remain actively involved in their daily lives.

Before you sit down with your children, sit down together with your spouse and try to make an agreement that details how you intend to make sure you both remain available to your children, and how to insure that any animosity between the two of you stays contained and does not overflow into your relationships with your children. This includes an absolute ban on complaining to your children about your ex, or making them feel guilty or disloyal for maintaining their intimate connections with both of you.

I strongly recommend seeking therapy or mediation together in order to receive expert help in the establishment of a divorce contract. This contract should include an agreement to not move beyond a reasonable distance from each other, i.e. no cross-country moves, within the first six months of the divorce, and if possible, not to sell your home immediately (if at all), in order to allow your children to get used to the changes gradually.

Then, once you have established the ground rules of this new world called divorce, sit down together with your children, and explain as best as you can what the future will hold. Explain where they will live, and how often they will see each of you.

Explain what the divorce will mean for them in concrete terms. For example, you might say, "On the days when you see Daddy, he will give you dinner and a bath, and then bring you home at bedtime," or, "On the days when you see Daddy, he will put you to bed in his new apartment, and take you to nursery school, and Mommy will pick you up after school."

Try to be calm as you break the news. Your children will take their emotional cues from you in order to understand how to interpret the news. If you and your spouse remain calm, you can help them make this transition as smooth as possible, and minimize their trauma.

I have tried to describe what the ideal approach is. But sometimes emotions are simply too volatile to allow for a calm, rational course of action. In that case, allow your spouse to read and digest this reply alone, and then discuss together the best approach for your family. In the event of conflict, for the sake of your children, do not hesitate to seek professional help.

The Talmud tells us that when a couple divorces, the altar in the Holy Temple weeps. I would venture to say that in addition to the tears shed over the dissolution of the marriage covenant, there is at least a portion of those tears shed for the sake of the children whose lives will be altered. Divorce may end to a couple's spousal relationship, yet they remain bound by a shared commitment to their children. Creating a workable post-divorce parenting relationship requires a lot of finesse, and sensitivity.

Good luck.