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How to Talk to Your Kids About Divorce, From a Family Therapist

Before their split became public, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt likely had to first break the difficult news to six people: their kids. Licensed marriage and family therapist Susan Stiffelman tells Us Weekly her top five tips for talking to children about divorce.  

Create a Peaceful Atmosphere If both parents are calm, “that leaves room for the child to have whatever feelings they need to have, which will range from fingers in the ears, ‘I don’t want to hear it’ to ‘This isn’t happening’ to anger,” Stiffelman tells Us Weekly. 

Related: PHOTOS: Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie: The Way They Were

Offer Practical Reassurance According to Stiffelman, kids are egocentric, which means that their biggest question is “How does this affect me?” That is why it’s crucial to lead with that and reinforce what’s not changing. Says the Parenting Without Power Struggles author: “You want to explain, ‘I’m still your mom, and daddy is still your daddy, and you’re still going to have to brush your teeth and take your bath.’”

Angelina Jolie, Zahara and Shiloh
Angelina Jolie with Zahara, left, and Shiloh during Nickelodeon’s 28th Annual Kids’ Choice Awards. Lester Cohen/WireImage

Allow Them to Grieve “When our kids are unhappy, we often twist ourselves up in knots to convince them that they shouldn’t be, by giving them information that we think will change their mind,” says Stiffelman. “But the only way children discover they can live through something difficult is to live through something difficult, ideally with us being present with them, acknowledging what’s going on and holding them while they cry.”

Related: PHOTOS: Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s Most Memorable PDA Moments

Resist the Urge to Throw Your Partner Under the Bus The Malibu-based therapist stresses the importance of a unified front. Instead of pointing fingers when a child asks, “Why are you getting divorced?” Stiffelman suggests saying: “I know that you think knowing why this is happening will make you feel better. I get that and it makes sense to me, but there isn’t a simple answer. The bottom line is that you feel torn apart and we’ll get through this.”

Angelina Jolie, Maddox and Brad Pitt
Angelina Jolie, with Maddox Jolie-Pitt and Brad Pitt, arrives at the the Board of Governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Governor Awards in 2013. Steve Granitz/WireImage

Stay Strong Stiffelman says to envision yourself as the captain of a ship. “When the ship is in the storm, you don’t want to see the captain leaping over the side of the boat,” she explains. “This is the time when you want to see the captain — or the parent — saying, ‘I’m capable enough and steady enough to ferry us across. You can count on me.’”

Related: PHOTOS: Hollywood's Ugliest Divorces

Stiffelman’s free online tele-summit “Co-Parenting Without Power Struggles” kicked off Tuesday, September 20, and runs through September 23.

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