Parents come to see me for this specific question more than almost any other single question. Although divorce is a very challenging time for families, the silver lining is that there are many choices that parents can make to protect and take care of their children during this time. Below I share 5 of the more important things to do/think about/remember when first sitting down to tell your kids that their parents are divorcing.
Before you meet with the kids:
- Sit down with your spouse and agree on the basics of what you want to say to the kids. You will want to craft a very brief statement, including:
- The core message at its simplest form, and
- A small concrete example of why you are separating/divorcing. The reason should be explained in a brief, neutral, non-blaming, concrete way, using minimal details. Referring to something your children have already been witness to is an ideal choice for an concrete example.
- For example: “For a while now, your father and I have been arguing a lot. You have even seen some of our arguments.” Then dad might plan to say: “We have seen a marriage counselor to help us work things out, but unfortunately we haven’t been able to. So, your mother and I have decided that we are going to live separately for a little while.”
- Still with your spouse, prepare for questions. Different ages and personalities and situations will all respond differently, but here are a few typical examples: “who is moving out?”, “where will I live?”, “will I still get to go to school/karate/music lessons/my friends’ house?” Kids are concrete thinkers, and their typical reactions center around the concrete ways that this change will affect them. Discuss these likely questions, and mutually-agreed upon answers with your spouse.
- Privately, do whatever you can to ready yourself emotionally. You may need to practice saying the words. You may need to cry or yell or throw a fit (privately) prior to this meeting. This conversation is for your children, and it’s a big one–they need you to be emotionally available for them.
During the conversation:
- Deliver your short, prepared statement to the kids.
- Stop talking.
- Sit back and take a deep breath.
- Pay attention to what is going on in your children at that moment. Take another breath. What faces is she making, how tense is his body?
- From this point forward, your primary goal is to be tuned in to your kids and what they need. Don’t talk too much, but don’t hurry the conversation, either. Stay tuned in to what you think your child needs at this point. (Space? Answers? Permission to be sad, or angry, or worried? Try to give it to them.)
A few more notes:
- Both parents should be present and participating in this conversation.
- Pick a time/place that is private, quiet, and unrushed. (more here on WHEN to tell the kids.)
- Parents should primarily talk about themselves, or both parents together, and avoid making too many statements about the other parent (in order to avoid provoking–we want a smooth, peaceful conversation.)
- Your children may want more information and details, or not. It is normal to want them, and it is normal not to want them. Every child is different.
- If they ask specific or inappropriate questions about wrong-doing etc, please remember that the appropriate response is to lovingly but firmly refuse to answer! “I understand that you want to know more about that, but it is a private matter between Mommy and Daddy. “
- If you get an appropriate question that you aren’t sure how to answer, please remember that you can tell your child “That’s a good question. I can’t give you an answer right now, but your father/mother and I will talk about it and get back with you soon.”
Separation and divorce are hard on everyone involved. At a time when parents are themselves taxed, their child’s needs increase, and it is difficult not to get bogged down in the stress. Here are 7 reminders from a child’s perspective about what is important to them.
- I want to be loyal, at some level, to both parents.
- It’s incredibly hard to be equally loyal to both parents, especially when they are separated. If I try to do this, it will take a huge chunk of my mental and physical energy. If I don’t do this, it will hurt my heart because it feels like I am rejecting one parent (and therefore rejecting a bit of myself, too.)
- When you speak negatively of my other parent (or even just roll your eyes) it’s hard on me. I know that half of me comes from each parent—so if one parent is a jerk or a loser or crazy—that means I am, too. It makes me feel badly about myself.
- Some of my behaviors are related to the separation/divorce. I may act angrier, more anxious, more sad, more clingy, or more rejecting.
- If I have a lot of somatic/physical complaints (headaches, stomach aches) it may be that I am feeling worried or unhappy.
- With time, I can heal from the separation and/or divorce if you handle yourselves with respect, cooperation, and good boundaries. When disrespect and anger are present, it is tremendously harder for me to be healthy.
- I feel safer and happier when the two of you are friendly and cooperative with each other.