7 Things for Divorcing Parents to Discuss
When you start dating, what guidelines will you follow with regard to introducing the children to your significant other? Setting up expectations in advance can make a world of difference in a process that often leaves parents feeling fearful and powerless. Consider talking about these questions with your ex:
- When and how will you tell the kids you are dating someone?
- How will you explain the new dating relationship to the kids? What will the kids call him/her?
- Will you text/talk on the phone with the new SO when you have your kids with you?
- Will you go on dates during your custody time (meaning the kids are with a babysitter)?
- How long will you date someone before:
- You talk about them with your kids?
- Allow the kids & your SO to meet?
- Have outings/activities with your kids and your SO at the same time?
- Allow the kids to meet your SO’s kids?
- Go on outings with the SO & his/her children? Overnights?
- Allow the SO to come over to your house?
- Allow the SO to sleep at your house when the kids are present?
- What role will the new SO play with the kids? Will he or she discipline? How will you handle the inevitable difference in parenting styles?
- Do you want to introduce your new SO to your ex? (Do you want to meet your ex’s new SO?)
Parents should realize that as each party moves through the divorce process, naturally they will each grow apart from each other and will be increasingly less able to influence the other. Furthermore, it’s hard to think objectively about one’s new SO when you’re in the exciting and love-struck phase of a new relationship. For both of these reasons (and more,) I highly recommend setting up some mutual expectations about how to parent around new romantic relationships as soon as possible. I hope these questions give you a starting off place for the conversation.
There are several articles on this blog written specifically to help parents through the divorce process. They are collected below for easy reading.
- How to tell the kids
- When to tell the kids
- 7 Things kids want parents to remember
- Book recs about divorce for kids
- Book recs about divorce for parents
- When parents start dating again
- Parenting Well Through Divorce Webinar
Please feel free to email me with questions or to set up an appointment for parent coaching around divorce, co-parenting, or however you think I can help.
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.
Once parents are certain that they are separating or getting a divorce, they begin to think through when/what/how they should tell their children. Regarding WHEN to tell children about a divorce or separation, here are some tips.
A few concrete suggestions:
- Avoid major holidays and birthdays, etc.
- Consider the child’s school or extracurricular schedule (major tests or events, etc.)
- Don’t tell them right before bed/school/playdate. Plan to have plenty of free, unscheduled time after you tell them in case they need a break or to be alone or whatever reaction they have. (If they need to be distracted after the conversation, that can be done impromptu.)
- Think about your own energy level and make sure to schedule this conversation at a time when you aren’t tired or stressed or otherwise taxed.
- Try to tell them enough in advance that they will continue to see you and your spouse co-parenting and running the house as you always have just a little longer. The idea is to show the kids that while the marriage is ending, the co-parenting and cooperative, cordial adult relationship is not ending.
But my most important piece of guidance about scheduling this conversation:
There is no “perfect time” for this conversation. Of course, as a loving parent you are trying to manage every detail in order to minimize their upset feelings, but even with all that they will still have those feelings. If they are going to feel agony, they will feel agony no matter what day you tell them. And, you want them to feel 110% permission to feel their feelings about this very big change, so the best thing I can tell you might be to just worry a little less about the scheduling and instead do what you can to be prepared to listen and watch and breathe and love them whenever you do tell them.
I love to recommend books to parents, because there is SO much good information available. Not to mention that books are such a bargain for what you get! I encourage every divorcing parent I work with to purchase books on divorce for their kids, and to read one for themselves, too. (BTW, if you’re looking for book recommendations on divorce for kids, go here.)
My only complaint is that this book nearly 400 pages–with small print! But some things are worth carving out time to read, and this book is one of those things. All questions are answered inside those covers–from Parenting Plans to the power of language, to managing emotions and healing wounds to the new “Businesslike relationship, and troubleshooting problems. Read it cover to cover and then refer back to it when things come up.
“Joint Custody with a Jerk” wins the prize for best book title of all time. In fact, I originally purchased this book solely because of the title, and I bet I’m not the first. But there’s good stuff beyond the cover, too. For example, I like that this book starts by encouraging the reader to examine their own feelings, and identifying a problem other than ‘my ex is a jerk.’ This is the absolute perfect place to start, and a method I use with families myself. They teach a concept they call the “problem pyramid,” and encourage parents to ask themselves 1: what exactly is the problem, 2, who has upset feelings about the issue, 3, who brought up the issue, and 4, who is responsible for the solution? By working through those questions, the authors say that parents will have a healthy, effective guide as to how they should respond–to the jerky ex, their kids, or in any other relationship where conflicts arise.
If you get through those 700+ pages of parenting advice in those 2 books, and still want more: email me. I’ll see what else I can dig up. ;^)
This post contains affiliate links, which means I may receive compensation if you click the links and then buy.
(and if you do, thanks!)
“Do you have any recommended books about…”
No matter what the topic, reading a relevant book can help parents navigate through tough times. They are helpful partly because books give us guidance on important concepts to cover, and a script to follow, but also because the pictures give our kids a concrete visual image to go along with our words. Today’s post is a collection of brief reviews of some of my favorite books on divorce for younger kids. (A list of recommended books for parents is available here.)
I’ve reviewed this one before, but it’s worthy of reposting: The story is about “Dinah” (a bear,) who loves her family but tells us that: “…one day, something sad happened. Mama and Daddy said they were going to get a divorce.” Dinah talks about her feelings (sad and scared) and some of her inner questions. She talks to her parents about her feelings, and both parents reassure her that they will always be her mama/daddy. As the book progresses, she describes how she spends time with both parents separately. Her parents make some mistakes, but the theme of parental love and involvement persists. The book concludes by saying that after time she feels less sad, and that her parents and sister will always be her family. It’s a peaceful and positive ending.
Was it the Chocolate Pudding? by Sandra Levins is another favorite. The story unfolds with two brothers making a big mess with some chocolate pudding. The next day their parents tell the boys that they are getting a divorce. The older brother puts 2 & 2 together (gets 5) and thinks it’s because of the chocolate pudding, and is therefore his fault. This gets sorted out in the end, and the kids are portrayed as adjusting well. This is a great book for really focusing on the fact that divorce is an adult matter, and really addresses the (all too common) misbelief in kids that they are the cause of the problems. As a small note, this book is unique in that the father stays in the home and has primary custody (not what is usually portrayed.) I highly recommend this one.
Dinosaurs Divorce, by Laurie Krasny Brown & Marc Brown may be the most well-known book about divorce for kids. It’s not my favorite, perhaps because of the comic-strip format, but it’s still a good book. It’s an informative style, not a narrative story. It covers all the basic info that kids need to know about divorce, including why parents divorce, custody, feelings, holidays, step-parents and more. Think of it as a reference book for your kid. Good to have on the shelf.
At Daddy’s on Saturdays, by Linda Walvoord Girard is an older book, but I like it for its realism. After this school-aged girl’s parents divorce, her father’s custody rights are more like visitation. One time he even forgets to come. (ouch!) But that happens in real life, and for kids for whom that’s true, it’s good to have a book that mirrors their experience.
Fred Stays with Me! by Nancy Coffelt is really a story about a young girl and her trouble-making dog, who happen to live in a split-custody arrangement. Really, this is a narrative story that any kid would enjoy (the dog causes lots of trouble!) and the divorce angle is very minor to the story. But, that’s the reason I like it. It’s not the book that will explain divorce to your child, nor the book that will help her figure out her emotions, but it is the book that will show that there are all sorts of normal. That’s a good thing.
Two Homes, by Claire Masurel is another good one for the youngest kids. The main character is a young boy named Alex, who goes back and forth between both parents’ homes. The book focuses on one theme–that Alex is loved by both parents. The last line of the book is particularly sweet: “We love you wherever we are. And we love you wherever you are.”
If you have a favorite that’s not listed here, please leave a comment telling me about it. I’d love to add to my list!
This post contains affiliate links, which means I may receive compensation if you click the links and then buy.
(and if you do, thanks!)
When parents of young children divorce, explaining the concept of divorce is often a great challenge. Books can help with this, in part because they give parents a script to follow, concepts to go along with the words, and pictures that give kids a concrete visual image to go along with the words.
Mama and Daddy Bear’s Divorce, by Cornelia Maude Spelman is a great book about divorce for young children. The story is about “Dinah” (a bear,) who loves her family but tells us that: “…one day, something sad happened. Mama and Daddy said they were going to get a divorce.” Dinah talks about her feelings (sad and scared) and some of her inner questions. She talks to her parents about her feelings, and both parents reassure her that they will always be her mama/daddy. As the book progresses, she describes how she spends time with both parents separately. Her parents make some mistakes, but the theme of parental love and involvement persists. The book concludes by saying that after time she feels less sad, and that her parents and sister will always be her family. It’s a peaceful and positive ending.
I highly recommend this book, available at your public library, or from amazon here.