You and your spouse have decided to divorce. It is difficult enough that you are experiencing a major upheaval in your life. In addition to the feelings you may have of fear, anxiety, anger, or frustration, you also have children. Their lives are changing as well. You hope they haven’t been affected too much by the tension between you and your soon-to-be ex, but you don’t know for sure. What is the best way to tell them? The following is a list of some of the ideas you might want to consider:
- Tell your children together. The strongest message you want your children to have is that while your relationship with their other parent is changing, you are both still their parents and that will not change. They need the most important adults in their lives to provide a safety net for the transitions that are about to happen. When you tell them together, it minimizes the possibility that they will get different information or tell each of you something different about their reactions.
- What about my feelings? The more you keep your hurt and negative feelings to a minimum, the easier it will be for your children to not feel the need to take care of you when they need you to take care of them. You are, however, human and expressing sadness about the divorce is appropriate and helpful to your children in guiding them through their own feelings. How you manage your negative feelings will be an important ingredient in how they experience the divorce at the beginning of the process and for years to come. The less they are exposed to the tender underbelly of your experience the easier it will be for them. Do not malign the other parent. Allow your children to keep the loving feelings they have for both of you.
- Follow their lead. Along the developmental spectrum of their ages, children will need different information and ask different questions. However, all children tend to want to know about the logistics: where will they live, will they continue to go to the same school, can they still see their friends, and how will the holidays work? After giving them the news, allow them to ask the questions that are important to them. Questions may not all come out at the same time. New questions might come up over subsequent days, weeks, or months. Wait for them to let you know what they are ready to hear about. They are excellent guides. It is also possible there will not be any questions right away. They might be angry and resentful at first and not want to talk. Give them time to be ready for more information and they will let you know when that occurs. Plan with the other parent about how you want to answer their questions. While you cannot possibly anticipate all the questions they might have, you can prepare together for many of them, taking the time to make agreements about what you want them to know and how to tell them.
- Choose your words carefully. Talk ahead of time about the “divorce story.” This is a part of the collaborative divorce methodology. Create the story you want your children to have about why the divorce is happening. Take special care to make sure they understand that it is not their fault. Younger children can believe their parents are fighting because of something they did and now the fight has gotten so big that the family is ending. The “divorce story” is also what you are planning on telling people in your community, should you choose to tell them anything at all. Be aware that if the story you tell your children and the story that is out in the world are not the same, there is a good chance your children will hear it anyway, especially when they are older. Plan the story so there isn’t a good parent and a bad parent. Your child’s ability to love both parents is a major factor in how they experience your divorce and it’s aftermath. If the information they are given is negative and they believe one parent is hurting the other, it is a difficult burden for them to bear. Children believe in loyalty and when they are asked to have divided loyalties, it is very confusing for therm and often ends in a child’s becoming angry for being put in the middle.
- Keep the conflict away from them. Through years of extensive research, it is known that the number one contributor to children having a negative experience of their parent’s divorce is conflict. When conflict is absent, the transition from the pre-divorce to post-divorce family is less difficult. With conflict, children carry the scars of the battle between their parents into their own adult relationships.
While this is not a complete list of important considerations, it is a place to start in thinking about how to help your children receive the news that their world is shifting and that they will also be alright.