Tips for Talking to Your Children About Your Divorce
Sarah and John tried everything to save their marriage: counseling, vacations, even a trial separation. Yet the fights continued. So, after nights of one or the other sleeping in the guest room, after days of crying, talking, and soul searching, the couple realized that divorce was their last, best option. Although they had ongoing difficult disagreements about money, vacations, work, and much more, they both agreed that their primary concern was the well being of their two children.
They had heard horror stories about children of divorced parents who suddenly started acting out, letting their grades drop from A’s and B’s to D’s and F’s, or skipping school altogether. Stories about children who began yelling, screaming, slamming doors, staying out until all hours, even turning to drugs and alcohol. Of course, they didn’t want this for their own children. They wanted to take care of their children’s needs, but they both felt overwhelmed, not only by their own emotions and frustrations, but also by all the details and complications of their divorce. They didn’t know the best way to tell their children that everyone’s lives were about to radically change. They felt like failures, but that the children did not deserve to be drug into the pain.
Telling children that their parents are getting divorced can be a scary and painful process. Parents frequently ask for the best way to share this news. The truth is there is no “best” way to tell your children that you are divorcing. There are however ways that ease the pain a little, and keep from making the situation worse. Believe it or not, there are children who actually thrive during a divorce process and then in the split home that is to follow. Let’s look at how to make that happen.
Create a mutual story that does not accuse or blame the other parent.
Before telling your children that you are getting divorced, sit down with your partner and come to an agreement about what you are going to say. This is critical: getting different stories from different parents will only make your children more stressed and less able to cope. What you say does not need to be complicated — and it does not have to be the “whole adult truth.” It can be something as simple as “Mom and Dad need to live apart from each other but you will always, always, always, be our children, and you will always be wanted and loved by both of us.” At ALL costs avoid the temptation to blame your spouse for the divorce. Children, especially young ones, do not need to know that your spouse had an affair, or is a gambling addict, or is an alcoholic, or is basically the devil’s sibling and the “root of all evil.” Sharing that type of information only makes children angry, frightened, and confused — and oddly, this approach will often tend to backfire on the blaming parent, causing the children to tend to hang on to the other parent. The blaming parent may suffer a loss of credibility — the children share two people’s DNA; they don’t discard a parent very easily and tend to believe the best. If you attack, you will lose in the long run.
Give your children as much information as they need to understand the situation and to help them feel secure.
Children need help understanding how their lives are going to be affected by their parent’s divorce. This may be their first question — even and innocent and simple as, “Who is going to take care of me?” Be prepared to answer logistical questions about who your children will live with, where they will go to school, and who will drive them to soccer practice and dance class. While you can and should answer your children’s questions as simply and honestly as possible (e.g. “Mom is going to stay here in the house, so during the week while you are in school, you are going to live in the house with Mom”, or “Dad is still going to take you to soccer practice every Saturday and will still take you for ice cream on Tuesdays after school”), labor not to translate your own adult worries onto your children. For example, children need to know that they are still going to live in their house. They do not need to know that your soon-to-be ex-spouse is asking for so much alimony that you do not know how you are going to pay the mortgage.
Your children may also look for seemingly simple ways to keep you and your partner together. It’s very normal for children to ask, for example, why you can’t simply apologize to each other. Address these ideas seriously. For example you might say: “That is a very good idea, and almost always right. We wish that would work here, and we have tried. Sometimes, though, grownups have disagreements that apologies cannot fix.”
Give your children permission to express their feelings in acceptable ways.
Children with divorcing parents may experience a full range of emotions, from sorrow to rage. It is CRITICAL to allow your children to express these emotions. Allow your children to cry, rage, draw, and punch pillows (or a punching bag if one is handy). Many children benefit from attending a support group for children of divorced parents, or from seeing a counselor/therapist one-on-one.
Just as it’s important to give your children appropriate outlets for their emotion, it’s equally important to continue to set limits. You do remain the parents in the room. The rules don’t change just because you and your partner are getting a divorce. Therefore playing parents against one another (e.g. “I bet Dad would let me watch a movie before I study for my test”), refusing to do schoolwork, rudeness, and other unacceptable behaviors do not need to be tolerated — and absolutely cannot be. In the family, things CAN get worse, and allowing unacceptable behaviors by children for any reason can make things much worse for the children — and the adults.
Give your children a certain amount of control.
Multiple studies have shown that children who have some control in the wake of their parents’ divorce ultimately heal faster and come out stronger than their peers who have no say in their own fate. Giving children some control does not mean that they get to dictate every aspect of their lives. You may be divorced but you are still the parent. Instead it means allowing for some flexibility. For instance, if feasible, let children know it’s okay for them to want to spend a specific holiday with one parent as opposed to the other; or that Dad can take them to the baseball game even though it’s technically “your” weekend. Older children may even want some say in the particular custody or visitation arrangement.
Keep their life as “normal” as possible.
Most children take tremendous comfort from routines. As much as possible, allow them to stay on their sports teams and attend their music and art lessons. Give them time to spend with their friends and take them to their regular orthodontist and doctor appointments. They still have to go to school, brush their teeth, and have ice cream for dessert and not breakfast. As much as humanly possible, adjust the parents’ schedules to make the children’s work. They must not now miss every other game or every other lesson because Mom and Dad refuse to be in the same geography. In these situations, the children come first — and mature parents can, and must figure this out.
Take care of your own mental and physical well being
– you cannot support your family if you are falling apart.
A good family law lawyer has likely worked with hundreds of divorcing couples, and can probably confirm that without fail the couples who have a easier time going through the process are those who are also getting the most professional help and support. Divorce, even when it’s the best option, is an emotionally painful and exhausting process — always — even if you aren’t “feeling it” today. You need a safe place to rage, blame, cry, and ultimately begin to heal and move on. Yes, this applies even to the macho men. Your children are going to need you to be there for them emotionally, physically, and psychologically. Your Lawyer is going to need you to be clearheaded and able to answer questions, make decisions, and provide extensive information. You are going to need to work out how to co-parent with your ex, adjust to living in a house without your partner, determine your financial state, and figure out your new future. This takes an engaged and at least relatively healthy individual. You can do this — with the proper help. Take care of you.
The safest and best place to get appropriate help is the office of your counselor/therapist. Your Lawyer can and will listen to you as much as you need, and may have much to offer, but as he or she will tell you, an Attorney is an extremely expensive therapist — and usually Attorneys are not trained for that.
Most important – let the lawyers do the arguing.
While it may be tempting to rant and rail at your ex every time he or she is five minutes late picking up your child, or to demand why he or she cannot pay more child support when there seems to be plenty of money for an annual trip to Europe, fighting (ESPECIALLY in front of your children) will only exacerbate the uncomfortable and unhealthy situation you are enduring — both for you and your children. Remember that if you and your ex could have resolved these types of problems in the first place, you would not now be getting a divorce. You have Attorneys. You are paying them to handle your affairs. Why keep ramming your head into the proverbial brick wall by engaging your spouse to solve problems? This is the definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. You are smarter than that.
When your children hear you and your spouse fight, it only increases their feelings of fear and anger and insecurity, which can lead to acting out — or something psychologically worse. They may start feeling the need to defend one parent, or that they, too, should be angry with a parent for reasons they in all likelihood don’t even understand. On the flipside, your Attorney is experienced in helping to resolve these issues, and it is his or her job to be your advocate and to do the fighting/negotiating for you. Letting your Attorney take this on allows you to continue to put your energies into you and on building your new life. Hit the gym, start a new hobby, go back to school — let your Attorney deal with your weird soon-to-be ex.
Telling your children you are getting a divorce can be the most difficult part of a divorce. However, with some patience, and focus on the bigger picture, you can masterfully assist them as they work through it emotionally. As mentioned above, there are children who thrive during a divorce and then in the split home that is to follow. The ONLY common denominator in these situations however is mature, focused parents. Self-control on your part, and allowing your Lawyer to do his or her job on your behalf, can make the process a little less painful and more manageable for your children, and for you. They might even thrive through it! Go for it. You and your family can and WILL get through this.