THE BLOG

Telling Your Kids About the Split: The Six Most Common (Well-Intended) Mistakes

05/28/2013 12:04 pm ET | Updated Jul 25, 2013
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"This is the hardest thing I've ever had to do. I don't even like telling my kids they need a shot. How can I tell them we're breaking up?"

In my practice, I hear agonized comments like this every day.

It's devastating to feel you're inflicting injury on your own child. For parents, anticipating The Talk can be the worst part of divorce. Sometimes, in an effort to ease the pain, we cause more.

Here are the six most common unintended mistakes made by well-intentioned parents:

1. Telling your kids you still love each other

If you've ever been told "I love you, but I'm not in love with you," you know how hard it can be to grasp the distinction. Degrees of love are abstract; they're confusing to young kids and frustrating to older ones. If you tell your teenager "Mom and I still love each other, just not in that way," they'll likely retort "If you love each other at all, why can't you suck it up and stay married?"

It's tough to find the right words. Here are some examples:

For young children try:
"No, we don't love each other anymore. But that only happens with adults. Parents never fall out of love with their kids. Though we'll be living apart, we'll still take care of you together."

For school age children and teenagers try:
"We don't love each other anymore. But we've been together a long time and care deeply about each other. The main thing is that we want to support each other in being the best parents we can be."

2. Telling your kids you're "trying living apart for a while"

It's a case of cruel to be kind.

Before your kids can adjust to the "new normal," they'll need to grieve. If you give them a reason to hope you'll reconcile, they'll hold on to it for dear life. Most trial separations end in divorce. So even if you're nurturing hope, it's best to be definitive. If you reconcile, your kids will be pleasantly surprised. If you don't, they won't feel you've strung them along.

3. Trying to spin this as a good thing

Especially if you and your future ex have been openly fighting, your kids may experience relief once you're separated -- and it's fine to say that. But cheery comments like "It'll be great, you'll get to decorate a brand new bedroom!" or "Mom's gonna get a puppy for her apartment!" don't match the sadness of your message and will confuse kids or dampen the authenticity of their reactions. Later, once things have sunk in and the healing has begun, helping them to focus on the positives (including the fun of setting up a second home) will be important.

4. Insisting on telling the kids together when you can't do it well

It's true: experts agree it's best for divorcing parents to be together when they break the news. A joint discussion conveys that Mom and Dad are on the same page, sets the tone for effective co-parenting, and ensures that you're both available to answers questions and offer comfort in the moment. But if you ooze mutual contempt, can't exchange two words without snarling and/or are unable agree on a shared message for the kids, don't force it.

Better to have separate calm conversations than to risk a shared disaster.

5. Trying to be stoic

When parents tell me they're worried they'll cry when they tell their kids about the divorce, I say "You probably will, and that' s fine."

It's a sad conversation; it makes sense to be sad.

Putting on an artificially brave face will have same effect as putting on an artificially happy one -- it will create confusion.

Finally....

6. Putting pressure on yourselves to get it exactly right

I've talked to hundreds of adult children of divorce about the moment they learned their parents were splitting up. While most of them have vivid recollections, I'm always struck that what they remember best isn't the words, but the feelings.

Yes, you should prepare for talking to your kids. You and your spouse need to decide what to say, anticipate likely questions, and get into good enough emotional shape to be responsive. But even though you know your children well, you can't predict their reactions. Your normally inquisitive 8 year-old may put her hands over her ears. Your even-keeled 14 year-old may throw his first temper tantrum. I've known kids of all stripes to simply shrug and ask if they can go outside. These are all normal reactions.

Don't make yourself crazy trying to write the "perfect" script. Whether you and your spouse do this together or separately, aim to create an environment in which your child

  • feels safe to express a full range of feelings (sadness, anger, fear, relief)
  • is reassured that he or she will be cared for and loved by both parents
  • knows that he or she is not to blame for what's happening, and
  • is reassured they won't have to choose sides

If it helps, remember: The Talk is just the beginning of an ongoing conversation between you and your kids that will evolve over time.

You'll have lots of chances to get it right.

To learn more about divorce, parenting, therapy and other things Kate thinks about, visit her on Facebook (Kate Scharff, MSW) or on her blog (www.katescharff.com).