One of the most stressful aspects of the divorce process for those of us with kids is dealing with the inevitability, and sadness, of having to explain the divorce to them. When I hit this moment myself, it didn't matter that I had counselled plenty of parents through this already, nor that I knew it would pass and things would get easier; it was still an incredibly difficult moment.
Earlier this year I published a post on how to go public with your divorce, and it got a great response. Talking about divorce is difficult pretty much on every front. With that in mind, I've compiled the wisdom that I've gathered, both from experiencing it myself and from the insight of numerous parents who have come through my doors. Here are some tips for telling your kids that you're getting a divorce: just take it step by step.
1. Wait until it's for sure.
Most couples go through a few "should-we-shouldn't-we" periods, and it's important not to involve the children in your uncertainty during these times. Wait to tell them you're getting a divorce until the process is actually started, legally, so as to avoid putting them through hell just to take it back three weeks later, and then potentially change your mind again a month after that.
2. Present a united front.
Although you might hate each other behind closed doors, in front of the kids, especially now, you need to communicate as a parental unit. Get together beforehand, and plan carefully what you're going to say. You might think you can have this conversation spontaneously, but once you're in the moment, emotions can derail you entirely, and the last thing you want is to end up in an argument.
3. Tell everyone at the same time.
If you have more than one child, it's important that you tell everyone the news at the same time. Even if there's a big age different between the kids, and you think the older ones can handle it---don't ask them to. Nobody should have to keep that secret.
4. Tell the truth.
This is one of those times that sugar-coating is only going to make things worse. "It's going to be hard" is more honest than "It's not that bad...", and will help prepare them for the reality they are about to face. Minimizing the negative is not going to work in this situation. You don't need to go into the details of your broken relationship, but you should be honest about the future: be calm, but be honest.
5. Take mutual responsibility for the divorce.
Behind closed doors there is a lot of apportioning blame during a divorce. However, for the sake of your kids, when you tell them about it, don't blame each other in any way. Instead, take the blame together: "We decided to do this"; "We're sorry." Even if you agree that one parent is to blame versus the other, asking your children to bear that knowledge is not fair, and endangers their relationship with that parent. And if you don't address this aspect--if nobody takes responsibility--it's natural for a kid to blame themselves, and they almost certainly will. To help keep their lives, self-esteem and relationship with you as stable as possible, take the blame together.
6. Emphasize the fact that this doesn't change how either of you feel about them.
Reassurance is one of the most crucial things to offer at this point, and for the foreseeable future. Make sure your kids know that no matter what the domestic situation becomes--who lives with who, for example--you both will continue to love them exactly as much as now.
7. Discuss changes and what to expect.
Uncertainty is going to be a source of anxiety for your kids right now. What you need to do is provide them with parameters and solid things they can count on, as soon as you have the information. The younger the child, the less of a frame of reference they're going to have for what a divorce will mean, so start with the most basic, obvious things, and go from there.
8. Encourage them to express their feelings.
You're probably doing most of the talking at this point. Open the conversation up to be, well, a conversation. They might have no idea what to say, or they might be angry, or they might cry--let them know this is fine. Give them space to do it.
9. Accept their feelings.
One of the most natural things to do is to try to make your kids feel better, and there a lot of constructive ways you can do that, over time. But in the moment, don't try to tell them it's not really that bad, or otherwise minimize what they're dealing with. This is a big deal, and they deserve to feel however they feel about it.
10. Focus on things that matter to them.
One way you can calm the waters without covering up the truth is to focus on things that matter to your kids. Do they play sports? Make sure they know this isn't going to change, and mom and dad will still both go to games (if that's true). Do you have special traditions, like Ice Cream Fridays? Make sure they know you'll keep doing that, even if you take turns. This will also help you set the pace for what will hopefully become a strong co-parenting situation.
11. Set up a support system.
Once you've told your kids, let the other adults in their life know what's going on--even if you don't go into the details--and ask them to keep an eye out for any signs of distress, and to let you know. This probably includes teachers, coaches, babysitters, grandparents, etc. Doing this will help you identify any adjustment problems as they occur, but also it will ensure that there is plenty of support around your child during a time when they need it.
Have questions, or something to add? I'm listening! Leave a comment below or tweet to me.
James J. Sexton