10 Things to Remember When
Telling the Children About Your Divorce
I remember today, fifty years later, walking in on my grandparents when one said, “Well, maybe we should just get a divorce.” That is one of the most vivid memories of my childhood. I was very close to my grandparents, as they cared for me each day while my parents worked, but still they were JUST my grandparents. I can only imagine how much more indelible that memory is for children in divorce. So, if you are going to be getting or even considering/discussing getting a divorce, please be mindful of how and when you tell the children. There is no way to avoid it being one of the worst moments, days, and periods of their lives, but you can help it just be a sad memory rather than a catastrophic scar from which they may never recover. Ever imagine playing God? This is the one time you hold that kind of power in your hands—handle that power with care.
- Don’t let them overhear it. You want to be able to set up the conditions in which they hear this terrible news break so that the trauma will be lessened.
- Tell them together. Unless there is some reason, like the other parent has disappeared, has a serious chemical dependency addiction or debilitating depression, or is in jail, tell the children together that you are getting a divorce.
- Don’t let them think it is their fault. They are going to have questions, that they may or may not share with you, and the most important one may be, was it something they did or something they didn’t do? You know that is a ridiculous question—of course they didn’t cause the divorce nor can they stop it, but they don’t know that, so make sure you consult with experts or get educated on the way to tell them to save them as much heartache as you can.
- Don’t EVER blame or badmouth the other parent. Children are made up of both parents, and if you blame the other parent, the child will be hurt by that because they love and identify with that parent. This is an adult problem—keep as much of it as you can between the adults.
- Tell them that you LOVE them. Explain to them, in an age appropriate way, that relationships between grown-ups sometimes change but a parents’ love NEVER changes—that you love them and that both of you will be with them every step of the way during this time and in the future.
- Let them feel what they feel. If your children are sad, let them be sad. If they are quiet, let them be quiet. If they are mad, let them be mad. Do not minimize their feelings with clichés that will make you feel better. Don’t tell them they have to be strong, not cry, be the “man of the house” now, and other clichés that avoid the children and the parents doing the hard work of processing their feelings. It will only delay the inevitable and often makes it worse.
- Stay the parents. On the other hand, if a child acts out, explain to them that you understand why they are doing that, but maintain routines, boundaries and discipline so that they have a feeling of security—show them that they can still count on you to be the parent and take care of them. Try to work together with the other parent to be a united front with the children so that they continue feeling secure in your parenting. As I said in a previous blog, this can be a teaching moment, if handled well. And similarly,
- Do NOT make or let the child become an adult. Some children are put in the position of comforting or becoming the companion of a parent who is now alone. Some children are just born nurturers, but during this period of adjustment, do not let them do that. Any therapist will tell you that when a child takes on the role of an adult (taking on the role of the parent), it will be psychologically and emotionally damaging to them, sometimes irreparably, which will affect their ability to have successful adult relationships of their own later in their lives.
- Define some terms for them. Explain to them, in an age appropriate way, what divorce IS and what it ISN’T. Tell them that their parents have decided that the whole family will be happier if the mom and dad live in separate homes, but that the children will have their place in each of the parent’s homes, that they will still see each parent and that they will still be a family. Explain to them, for illustration, that when you moved out of your parents’ home you and your parents were still a family.
- Let them/enable them to be kids. After the discussion is had and the bad news is delivered, when a little time has passed, take the children out for a milkshake, to the park, to a museum, to an activity that they enjoy—something that is fun for them. Read to them, hug them, spend lots of time with them, joke with them, tickle them. They, like you, will have sadness, anger, fear and the whole gambit of emotions related to this bombshell, but if you enable them to also be kids, they will realize, as will you, that life goes on and that eventually, it will be okay again.
Robin Watts, a therapist and member of the Denton County Collaborative Professionals, did a blog on this subject, which offers even more tips on ways to tell the children. You can find it here.
Vicky Lansky, in her landmark,”Divorce Book for Parents,” has an even more extensive discussion for consideration when contemplating this situation.