How to Talk to Your Children About Your Divorce: 5 Tips Every Parent Should Know
The scariest part of divorce for many parents is breaking the news to the kids. Fortunately, experts in child psychology have done a lot of research on how to have this conversation with your children in a way that minimizes the trauma as much as possible. After reading numerous articles on the subject, it seems that most experts agree that parents should keep the following five issues in mind when it is time for the divorce “talk.”
Stick Together: I know, I know. If you were able to “stick together” on anything during the course of your marriage you wouldn’t be getting divorced in the first place, right? If it is at all possible to have the conversation with your children with both parents present, you should. Most child psychologists agree that presenting a “joint front” during the divorce conversation is reassuring to children. With that said, there are exceptions. If you believe that it will be impossible to have that conversation with your spouse without one of you assigning blame, name-calling, or yelling then you should have the conversation separately. Ditto if your soon to be ex is likely to be impaired during the conversation due to drug or alcohol abuse. And, obviously, if you are leaving the marriage because your spouse is physically abusive, you should have the divorce conversation with just your children present.
Suggest Questions: Make it clear to your children during your conversation that they are free to ask questions now and in the future. If your children are very young, you can even suggest questions. Open the door by saying, “Some kids when their parents get divorced want to know (fill in the blank.) If that is something you would like to know, you can always ask me.” If they don’t have any questions at the moment because they are trying to process the news, suggest to them that they will probably have questions as time goes on and it is better to ask questions than to walk around wondering about something that they are concerned about.
Reassure Children About Their Future: Kids pick up the little information they have about divorce from movies, TV, and their friends on the schoolyard. They know of children who have had to move and leave their school as a result of divorce; they see news stories of parents who have “kidnapped” their children during a custody dispute. Now is the time to reassure them about their future to the extent that you know. For example, where the children are close to both parents and there is no physical abuse or substance abuse at issue, the kids will want to know that both parents are going to continue to be active in their lives. (For some parents this is so obvious that they fail to mention it!) If you are able to keep your house and they will remain in the same school, let them know.
Tell Them They are Innocent: Children frequently conclude that it is their fault that their parents are getting divorced. They don’t view the issue as one between adults; they only see that one parent is leaving them. This is especially true where they witnessed fights over different parenting philosophies. Mom to Dad: “Get off the couch and toss a ball to your kid!” Dad to Mom: “The reason Johnny is failing math is because you don’t make his homework a priority. You are such a bad mother!” The child in this situation concludes from these fights that the divorce is their fault. Make it very clear to them that they are loved very much by each parent, and that your problems are adult problems that were not caused by them.
Spread the News: Immediately after you break the news to your children, share the news with the other important adults in their lives: teachers, clergy, coaches, significant relatives, and the parents of their closest friends. Frequently, kids appear to their parents like they are “unaffected” by the divorce, but fall apart in other areas of their life. This makes perfect sense. Children frequently “act” like they are fine at home because they don’t want to add to their parents’ emotional burden. Meanwhile, they may be unable to concentrate in school, or withdraw from their friends. Advise those that you tell to keep a look out for any signs of distress that your child may be exhibiting so that you can get them the help they need.
There are few conversations in life as difficult as the one where you tell your children that you are getting a divorce. Following these five tips will make this emotional conversation easier for both you and your children.
By Wendy Jaffe, Esq.