Originally posted July 1, 2009
Divorce certainly isn't something we expect when we marry, but
when things don't turn out as we planned, and when adjustments in
expectations or circumstances are not possible or are insufficient,
sometimes a decision to divorce is made.
When this happens, someone has to tell the children.
It's hard enough for adults to make sense of divorce, no matter
who initiates it. Imagine what it's like for a child?
Imagine how it feels to have the two people you love most in the
world decide that they no longer love each other enough to live
together. Perhaps you already know what this feels
like. What do you wish your parents had said to you?
How do you wish they had said it? What questions did you have
when your parents divorced?
It's helpful if divorcing couples can collaborate on how to
deliver the news and do it together, with all of the children
present. While this may not seem possible to you now,
consider that doing so would send a strong message to your children
that you intend to continue working together for their sakes.
Not sure you're in a place to pull this off? A mediator or
therapist can support you in deciding how to do it, which can be
particularly helpful in acrimonious situations.
Hostility needs to take a time-out during this delicate
discussion with your children.
Your children will want to know why the divorce is
happening. Be honest but discreet. They don't need to
hear everything. Many children wonder if divorce is their
fault, so it's extremely important to tell them that nothing that
they did caused your divorce and nothing they could have done would
have prevented it.
Children whose parents divorce also commonly worry, "If my
parents stopped loving each other, will they ever stop loving
The first time you discuss your divorce with your kids will be a
time for tons of reassurance. Let them know that you both
will always love them. You may not be staying married, but
they will always be your children. Tell your kids what you
know about the specific changes they can expect, but resist the
urge to assuage your own feelings of guilt by making any grand
gestures or promises unless you're absolutely positive that you can
follow through on them.
Just as you are experiencing a myriad of confusing and shifting
emotions, so are your children. They may feel betrayed, and
on some level might not even be surprised (some will even feel
relief). It will take time for them to adjust to this news,
so be patient and understand that nothing they feel or express
during this time will be irrational or abnormal (this does not mean
that you shouldn't respond to misbehavior, however, though a little
bit of latitude is reasonable). On the flip side, sometimes
parents get very little in the way of a response, for a
while. Give your children time and space to sort out the
news. This apparent stoicism may shift in time.
Children will follow your lead about how to emotionally respond
to your divorce. It's unrealistic that they won't ever see
you shed a few tears, but remember to never turn your kids into
confidantes. This burden can impede their adjustment to their
own new circumstances. While it can feel somewhat
gratifying to disclose certain details of your divorce to your kids
as a way of interpreting for them the truth of your breakup as you
perceive it, remember that it's usually in your child's best
interest to maintain a positive connection to his other parent,
particularly his same-gendered parent. Your children's
developing self-esteem can be greatly impacted by how he and others
regard his same-gendered parent, so avoid speaking negatively about
your ex in front of your children.
No matter how you talk to your children about your divorce -
even if you manage to turn lemons into lemonade and spin your
challenges into a grand new adventure - leave room for grief.
Divorce is not unlike a death: it is the death of your
family's way of being in the world as you knew it, and you may all
feel moments of tremendous grief for a long time. There's no
statute of limitations on grief, so be patient and gentle with
yourself and your children as you all try to make sense of this
confusing transition. Divorce may not be what you
planned, but you can help your children to weather this change in
Tips for Parents:
* There are several books for children which can help them make
sense of their parents' divorce, which can easily be find in
bookstores and libraries. My all-time favorite for younger
kids is the picture book Dinosaurs Divorce by Marc Brown,
but I strongly caution you to pre-read anything you plan to share
with your children: some books address topics relating to divorce
that you may not be ready to discuss with your kids or which don't
apply to your particular situation. No book will quiet all of
the worries your children may have, but they can be a place to
start, a sort of springboard into further discussion. Sharing
a book about divorce with your child communicates to him that his
feelings are normal, that he is not alone with his worries, and
that it's okay to ask questions and to talk about his concerns.
* Try, whenever possible, to inform older children (ten and
older) of definite changes as early as possible (though waiting
until later can work better with little ones), and make efforts to
involve all of your children in any decision-making that can help
them to feel some sense of control. Once a new home has been
chosen, for example, involve them in decisions about how to
decorate their new bedrooms or other spaces.
Jennifer DuBose, M.S., C.A.S., is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in Batavia.
See more of Jennifer's stories here.
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