Tips to try
Divorce may not be what you planned, but you can help your children to weather this change in your family.
• There are several books for children that can help them make sense of their parents' divorce. 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 that you may not be ready to discuss with your kids or that don't apply to your situation. 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 OK to ask questions and to talk about his concerns.
• Try, whenever possible, to inform older children (10 and older) of definite changes as early as possible 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.
PARENTING ISN'T FOR sissies
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 aren't possible or are insufficient-it happens.
When it does, 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 they no longer love each other enough to live together. Perhaps you already know what this feels like.
It's helpful if divorcing couples can collaborate on how to deliver the news and can do it together, with all of the children present. While this may not seem possible to you, consider that doing so would send a strong message to your children that you are able and 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 this, 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 be discreet. They don't need to hear everything. Many children wonder if the divorce is their fault, so it's extremely important to tell them that nothing 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 me?"
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. 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 myriad 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 you shouldn't respond to misbehavior, though a little bit of latitude is reasonable).
On the flip side, sometimes parents get very little in the way of a response. Give your children time and space to sort out the news.
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. While it can seem somewhat gratifying to disclose certain details of your divorce to your kids, 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 child'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. So be patient with yourself and your children as you all try to make sense of this confusing transition.
Jennifer DuBose, M.S., C.A.S., is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in Batavia. She has been a clinical member of The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy since 1995 and is a featured blogger at ChicagoParent.com.