Telling your children about your divorce

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 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. 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 canfeel 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 your family.

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, butthey 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.

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