9 Thoughts about How to Talk to Kids about Divorce
Do you remember when you were a kid and your parents told you something REALLY bad? Like one of your grandparents died or maybe someone you loved suddenly died in a car accident? Do you remember weird details about THAT day and the time right before they told you? I remember the day my grandpa died. I was in Mrs. Franco's French class. I was 12. I was sitting in back of the class looking out the window, bored and worried about my grandpa, because we knew he did not have long. It was a bitter cold, grey January day in Michigan. My dad came to the door of my French class and knocked and asked to speak to me. I was wearing a red sweater and blue jeans. After he told me in the hallway, I remember burying my head into my dad's chest and the feel of his tan trench coat on my skin. That day is forever burned in my brain and it was 33 years ago! As a Co-Parenting Counselor, I offer the following thoughts about how to tell your children about your decision to divorce. I understand, though, that every family and divorce is unique with your own special circumstances, but perhaps a few of these thoughts will be helpful as you prepare for that day.
Remember the day
I can ask any one of my younger clients about the day they found out about their parent's divorce and they can recall the most bizarre details. Often they remember what they are wearing, what they were doing right before they were told, where they sat when they were told, and the exact date and time. Let’s just say THIS moment will be a monumental day in their lives. One they will never forget. Why? Because it is traumatic for kids and marks the end of their family as they knew it. It is important to be mindful of that. Therefore, do not plan to tell them around holidays, birthdays, or special times to forever tarnish those days. Try and pick a pretty obscure day. Remain calm while also showing appropriate amounts of grief, shows your kids that this is hard for you too. Its OK and good to show them that. Reassuring them that this will be difficult but our family will make it, will also give them hope. Fighting in front of them while telling them (this includes any negative nonverbal communication), will not give them hope for their future.
Do it together
Depending on the circumstances and age of your children, I believe it is best to try and tell your children together about your separation or divorce. They deserve to have both parents there, if at all possible. They should see both of your reactions and desire to work together as co-parents. This is NOT the time for competition over the other parent. Your child will forever remember this. While this is a painful decision for everyone, it is important for them to see your grief, and also be reminded your family will not be defined by divorce. There is hope. Divorce is not the final word to your family and both of their parents will work very hard to remain friends and co-parent them together.
Who to blame
BOTH of you. Studies have shown that it is helpful for children to have both parents share in some of the responsibility for the breakdown of the marriage. Of course, that is hard when there is infidelity, abuse or addiction that ended the marriage. For the betrayed or hurt partner accepting blame on both sides will be hard to see in the midst of their anger and pain as you tell your kids. However, the dysfunction that each of you played in your marriage (including the betrayed or hurt partner) will become a lot clearer the longer you are out of your marriage, especially if you do your own therapy and recovery work. You may not be able to see it now, but codependency can play just as big a role in dysfunction as any addiction can. Often those addicted are much more willing to see and admit they are sick before the "good and capable codependents" are. Take responsibility. It will help your kids. If you blame one parent for the breakdown of the marriage, you may end up either intentionally or unintentionally aligning your children with one parent and rejecting the other parent. This can be the beginning of parental alienation. According to Dr. Kruk in his article "The Impact of Parent Alienation on Children" these children often end up hating themselves and feeling intense amounts of guilt for hating their other parent. Perhaps the scariest of all is that kids who "learn" to alienate a parent as children, often go on to do the same thing in the future to their children.
Follow their lead
Keep it simple. Limit your explanation to a few sentences. Answer their questions when they are asked. Children will generally let you know when they are interested in finding out more about a “grown up” issue. Younger children often don’t need a detailed explanation of what is going on. Example: “Why don’t you and mommy live in the same house?” Response: “Sometimes grownups live better in two different houses.” Teenagers, however, will need a lot more time to process, but that process may not happen when you tell them. It may happen in a week, a month or in a few years. Always be willing to talk and process with them, but don't bash your co-parent. Be curious about what they are feeling, instead of falling into lecturing them. Example: "It sounds like you are really mad at the way Mom handled that with you. I'm wondering why...". You don't have to fix everything. Sometimes they just need a safe place to go to talk and all they need is to hear "That sounds really hard. I'm sorry. I love you." Resist the urge to fix and lecture your teenagers.
Continue to narrate
If you messed up how you told your children and wished you could have done it better, guess what? You can! As their parent you can continue to write your narrative about why the marriage failed and how divorce is not the final word for their family. Just like you will not have one conversation about sex (as a counselor, I hope not!) you can continue to have conversations about their family. Sharing fun memories, watching home videos (it may take you a few years to get to this point, but it can be possible!), and narrating the family history to your children is very important. They need to hear why you fell in love with the other parent and what you loved about them. You are one of the only storytellers they have to their family.
After telling them about the divorce it is important that you maintain stability. This is not the time for fancy trips or big purchases. Maintain structure and stability. You cannot buy your kid's love. They need to know that while things will change there is still some stability and structure in place in both homes. Same bedtimes. Same rules. Same structure. This will also go a long way in maintaining a good co-parenting relationship, and your kids will learn they cannot manipulate each of you separately. Read my blog on pick up/ drop off and schedules.
Include your support system
This is not the time to isolate your family and crawl in a hole. Divorce happens. If you isolate, you are covertly telling your kids they have something to be ashamed of. Tell your family, friends, babysitters, teachers, and your children’s friends parents. Call your close friends over for dinner and share the news, so the kids know its OK to talk about this. Make a plan of how your family and friends can support your family at this time. The more open you are about your situation, the more freedom your kids feel and know there is nothing to be ashamed of.
Find a counselor or a support group for your kids. Divorce can be incredibly isolating for kids. Kids can feel like they are the only ones going through it. Packing bags every other week or weekend can be a real pain to their social schedule. Having a counselor to talk to can help kids vent their anger, confusion and pain. Kids may be afraid to talk about their sadness for fear of making their parents sad, so they hold it in. So, find them a safe place to talk. Also, find some other families that are divorced for your kids to hang out with. You may try a divorce support group for yourself to find some adults going through what you are dealing with, so you have a place to share your feelings with people who- get it. This can be incredibly validating in terms of knowing you are not alone or crazy in what you are feeling.
Feel your feelings
Feel your feelings but remain in touch with your child, which is easier said then done, when in the fog of grief. Young children can be especially sensitive to parental mood swings. When parents get upset, children can become their caregiver. It is OK to cry and grieve. It is not OK to not be able to get out of bed and function. When you are crying reassure them. “Mom/Dad is having a really hard time now. But I know I will be OK. And you will be OK. We will be OK.”
Lastly, suffering happens. As a Christian, I hold to the Truth that we live in a broken world. We cannot and should not shield our children from disappointment or pain. In every broken circumstance, we have a chance to learn and grow about our God and ourselves. You can use this time to narrate to your kids how to cope with pain in a healthy way and point them to God, because no one avoids pain in life no matter how hard they try.
If you are stuck in your co-parenting relationship and not sure how to move forward, co-parenting counseling with me can help! Please email at firstname.lastname@example.org or call me at 205-538-3978 or go online to schedule an appointment.
If you enjoyed this blog you might enjoy my other blogs on coparenting! Click here to check them out!
Sara Dungan, M.Ed, LMFT, ALC, NCC, Certified Parenting Coordinator, Divorce and Family Mediator (Domestic Violence Trained) has her private practice called Sparrow Counseling in Birmingham, AL. She specializes in Parenting Coordination, Co-Parenting Counseling and Divorce and Family Mediation. Her passion is helping parents learn how to become successful coparents, so their children can thrive after their divorce. Contact Sara at email@example.com.