How to talk to your children about your Divorce (Part 1)
In this 3-part series, we discuss how to talk to your children about your Divorce
Divorce can be extremely destabilizing for the whole family: parents, children, and even extended family and friends. While parents are faced with the difficulty of making the decision and working through it, children are at the receiving end of a decision they didn’t have any part in making or causing, and which will substantially change their life. Communicating with your children about the divorce is of utmost importance. It’s not an easy conversation to have, but talking about it will help them cope with the divorce. What and how you communicate with your children will, of course, depend on your specific circumstances and the ages of your children.
We’re going to give you some tips on how you can thoughtfully discuss divorce with your children and help them understand how their lives will change. Parts 2 and 3 of our 3-part series will discuss talking about Divorce to children based on their age group.
- Be thoughtful about the setting. You need to be thoughtful about the setting and circumstances for delivering the news, as these will have a long-lasting impact on your children (lifelong, according to Psychology Today). Find an appropriate time and space, and give the news together with the other parent, as a family. This will give the message that many aspects of your family life will change, but the love, care, and security you as parents provide will still be there.
- Don’t Apologize. Avoid apologizing to your children about the divorce. Apologizing implies that you’ve done something wrong and you’re taking the blame. Instead, recognize your children’s pain and tell them you are there to help them through that pain in every way possible.
What you should communicate to your children about Divorce
This will depend on your circumstances and the age of your children. Here are some general guidelines for discussing divorce with your children.
During the Early Stages of Divorce
- Tell your children it is not their fault. This message should be repeated throughout and after the divorce. Getting a divorce is an adult decision caused by adult problems. Be clear about the fact that your children are not responsible for it and cannot fix the problem or influence the decision.
- Do not blame or bad mouth the other parent. Children see themselves as equal parts of both parents. Blaming or insulting the other parent will only hurt the children, affect their self-esteem, and their relationship with both parents. They won’t feel comfortable being with either parent without “betraying” the other.
- Don’t divulge too much information. You don’t need to elaborate on the reasons of the divorce. You can explain that you and the other parent no longer love each other as a couple should.
- Be practical and focus on the children. Give them information about the new scenarios. Tell them how their day-to-day life will change: who will move out, where the children will live. Describe a tentative schedule: where and with whom the children will be with on what days. You and the other parent should try to decide on key child-related issues before talking with your children so that you can communicate the changes to them as harmoniously as possible.
- Reassure your children that you’re still part of their lives. Tell your children that you and the other parent will still be parents together and you both will still be involved in their school, health matters, and any other extra activities, such as sports, religious practices, etc.
- Tell your children that you care for their happiness and wellbeing. Make a commitment to model that care. It is important that you actually behave in the manner that you tell them you will. Be true to your promises when it comes to the children’s activities, time and involvement in their lives, and also in how you treat and interact with their other parent.
Throughout and after the Divorce
- Keep adult issues separate from the children, regardless of their age. For example, do not share details about the legal proceedings and your meetings with your lawyer. It will only put an unnecessary burden on your children and will likely cause additional stress.
- Don’t use the children to send messages to the other parent and don’t ask the children about the other parent’s life. This seemingly harmless behavior actually puts children in the middle, and they can feel trapped. Also, keep in mind that your children may “craft” the messages to protect the other parent or try to get you two back together.
- Expect signs of distress. These vary largely depending on the children’s age and personality. The most common signs by age group will be described in two upcoming articles. In general, be vigilant and observant. If you do notice signs of distress, take appropriate action. Also keep in mind that if you have more than one child, they most likely will not all respond to the separation and divorce in the same way. Be prepared to deal with individual children in different ways, to be most effective.
- Take the time to talk to your children, and make sure you listen to them. Take the time to understand what they’re saying. In today’s busy world, we don’t often listen as closely as we should. The risk of this happening is even more likely when you’re handling the emotions of a divorce yourself. So be conscious and purposeful in listening to your children and recognizing the subtle messages that they may be sending about what they need from you.
- Get help if needed. For example, explore parenting classes and counseling. Some parents don’t think they need parenting classes, but the classes are actually very helpful. The classes are usually presented by highly qualified professionals. They explore real-life scenarios and are a great opportunity to ask questions and get expert advice. You can check with your local family service agency, your lawyer, or your counselor for information. Some courts require you to attend parenting classes. If that is true in your jurisdiction, actually attend the class and do so with the intention of learning something that will benefit you or your family.
- Help your children develop a strong relationship with both parents. Use co-parenting as much as possible, and minimize their exposure to conflict. Some circumstances might make all of that (and especially co-parenting) particularly challenging, or even impossible. For example, one parent may have walked out on the children, or a child may not want to have a close relationship with one of the parents. These are things you can’t control. Still, even under those circumstances, you should respect and nurture your children’s relationship with both parents and not denigrate the other parent in front of your children.
It is really important to remember that, despite your own anger, anguish, or anxiety, this part of your separation and divorce process is all about the children… not you. Focus on your child(ren). You are the adult and it is your job as their parent to make the consequences of the adult decisions you are making easier for them. A smooth transition into the new family dynamics and routine of co-parenting is essential for your children’s happiness and long-term perspective of themselves and both parents.