“By and large their central complaint is that no one had explained the divorce to them and that the reasons were shrouded in mystery. When reasons were offered, they sounded to them like platitudes designed to avoid telling what really happened. Their parents said, we were different people, we had nothing in common.” – Wallerstein, Lewis & Blakeslee (2000, p. 33)
“I’m still angry that my parents never explained the divorce to me” – An adult child of divorce (ibid, p. xiv)
Explaining divorce to children is probably the most difficult part of talking with kids about divorce. It’s for this reason that proper explanations are frequently never given. Yet explaining the divorce is also one of the most important things you will do, because these explanations can have a profound effect on the messages a child carries with them into the future: what marriage is, what it means to be a family, how they interpret their role in the divorce, how they feel about their parents as people or as role models, and so on.
There are several key areas of explanation that must be given:
- Explaining what divorce means
- Explaining why you’re getting divorced
- Explaining the divorce process
How to Explain Divorce to Children
Explaining divorce tip #1: Ask kids what they understand about divorce
Before you offer your own explanations for what is happening, start off by asking children what they understand about divorce. Kids begin forming their own explanations as soon as they find out the news, based on their own presumptions or information they’ve picked up from peers. Ask them if they have any friends whose parents divorced and if so, what they learned from this. Children will often pick up bits of information here and there, along with many concerns or fears. But kids seldom volunteer information about these suspicions or fears without being prompted. Having them explain what divorce means from their perspective will help you get their beliefs out in the open, letting you address any real or irrational ideas they might have.
Explaining divorce tip #2: Never make assumptions about what the child knows
It’s quite common for parents to assume that the child already knows the reasons for the divorce. They’ve overheard the fighting, they’ve witnessed the disconnect with each other, and so the parents assume the child has made the connection. This is a mistake. Many kids – and young children especially – may not make a connection between parental fighting and their parents’ separation. Even when they witness family turmoil, this may not always equate to divorce in their mind. .
Explaining divorce tip #3: Honesty is the best policy
Be as honest as you can, without giving them any information that is going to injure their relationship with the other parent or provoke a child to take sides. For example, younger kids don’t need to know about a spouse’s affair if it can be avoided, nor should you tell them one parent wants to stay married but the other is pushing for divorce. Although you should try to be as open and honest as possible, there are a select few situations where it’s okay to say “some things are just personal between me and your mother/father.”
Explaining the Reasons for the Divorce
Divorce will impact the lives of your children profoundly, and they have a right to know why you’re getting divorced. So it’s your duty to explain your reasons for the divorce in a way they can understand. Here are some discussion guidelines to help you in this matter.
Let kids know they didn’t cause the divorce
Start off by reassuring the children that they did not cause the divorce, and that they are not at fault for your marriage failing. This may seem obvious to adults, but it isn’t always so obvious to kids. Parents will frequently argue about issues related to the kids: A child’s interests or behavior, discipline, and other issues related to parenting. Children are likely to remember this, and to dwell upon these instances when trying to think about all the things that might have caused the split.
If kids have overheard arguments that revolved around them, you should let them know that these arguments were a symptom of other frustrations that come with a failed marriage, not the cause of it. Explain that when people are stressed or unhappy with each other, it can turn little things into big arguments. They didn’t create the stress, and any arguments over them were minor things that seemed bigger because they happened on top of all the other stress.
Of course, one of the primary reasons children revert to blaming themselves is because parents tend to keep other issues secretive. Children will spend every available moment thinking about and trying to make sense of what is happening in their lives. In the absence of other explanations, they’ll form their own based on what they know, and that’s the interactions between them and their parents.
Explaining why you’re getting divorced
Children should be given some tangible reasons for the divorce, and this should be decided upon (and well-rehearsed) ahead of time. Here are some tips and guidelines for that:
A) Your explanations should find fault with both sides. Even if the situation is more one sided, you need to find ways that each parent contributed to the failure.
B) You should explain that neither parent intended for the divorce to happen or planned for things to work out this way.
C) The reality is you’re not divorcing for anyone but you. The kids know this…you’re certainly not fooling them by pretending otherwise. So you should talk to them about your needs, and how these needs aren’t being met.
Start off by explaining that adults have needs, too. Just like kids need certain things from their parents, (love, affection, protection, food and warmth, etc.), married people need certain things from each other. Tell them about some of these needs: “I need someone I can talk to and turn to for comfort/ I need a grown-up who loves me for being me/ I need a partner I’m not going to fight with all the time/ I need someone who will offer support, not tear me down,” etc.
Then put it in terms they can understand, by talking about some of the things they really need from you, such as love or comfort or affection. Ask them to imagine what they’d feel if they weren’t getting these things from you. They’d be pretty unhappy. They’d probably be pretty desperate to find ways to meet these needs from others, perhaps by turning to teachers for affection or searching for someone who would love them. This is sort of how married people feel when a marriage isn’t working. They get divorced so that each person can look for someone else who will meet these needs.
D) If marital infidelity is a primary cause of the divorce, you can explain this to younger kids by talking about love and interest without mentioning the sexual aspect: “Love requires devotion, and when it comes to your father and I, we can’t seem to give devotion to each other in the ways we need. There’s too much interest in other people and not enough focus on each other.”
E) Talk about some of the things (both specifically and in general) that is making each of you so unhappy: Even when we try to be nice to each other, it seems like past hurts always come up and we end up arguing. It’s gotten so tense and uncomfortable that it’s like walking on eggshells. It’s not fun to live like that … stressed out all the time.
F) Many divorces occur because one spouse has an obvious problem, and if this is the case, it’s okay to tell children as much so long as you do it without bashing the other parent: “I really love your father, but he can’t seem to get his gambling under control. / Even though your mom tries really hard to stop drinking, she can’t seem to do it. As much as I love your mother, she turns into a completely different person when she’s drinking, and it trashes our relationship with each other. / Your father has many good qualities, but he can’t control his temper, and when he gets angry, he yells and hits too much. I just can’t live like that any longer, and I don’t want you kids growing up around that kind of stuff.” Whatever your reason, remember that it’s possible to discuss a person’s faults without resorting to condemnation or harsh judgments.
Talk about what you did to try and reconcile things
Parents should be ready to discuss what things they have done to try and save the marriage. Did you go to counseling? Did you give each other second and third chances? What specifically did you do to try and work on the problem you’re having? This will be one of the first things your kids will want to know. They may interrogate you about what you’ve done to try and salvage things, or grill you about why you aren’t trying harder. Be prepared with some answers.
Explain why things can’t be salvaged
- Next you should share some of the thought processes that went into your decision to divorce:
- You’ve tried and tried to get along better, but have come to the conclusion that things between you can only grow worse.
- You don’t want to continue living in an unhappy situation, and that neither of you are happy with the marriage.
- You don’t want to live a lie, pretending that everything is fine when it really isn’t.
- You don’t want them to think that your failing marriage is the best that marriage can offer, because it isn’t.
- You don’t want to continue arguing in front of them.
- You hope that by separating, it will fix these problems so that each of you can get along better and be a much better parent to them.
- You hope that by separating, you’ll get along better with each other and can go back to being friends.
Tell them about why you got married
Your final task, and one of the most important, is to talk to them about why you got married in the first place. Go out of your way to discuss the dreams and aspirations you had when you got married, and how happy you were when they were born. Talk about all the wonderful moments you had together in times past, and how much you loved each other when you got married.
This does two important things: First, it helps children empathize with you, recognizing that this decision wasn’t easy or done in haste and that it’s not something you’re approaching lightly. Second, it helps to combat the sentiment that they are the leftovers of a bad marriage that nobody wanted – feelings divorced children are often plagued with. You want them to understand that they were born out of love, not anger and resentment.
Explaining the Divorce Process to Kids
Apart from what caused the divorce, the other thing kids will want to know is what divorce means, and specifically, what it will mean for them in their lives. Here are some tips for explaining the process of divorce:
Explaining What Divorce Is: The Basics
The first thing you should do is cover the basics of what, precisely, a divorce is…
- When people marry, they enter into a legal arrangement with each other. A divorce is a legal proceeding that ends this marriage, ending that agreement, so that two people can separate and live their own lives apart from each other.
Explaining the Process of Divorce
When parents get divorced, it means several changes in family life:
- It means mom and dad will each go their own separate ways in life
- It means mom and dad will live in separate homes, and that you’ll take turns spending time with each of them.
- It means they won’t share money anymore, so both parents will have to work.
- It means mom and dad will have to go before a judge or a mediator where they will decide things like how to best take care of you or how to divide things they currently share. A judge may also ask questions about what you want to happen.
- It means your mom and/or dad may start dating other people or forming other relationships.
Children should be told that some things will stay the same while other things will change. It’s best to have some things that will stay stable in their lives to talk to them about. This will help them hold onto some sense of normalcy, and should reduce the anxiety they feel. Even giving basic things such as “you’ll still have a snug bed, and your favorite blankie to snuggle up with. You’ll always have one of us right there by your side. You’ll still have one of us to tuck you into bed at night” can help. These basic stabilities offer a small degree of comfort. If you can further explain that they’ll still take dance lessons, go to the same school or be able to have certain friends over, that’s even better.
Next, follow this basic explanation with some of the following discussion points:
Divorce ends a marriage, but it does not dissolve family
Reassure children that even though you are ending your marriage, that doesn’t mean you are ending your relationship. It’s just going to be a different type of relationship. The two of you are connected together via the kids, and will always have some type of relationship. You’re still family, even if not living under the same roof. Assuming the two of you plan to be civil with one another during and after the divorce, you should explain that the two of you will become more like friends, talking and seeing each other periodically while partnering to raise them. If things aren’t going well, it’s best to cool it on the “friend” talk (rather than lie to them) but you can still explain that you’ll have an ongoing relationship of some kind. Your relationship to each other shifts from being husband and wife to being part of a family that is more like Uncles and Aunts or brothers and sisters.
Explain the difference between adult relationships and parent-child relationships
Why can parents divorce each other but not their kids? It can be difficult for kids to discern the difference between your relationship failure with each other and how it relates to your bond with them. To help address this issue, you should explain that adult relationships are different than that between a parent and child in a couple of key ways:
A) First, it’s different because adult relationships are chosen, whereas children are people given to their parents to love and take care of. Therefore parents love their children unconditionally.
B) Children are, quite literally, a part of their parents. So whereas kids are shaped and molded by each parent, adults are more stubborn and set in their ways. Their personality has been forged over a much longer life, and it’s harder for them to change. Children are like soft clay, and each parent plays a role in shaping that clay into a very special little person that is a kid after their own heart. Adults are more like a clay pot that has already been hardened in the furnace, and can’t be molded as easily. When adults get together and marry, they are like clay statues that have already been somewhat hardened. Sometimes they turn out to be a perfect fit for each other. Other times, though, after a while, some people may start to realize they’re not such a great fit for each other. They begin to chip at each other and rub each other in the wrong way far too often. When this happens, it’s harder for them to adapt, since their personalities aren’t as malleable and can’t be changed very easily.
C) Even among parents in happy marriages, most would tell you that for as much as they love each other, their spousal love cannot compare to the love they feel for their children. That if their love were put on a scale, it couldn’t compare to the devotion they feel towards their kids. Tell them this! Have a heartfelt conversation about the feelings you had when they were born, and how it’s a love unlike any other love you’ve ever experienced before. It’s entirely truthful for most parents, and will be a satisfying explanation that kids can accept.