“Your child will never forget what you say (or fail to say) and the emotional ambience of the family meeting.” – Judith Wallerstein, Julia Lewis & Sandra Blakeslee (2000, p. XII)
Informing the kids that their life is about to drastically change won’t be easy, particularly if they have relatively good relationships with both parents. But you can smooth the news somewhat by being prepared.
Telling children that you are getting divorced
We start off with a few basic ground rules:
- When telling children about divorce, be prepared. We would strongly recommend that each parent read the information in this chapter as well as the information on divorce mistakes and children and divorce so that you are ready to handle some of the tough situations that may arise. It’s easier to do things right the first time than to undo damage later.
- Don’t delay in telling children about the divorce. Although it may be a painful process to get through, it’s best that children be told the news as soon as possible. Don’t procrastinate. You don’t want to hold off until Dad is walking out the door to inform them about what is going on. It’s best they be given a little time to prepare for the shock. If one parent leaves and you aren’t sure yourself about the status of your marriage, let them know that, too: “Your Dad and I are having some problems right now. He left and I’m not sure what’s going to happen next.”
- When telling the kids about your divorce, pick a good time to break the news. You should choose a quiet time that is free of other distractions, a time when both you and the kids are free of commitments. This will allow kids to process the information and accommodate a lengthy discussion if necessary. Make sure the kids have their homework done, and try to limit other distractions. Turn off the TV or unplug the telephone for a bit. Perhaps most importantly, make yourself available afterwards. Don’t busy yourself with something that might make you seem less approachable, or even consider taking time off from work afterwards.
- It’s best that you tell them together and break the news as a team. This is a family change, and everyone in the family should be there to discuss it, if this is at all possible.
- If you’re unsure about what to tell them in response to certain things, it’s OK to say “We don’t know.” You’re likely breaking the news to children long before every detail has been worked out. There are yet to be custody hearings, court proceedings, and a variety of other developments. No person can ever predict everything that will happen. It’s OK to be a little unsure yourself, so long as you convey an overall message that even if you don’t know exactly what will happen, we’ll be there to work through it. You should also reassure them that if there are things you can’t answer right now, you’ll let them know as soon as you find out yourself.
- Don’t try to be overly optimistic. This may seem counterintuitive, since every parent wants to reassure their child that everything will be okay whenever they are distressed. But in this case, false or empty reassurances can come back to haunt you later. The reality is that divorce is a tough transition that is bound to be riddled with numerous problems. They need to expect this, and trying to downplay the divorce as “no big deal” isn’t truthful and won’t help them (or you) in the long run. In addition, such empty reassurances tend to be dismissive of a child’s concerns. Instead, take the attitude that although things may get rough, you’ll get through it. Things will get better eventually, and the whole process may not be as bad as it seems.
- Always be civil. Don’t blame. Don’t bash each other. Don’t try to deflect all the blame to one person or scapegoat the other parent. Don’t lose your temper. Don’t raise your voices or argue. One of the most destructive elements of divorce is the conflict involved. Conflict = abuse wherein children are concerned. In fact, research shows that merely being party to family dysfunction, violence or conflict results in similar stress responses and the same amount of harm as abusing a child directly. (Perry, 1997; Hygge & Ohman, 1978) So for the sake of your children, you need to make this split seem as civilized as possible, and this starts in the way you talk about the divorce.
- End your talk with an apology and a promise. “Most of all, you need to tell your children that divorce is very sad for both of you and that you are very sorry,” say divorce experts. “Keep in mind that this is one of the saddest days in any child’s life and nothing will save you from having to face it. Level with them that some things will be discombobulated for a while, but that you promise to keep them informed. End by saying how much you all need to help each other. Talk about courage, that you all need to try not to be cranky, but it’s okay to cry and be angry. You may all slip, but it’s important to try.” (Wallersteing, Lewis $ Blakeslee, 2000, p. 48)
After your apology should come a promise: Promise that you’ll do your best to answer any questions they may have, and that you’ll do everything in your power to make yourself available whenever they need to talk.
See also . . .