by Carol R. Hughes, Ph.D., LMFT
Note: To avoid the clumsiness of using “child/children,” “children” is intentionally used throughout this article
It is clear you care about doing the best you can for your children through the separation and divorce process, because you are reading this article. Give yourself permission not to be perfect. No one is. Remember to keep taking slow, deep breaths. You and your children will get through this difficult time.
Consider the following tips to help you prepare to talk with your minor children.
Agree on a time when you and your spouse can talk with your children together. Siblings need the support system they can provide each other. Divorce is a major life crisis for all family members and should be treated as such. Ideally, it is best to share the news with your children when they will have adequate time to absorb what you will be telling them; for instance, when they do not have to go back to school in a day or two after hearing the news.
Plan your presentation to your children in advance. Make some notes about what you plan to say and review them so that you are familiar with what you intend to say. Anticipate what they may say to you. You can have the notes in front of you, if you wish, and simply say, “We have made some notes because what we are going to be talking about is very important for all of us and we don’t want to forget anything.”
Remember that your children will likely be in emotional shock after you tell them your intentions to end your marriage and they will not be able to absorb everything you say this first time. Be prepared to have the same conversation with them numerous times. Their shock and grieving will interfere with them being able to fully take in all that you are sharing.
Tell them that the two of you have decided to end your marriage and live in different homes because you have adult problems between you that you haven’t been able to resolve. Avoid using the word “divorce” because it is laden with negative connotations. Assure your children this is NOT THEIR fault. Children often automatically assume responsibility for family issues.
Reassure your children you love them, you will always love them and you will always be their parents. Avoid saying that you don’t love each other any more. Children then think perhaps their parents could stop loving them one day as well. This unsettles them and the stable foundation having two loving parents provides.
Avoid blaming each other. This is the time for the two of you to show a united front to your children. This news will shatter their view of their family as they have known it. Blaming each other puts them in the middle of your pain and conflict, causes them to experience divided loyalty and feel they need to choose sides, as well as feel guilt for loving both of you. Children often report they hate being put in this position and feel each parent was attempting to form an alliance with them against the other parent.
Tell them what is going to remain the same. Tell them that you are all still family, you will always be their parents and you will always love them. Explain you will be amicable so you can both attend their activities and family gatherings and not create tension for them, other family members or their friends. Explain your living situation (who is staying in the family home, etc.). Describe what will remain the same (school, activities, etc.). Assure them that they will continue to have the emotional support of both parents in the newly restructured family.
Next, tell them what is not going to remain the same. Tell them if you both will be moving into new homes. If feasible, involve them at the appropriate time, for example, once you have narrowed your choices down to two options. It’s important to be neutral and factual. Resist being a victim or martyr. It will only make children feel guilty and angry at their other parent.
You are still their parents. It is your job to put their feelings above yours and provide them with the support they need to hear, feel and understand what you are sharing with them. Acknowledge the announcement is a shock and their feelings (anger, sadness, grief, shock, etc.) are normal. Focus on and be empathetic with THEIR feelings. Don’t talk about your feelings, (how you haven’t been happy for years, how you deserve to be happy). Having just received such painful news, they will be unable to express their happiness for you, and it is unreasonable for you to expect them to do so. Remember, their familial foundation has just been rocked and their family history is being rewritten. They are losing their world.
Tell them that you still believe in family and that you hope they will too. Tell them that you don’t expect them to take care of you emotionally or physically. This is your job, not theirs.
Avoid telling them that you stayed together or delayed restructuring your family because of them. This will make them feel guilty for your unhappy marriage. Depending on their ages, your children may recall their childhood memories and wonder: ‘What was real and what wasn’t real? Were you really happy on those family vacations?’ Divorce destabilizes the family system and inevitably shakes every family member’s perception of their past, their present and their future.
Assure your children this is a process for all of you to move through, at your own pace and in your own way. Assure them you will always love them and you will always be there for them in whatever ways will be most helpful to them. You want them to know that they aren’t alone so they don’t become isolated and depressed. Encourage your children to speak with a counselor or youth pastor about their feelings. Tell them you have spoken with or intend to speak with a counselor as well, to talk about your feelings.
Take advantage of the Child Specialist available to you and your children as part of the Collaborative Divorce process to give your children a safe, healthy outlet to express themselves and begin the journey toward a positive, happy future.