Talking With Children About Your Divorce or Separation
Planning for the Conversation
Telling your children about your divorce is something that you should plan for -- it's not something to just announce impulsively, but it's also not something that you should put off. Because it's going to be emotionally difficult for everyone, a certain amount of planning can help you deliver the bad news in a way that will help reassure your kids that even though this is going to be a big change in their lives, both of you still love and care for them and will continue to be their mother and father even after the divorce.
Both parents should talk to each other to plan how you'll tell your children about the divorce. As Stahl (2007) notes, "This is the first step in helping them recognize that you will work together on their behalf." The better prepared you are to tell them about what's happening -- even if you don't have all the details decided yet -- the more you'll be able to help them handle this big change.
Some goals for the conversation you have with your kids:
- To tell them what they need to know.
- To ask them if they have any questions.
- To make it clear that there will be many more opportunities to talk about what is happening, and, above all,
- To let them know that this is not their fault and is not something they can fix; that you love them and will continue to love them no matter what happens. (Frankel, 2000)
Points to Cover
To start, simply say "we are both sad because . . . " and give a brief, age-appropriate explanation of what is going to happen: "We have decided that the two of us will not keep living in the same house anymore because we are not able to get along well no matter how hard we try. It took us a long time to decide this, and it was a hard decision, and it is final. We are sure that we are making the right decision, even though we are sad." (Frankel, 2000)
Some additional points to cover:
- That you both still love them and that they had nothing to do with your decision to separate.
- That you will both continue to love them even though the marriage is coming to an end.
- That you both will stay involved in their lives and participate as you have in the past.
- That you've both worked hard to try to stay together, but that isn't going to happen.
- That you're sad about the breakup, and you expect that they, too, are going to feel sad at first, and that you will all work together to feel better.
- That, while it's hard to understand now, you expect that everyone in the family will feel better over the next year or two. (Stahl, 2007)
After these basics, be ready for tears and grief, and to give hugs. Try to transition to some activity other than bedtime. (Frankel, 2000) Let them ask questions, and give them answers that are clear, appropriate for their age, and that avoid blame. Do not go into details about adult issues or talk about specifics that aren't appropriate for kids -- money, sexual problems, or emotional or physical abuse. It can be enough to say that you can no longer live together or that you are tired of arguing with each other. (Stahl, 2007)
Give your kids appropriate information about what will happen in the near future and of any long-term plans (again, adjust the amount of detail depending on the age of the child). Some short-term information that children may want to know includes:
- Who is moving out and when (more or less).
- What your temporary plans are (if you can have at least a temporary parenting plan in place, that will be helpful).
- If you will be sharing custody, reassure your kids that even though you'll be living in different houses, you will still be involved in their lives.
- Constantly reassure them that you both love them and will both be there for them.
- If you don't know, say "I don't know," and reassure them that you will let them know as soon as you do know.
Helping Children Cope with Grief and Loss Over Time
Remember that, while it is painful, grief is a normal reaction to a loss. Herman M. Frankel, M.D., has these tips on helping children accept and cope with grief and loss in a divorce:
Expect to answer the children's questions over and over again, on their schedule. Children grieve and re-grieve. They sometimes go long intervals without showing any apparent interest, and sometimes they want to deal with nothing else. Sometimes they ask the same questions repeatedly. Usually, at a later stage of their own development, they ask more sophisticated questions.
Make sure the children understand that their actions will not affect the permanence of the divorce.
Help the children understand what they are losing and what they are not losing.
After the initial numbness begins to wear off, it is important to help the children recognize "what is not here anymore." This may be difficult, especially if it is hard for you to accept the reality of the losses that you are having to face. You, and they, are losing familiar routines. You are losing the feelings of safety and stability that come from a sense of family permanence. You may be losing a familiar home, neighborhood, school community. They are losing familiar ways of being attended to, of being taught, of being cared for. You and they are losing a way of life that has become familiar.
People close to you may seek to ease your pain by distracting you from understanding all of the secondary losses that you and the children are experiencing. In the same way, they may urge you to shield the children from pain by pretending to them that life can go on essentially unchanged, even though you know that so much is different: finances, chores, food, recreation, schedules, holidays, conversations, transportation, school life, sports, special trips, bedtime, and on and on.
It is not easy for children, just as it is rarely easy for parents, to accept the fact that their world has changed and to understand how it has changed. It takes time, and patience, and love, and persistence for the family members to understand that their options cannot be the same as they were before. Expecting yourself, or your children, to be able to come to grips with everything all at once is likely to be an exercise in frustration and futility. At the other extreme, it is equally fruitless to pretend that nothing important has changed at all. (2000)
For the first few weeks, your children will likely think and talk about little other than the divorce, and they are likely to experience a wide range of emotions. Even if they behave as if nothing is wrong, they will be having sometimes complicated emotions, so it is important to encourage them to talk and to reassure them that you love them and are available for them. Be ready for them to ask a lot of questions more than once, especially "Why are you getting divorced?" Answer honestly but without blaming: "We're getting divorced because we can't stop fighting" is much better than "We're getting divorced because your mother yells all the time." It's especially important in the early weeks to help your children get used to the new reality of your separation and help them adapt to their new routine. (Stahl, 2007)
Over the long term, children may ask fewer questions about the divorce or may not mention it in conversation as often, but it is a good idea to ask them from time to time how they are feeling. Even when it is no longer a daily topic, check in with your child and let them know that you are open to talking with them about their feelings. As Stahl notes, children often "keep their feelings to themselves unless parents encourage them and give them permission to talk and ask questions. Over time, this discussion may only come up three or four times per year, but it is still important to let your child know that you're available." (2007)
Stahl offers these reminders for all such conversations: Remember to be neutral, acknowledge and focus on her feelings, give her lots of reassurances, and frequently tell your child that your love for her will not change. Demonstrate this with your words as well as with your actions. Answer your child's questions truthfully, without blame or derogatory comments about the other parent, and at a level that is appropriate for her age. By following these guidelines, you'll be able to talk with your child on a regular and ongoing basis about your divorce and answer any questions she may have. (2007)
Give your children the gift of the perception that obstacles and difficulties can provide opportunities for personal growth.
Herman M. Frankel, M.D., has these tips on helping children move forward: As an adult, your losses and turmoil and suffering call upon you to ask yourself, "What really matters?" When your child sees you asking yourself this question, they naturally start examining the same issue. They begin to discover, alone and in their interactions with you, that life's setbacks call not only for grieving, but also for asking, "What meaning do I attach to life's events?"
- How should people treat each other?
- What does commitment mean?
- What really matters to me?
- What does it mean to be a "good" person?
For some families, this question is an opportunity for reaffirmation of faith. For others, it is a good opportunity for continuing discussion of moral and ethical matters. For still others, it may be completely new territory.
You can let your children see that the way you deal with losses associated with your divorce results in your becoming a stronger, more loving person. Your own sense of values is strengthened. Your capacity to deal with change is increased. Your ability to triumph over obstacles is greater. You grow in wisdom, and your ability to feel compassion and to love others is enhanced. This gift to your children is one that they will build on for the rest of their lives.
Give yourself permission to get what you need for yourself, in the ways that feel right to you.
Herman M. Frankel, M.D., suggests:
- It's a long road.
- You deserve to have your needs met.
- Be gentle with yourself.
Herman Frankel, M.D.'s national award-winning publication, "Dealing With Loss; A Guidebook for Helping your Children During and After Divorce"; and Philip M. Stahl, Ph.D.'s book Parenting After Divorce, Resolving Conflicts and Meeting Your Children's Needs are highly recommended by Ada County Family Court Services and by other agencies in all parts of the country. Copies of both of these publications may be purchased directly from Ada County Family Court Services.