Once you are certain that you and your spouse will be separating or divorcing, it is critical to think about how, and when, to talk to your children. Children may remember this conversation very vividly, and these guidelines will help you prepare yourselves to demonstrate that – as a family – you’re going to meet their needs and answer their questions.
1. Work with your spouse to plan what you will say.
For the sake of your children, put aside the hurt and anger you may be feeling, so that you can make decisions together about the details you’ll need to tell your children. If it’s extremely difficult to speak with one another, consider using the services of a mediator or counselor, or invite someone you both trust to help you work out the details.
2. Talk to your children together.
This lets your kids know that you’re both able to work together for their benefit. It’s important that each child hear this news together, and directly from mom and dad; not from the sibling who heard it first. So if your kids are different ages, plan to share the basic information at the initial gathering, and follow-up with the older children during a separate conversation. If you can’t do it together because you are concerned about safety or conflict, then seek help in developing your plan.
3. Develop a non-blaming narrative.
If you are calm when you tell your children, they will have less anxiety and are more likely to anticipate that they will be ok. Avoid the temptation to assign blame or say whose “fault” this is. To the extent that you can, try to incorporate the word “we” when you’re explaining the decisions that have been made. You may feel that you want your children to know the “truth” but if this will cause your children to feel caught in a loyalty bind, it isn’t healthy for them. The “truth” is less important than providing the support and reassurance that your children need.
4. Provide a General Reason for What is Happening.
It is not important, or even appropriate, that you provide specific details about why you are planning a divorce. However, your kids will want to know why this is happening. Older children will recognize that this is a huge life change, and they will weigh that change against the reason you give them. So while you don’t want to share details of a personal nature, be prepared to give some type of general explanation without blame.
5. Provide Specific Details About the Changes Your Kids Can Expect.
Your kids will want to know where they’re going to live, with whom, and what about their lives is going to change. You can help your children to be prepared for these changes by being honest about what you know, and what you don’t know. Reassure them about the things that will stay the same: their school, or friends, or sports or other activities.
6. Provide Specific Details About the Parent Who is Leaving the Home.
The more you can tell your kids about where the departing parent will be living and when they will be seeing him or her, the better. They’ll need to know, right away, that they will be able to maintain a quality relationship with this parent, even though they won’t be living under the same roof. If they will be living in two homes, give them some time to establish a comfortable space at the new home.
7. Reassure the Children of Your Unconditional Love.
Your children will need lots of reassurance that the divorce is not their fault. Specifically tell them that nothing they did could have caused - nor prevented - what is happening. In addition, make sure both parents collectively and individually convey their unconditional love through words and actions. Avoid making long-range promises about an uncertain future. Instead, stick with the assurances you can make for the present time and be generous in sharing your hugs and affection. It is fine for the children to see you upset or cry, and it is important to reassure them that everyone in the family will adjust to the changes and heal.
8. Be Sensitive to How the Kids React to This News.
What you’re telling them may be completely unexpected, and will most assuredly change their lives. Try to be as understanding of no reaction – which is a reaction – as you would be if the children were in tears or extremely angry. Your children may not know how to express their intense emotions appropriately, and it may be some time before they can articulate their feelings.
9. Welcome Their Questions.
Most likely, the children will have many questions. To the extent that you can, be honest and clear in your responses. If you don’t know the answer to a question, tell them that. Reassure them that as you and your spouse figure things out, that you will inform the children. Also, realize that this conversation will unfold in many parts. After you’ve told the children about the divorce or separation, expect to revisit the topic many times as new questions and concerns arise.
10. Give Them Time to Adjust to the News.
It will take time for your children to adjust to this news. It is a huge change, and while you may be confident in the hopeful future you envision for them, it will take some time for them to see that future play out. In the meantime, be patient with their needs and make the effort to be a steady presence in their lives.
--adapted from various sources by Ann Buscho, Ph.D., a divorce coach and psychologist in San Rafael, CA.
For more information, click here to read “What Should We Tell the Children?” by Joan Kelly, Ph.D. http://tiny.cc/1f9iax
photo credit: Ann Buscho, Ph.D.