The first and most important step in preparing your children for these changes is the way you tell your children about the divorce. Here are some suggestions.
Wait until you are certain:
Wait until you and your spouse are certain that you will be getting divorced, and that there is no likelihood of reconciling. Telling the children that you might divorce will create uncertainty and anxiety for them. You don’t want to give the children false hopes that you may reconcile, only to have those hopes destroyed, nor do you want to worry the children that you will divorce when you may reconcile and remain married.
Don’t Tell Anyone About Your Divorce:
Until you have told your children about your divorce, do not tell family members, friends, teachers, or anyone else that might directly, or even inadvertently, share the news with your children. You want to be the ones to tell your children about the divorce (in the manner set forth in this article). If your children find out about the divorce from someone else before you tell them, your children will likely be very upset, confused, and scared–without any explanations or reassurances from their parents. Furthermore, your children will feel that you betrayed them by telling someone else first.
Have a plan for the future:
Wait until you and your spouse have reached a general and preliminary agreement regarding living and parenting arrangements. Children need to know what is going to happen to them, so before you tell the children about the divorce, you and your spouse should have already considered such issues as: (a) where the children will live, (b) where each parent will live, (c) where the children will go to school, (d) at least some sort of parenting plan, including holidays and vacations. By sharing this information with the children, you will be reassuring them that divorce is not so much a loss, but rather, it is a change, in the family structure. You will also be reassuring your children that their parents are in charge, in control of the situation, and hence, will provide stability and security for them in spite of the divorce.
Make it a family meeting:
Together, you and your spouse should tell all of the children about the divorce. This helps eliminate any misunderstandings or misstatements that often arise when the parents speak with the children separately rather than together. Furthermore, by joining together to tell the children about the divorce, you avoid the appearance of blaming each other for the divorce–there is no victim or villain. At the same time, you are making it clear that both of you plan to go forward with the divorce, and there is no chance of reconciling. Perhaps most important of all, you are also showing the children that, despite the divorce, you can still work together as parents.
Create a safe setting for the meeting:
Choose a location that is safe and familiar to the children, and a time that does not interfere with any of the children’s outside activities, mealtimes, etc. Turn off the phones so that there are no distractions or interruptions. This should not be a quick, casual meeting–it should be a time to share, to plan, to learn, to ask, and to reassure.
Before the family meeting, you and your spouse should rehearse what you will say. Agree how you will answer such questions as “why are you getting divorced?” or “whose idea was it to get divorced?” or “whose fault is it?” By working together as a team, you will reassure the children that you will still be able to cooperate as parents while also providing a sense of security and stability to the children.
Consider the ages of your children:
The younger the child, the less that child will be able to understand the concepts of divorce, so if you have young children, keep your discussion simple and concrete. Later, you can provide additional age-appropriate information to your older children, and respond to their questions. At the initial meeting, what is most important to children of all ages is how the divorce is going to affect each one of them directly. Explain that, although the two of you will no longer be living in the same home together, both of you will continue to be their parents and will continue to be involved in their lives. Reassure the children that they will not be separated from their siblings or other family members, that the divorce is not their fault, that they could not have prevented the divorce nor can they stop the divorce.
Keep adult issues private:
Be open and honest with your children–don’t downplay the challenges of divorce. However, it is not appropriate to discuss adult issues with your children, regardless of their age, so spare the sordid details, the blaming, the complaining and the excuses.
Instead, explain that the two of you had some differences and that, despite your attempts to work things out, you both agree that you can no longer live together as husband and wife. Emphasize that the divorce is a mutual decision, avoid any damaging or critical comments about each other, and avoid anything that blames the other parent, you will greatly reduce the children’s concerns that they have to protect the “good/victim” parent from the “bad/villain” parent. These steps will help lay the foundation for a successful co-parenting relationship in the future.
Encourage questions and discussions:
As English philosopher/author Francis Bacon (1561-1626) noted: “Knowledge is power.” By better understanding what is going on in their lives, children can more readily adapt to their new circumstances, free from the crippling fear of the unknown. However, children may be hesitant to ask questions because they do not want to upset or anger you. Therefore, encourage them to speak openly, and reassure them that you will not be upset or angry, no matter what questions they may have. Answer their questions honestly, but appropriately. Acknowledge, validate and normalize their feelings and concerns. If the children are very young, you can read an age-appropriate book with them to help them better understand and accept the divorce.
Support each other:
Explain to your children that whatever differences you and your spouse may have, you still respect each other as individuals and as parents. Reassure the children that both of you will always be the children’s equal parents, and that each of you want the children to continue to have a loving relationship with the other parent. Do not blame, criticize, demean or otherwise challenge your spouse in the presence of the children. The greatest fear children have is that the divorce will mean losing the love and support of one of their parents, or that the children will have to choose one parent over the other. When you support each other, you are establishing the foundation for a positive co-parenting relationship.
You can expect a wide range of reactions from your children, including anger, sadness, fear, anxiety, and guilt. Pay attention to both verbal and non-verbal reactions from the children. It is not uncommon for children to react to the divorce with stoic silence; it may take days or even weeks before they are willing to talk about it. Reassure the children that you will be available to listen to them and answer their questions whenever the children are ready. As the 10 year-old son of one of my clients recently said to his father: “I really love how you don’t give up on anyone, especially me and (my sister).” Patience will pay off in the long run.
Reassure Your Children:
After you have told your children about your divorce, they will still have questions, be afraid, confused, and anxious. These feelings will not be resolved at your meeting when you first tell the children about your divorce, so continue to reassure your children that you will always be available to answer their questions, that both of you will always love them and be their parents, and that they will be safe and secure.
Enlist the support of other family members:
Once you have told your children about the divorce, tell your respective families. Emphasize that the divorce is between you and your spouse, and that the children need the support and stability of both parents as well as these other family members. Sometimes children find it easier to talk about the divorce with grandparents, aunts, uncles or older cousins instead of directly confronting you or your spouse. However, if extended family members “take sides” in the divorce, the children will get caught in the middle, and lose the security, stability and support that both of you as parents, and these extended family members, might otherwise have provided.
There are many books, written for all ages, readily available to share with your children. These books may offer a slightly different perspective and impartiality, while demonstrating that your children are not the only children to deal with divorce. If your children still have difficulties accepting or understanding your divorce, there are divorce groups for children, as well as the services of school counselors and private therapists.
More than anything, children need stability and security. When telling your children about the divorce, reassure them that:
- (a) both you and your spouse still love them, and always will;
- (b) the divorce is not the children’s fault; there is nothing that the children could have done to prevent the divorce; and there is nothing that the children can do to “save” the marriage.
- (c) you will always be the children’s parents, and will therefore always be actively involved in their lives;
- (d) your decision to divorce is final, and has been reached only after long thought and consideration; therefore, the decision is neither frivolous nor subject to change, so that the family needs to focus on the future;
- (e) it is normal for the children to experience anger, fear, sadness, confusion, and guilt;
- (f) you will always be available to the children whenever they have questions or just want to talk, or if they prefer, they can talk to a therapist, minister, other family member, etc.;
- (g) you have already come up with a plan for how things will be in the future, so that their lives will have continuity, structure, and security.
Having set the groundwork for working together in the best interests of your children, the next step for you as parents is to read the article entitled Helping Your Children Cope With Your Divorce.