One of the most painful and important events in the divorce process is telling the children about your plans to end the marriage. In this act, the marital problem moves beyond the marriage, affecting loved ones and tearing the fabric of the family. Telling the children marks an ending of the “old” family and the beginning of “new” family relationships.
Here are some suggestions:
- Don’t jump the gun.
The “divorce announcement” is a bomb that should not be set off until the divorce decision is certain. Before the decision is finalized, you can say, “Your dad and I are having problems which we are working on.” If the children ask if you are getting a divorce, a truthful reply would be “I don’t know.” Or if the question is “why,” a general answer is, “We are having a hard time dealing with each other.” This keeps an appropriate boundary around the marital problem and keeps your children from getting in the middle of things.
- Tell the children together.
This will be the final activity of the family you and your children have known. It makes sense to gather together as you would for any solemn occasion. Consider keeping this an “announcement,” not a time for explanations or for blame. You can give “facts” about what will happen from this point on: “I will be moving next Saturday.” Some reassurance may be helpful: “We both love you” and “We will work together as best we can to help you through this.” Consider making “we-statements” or “factual statements,” not “I-statements,” which can be self-serving, or “he/she statements,” which can be blaming.
- Say it briefly.
Let your children feel their feelings. Go with whatever response they offer, even if it is a minimal or puzzling reaction. This marks the beginning of their “grieving” and we all grieve in different ways and in different timeframes. One of the challenges of divorce is dealing with the fact that the emotional processing of various family members can get out of sync. When you yourself are dealing with strong feelings, it is may be difficult to connect with a family member who is grieving differently.
- Remember to adjourn the family meeting.
Don’t let it go on and on hoping to make everything OK. Tolerate ending without emotional resolution — resolution will take a much longer time. Ending the family meeting mirrors the larger ending the family is experiencing, an ending that leaves much to be resolved.
- Later in the day, each parent can “check in” with each child.
You could consider this to be the beginning of the new parent-child relationship, your post-divorce relationship with your child. This may feel awkward at first. The established routines of family life may no longer quite “fit.” You may realize that you and your child will need to find your own way of talking to each other in a meaningful way. This will probably involve a new mix of listening and appreciating, being patient and assertive, giving space and reconnecting.
- Focus on the one-to-one relationship with your child.
The foundation of your post-divorce relationship with your child is going to be a one-to-one relationship. Instead of “your mother and me” or “you and your mother” or “you and your brother,” the primary relationship will be “you and me.”
You could begin to put this into practice by switching from the “we” statements of the family meeting to “I” and “you” statements as you check in with your child. Gradually, a new “we” will emerge from this “I” and “you.” You can begin to show that “one-to-one” means that:
- We will take the initiative to keep the relationship going, as demonstrated by this “checking in” with one another;
- We won’t use someone else to resolve our differences or facilitate our communication; and
- We can be emotionally upset with each other and see it through successfully.