Talking to Your Children About Divorce
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.
While this new one-to-one parent-child relationship may need a lot of time to find its way, certain things can be established from the beginning by your example:
- We will not draw other people into disagreements that occur between us.
- We will still be parent and child, but with greater emotional intensity grounded in our new one-to-one relationship.
- We will respect each other’s evolving situation in life.
- We will avoid “loyalty” battles.
- We will give each other a lot of latitude to work things out.
- We will appreciate other relationships in each other’s lives.
- We will take greater responsibility to share our lives with one another.
- We will explore new ways of enjoying time and activities together, fostering new meaningful connections with one another.
Just as you have followed up on the family meeting by checking in with your child, you can to continue to check-in throughout the divorce process and the post-divorce adjustment period. “How are you doing?” Be consistently interested, but not insistently so. Most kids, especially adolescents, deal with divorce issues with their peers. Respect this approach and give it room to happen.
Be prepared for divorce to be a longer-term, recurring concern in your child’s life. Children will explore unresolved issues by asking questions, and may return to these issues as they grow up. A seven-year-old will have certain questions; when he or she is 15, there could be new questions; and when your child is a young adult, there may be still other questions. You can accept this ongoing questioning as a part of your child’s learning about life. Listen carefully, explore the concerns that have given rise to their questions, and be informative, fair and sparing in your answers. Your answer is less important than their freedom to ask questions and come to their own answers. “I don’t know” can offer room for further exploration.
A less obvious way that your children will explore their concerns is through their own relationships. They may replay aspects of your marital relationship with their other parent or, ultimately, with their own romantic partner in an effort to “master” unresolved feelings over the divorce. In these efforts, they will attempt to avoid or rework the pitfalls that they perceived as critical to the breakdown of your own marriage. Your perspective may be of use to them as they try to work things out for themselves.
Finally, you should be aware that children will try to resolve the divorce “inside themselves.” They will identify with both parents and attempt to combine these identifications into their own evolving personality, there by “reconnecting” what was seemingly separated through the divorce. You will want to respect and support this process, particularly if you are able to recognize that you yourself have done something similar since the divorce — balanced your own personality by reclaiming and integrating some of the traits and roles that your spouse had enacted in the marriage.
Stone, R. (2020). Talking to Your Children About Divorce. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 29, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/lib/talking-to-your-children-about-divorce/