How do you tell the kids about the upcoming divorce? The answer to this question is unique in every family. Ideally, it’s been written, that both parents sit down with the kids and tell them that they will no longer all live in the same house together. The kids will most likely hear that both parents still love them very much and the love felt for the kids will never change. Every attempt will be made to keep the kids’ lives the same. This message is a tough one for kids to comprehend and then process even if they have friends and other family members with divorced parents. The message is often difficult for parents to deliver.
Below are tips from myself, and family therapist, Phyllis Ivey. I share my tips in bold and the therapist below. Let us know what tricks and tips worked with your family.
When you have the conversation, don’t expect a Brady Bunch scene. This is one of the most difficult conversations. The following are 10 useful tips for delivering the message:
1. Be HONEST, age appropriately honest, about what’s going on.
Be mindful in knowing your child and their coping abilities. Inform them without burdening them with the marital dispute or intentionally influencing them to take sides.
Promising your child with “don’t worry, it will be ok” is not a fix and may prevent children from expressing normal fears. Be appropriately open and provide children with certainty to help reduce anxiety. Pay attention to your child’s reactions and body language. If you notice your child is becoming visibly uncomfortable, then consider it may be either too overwhelming or that he/she may need a break.
2. Don’t promise that nothing will change. Having one parent move out of the house is CHANGE.
Instead of minimizing changes thinking it will help your child, instead share that you will support and guide your child through the transitions that will impact him/her. If feasible, try to avoid major changes such as moving or changing schools for at least one year. Children rely on established relationships outside the family including teachers, guidance counselors, friends, neighbors, coaches, etc. for comfort and support. Having access to these relationships during the initial stages of divorce is helpful to both children and their parents. Moving makes it harder without these trusted support systems already in place for the family.
3. Share your plans and a timeline of events with the kids.
Keep the kids informed about the upcoming changes in the family. Waiting until the last minute to inform children of major changes such as the separation, a parent moving out or moving to another home can be very traumatic. Equally traumatizing is telling the kids too early before any plans are made. Sitting down with children to give them advanced notice provides time for concerns, reactions and questions that parents need to address. If you don’t know all of the details yet, let your child know that you will update them as soon as you have more information. There is a lot in commotion during this time. Parents would benefit from hiring a Divorce Coach to strategize and create a plan that is realistic and keeps the needs of the children in mind.
4. Check in with the kids.
Make time for your children. Keep your children’s best interest at heart by checking in with them on a regular basis. Pick quiet times when you can focus on your child when you’re not distracted by social plans, homework, electronics or other activities. Bedtime, weekends and car rides are good times to choose from to spend alone time without disruptions.
Making a ritual of when your child can look forward to time together can strengthen your relationship. Instead of broadly asking, “Are you ok?” which is usually responded with a “Yes”, ask open ended questions about specific topics in your child’s life that will encourage him/her to share more information. Some examples of what to ask include “How is the schedule working for you?”; “What is something you need me to do or do differently?”; Asking these types of questions can make your child feel valued and indicates that you care about their needs.
Explain that all of you are in transition and trying to figure out the best plan. In addition, this process of communicating gives children a voice and an opportunity to advocate for themselves.
5. Know that there will be an adjustment phase.
Children need time to adjust to the decision and their emotions about the divorce.
As parents move through the different stages of separation and divorce, they experience a variety of emotions. Expect your child to experience their own range of emotions as they too move through their own stages as children. It’s common for children’s emotions to follow the different stages of grief as when losing a loved one but not necessarily in order. Expect your child’s emotions to possibly heighten once a parent physically moves out of the home. During the initial separation, sometimes children need more reminders of their parents’ love since they can worry about abandonment.
6. Be honest about your feelings. Be genuine. This is hard news to share with the kids even if you think it will be the best for all concerned.
The tone of the divorce is set during the announcement phase. It’s then that parents show their own comfort level of sharing feelings. Parents who are uncomfortable or think it’s best to hide their feelings in their child’s best interest, can unintentionally give the message to their children that it’s not okay to express emotion.
Divorce is hard news for a child, but when parents are willing to reveal their natural emotions, they model and give permission to their children to do the same which helps children get through their parent’s divorce with more ease.
7. Don’t feel compelled to tell them together. There are most likely two sides to the story and better for kids to hear both sides than a rose-colored version of why you’re separating.
If parents can plan and agree beforehand to tell their children without conflict, that is preferable. Parents need to try their best to put their issues aside and focus on supporting their children when they announce the separation and beyond. If parents are contentious, they may need to choose the option to tell their children separately. Children are loyal and need both their parents, therefore it’s critical to not encourage your child to take sides.
8. Let the kids emote…be angry, sad, self-centered, numb, in denial, etc. You can’t expect everyone to respond the same way. This is true of family members and friends too.
It’s natural for children to have many different emotions as the family goes through divorce. Feelings shouldn’t be viewed as right or wrong, rather they need to be considered as understandable and fitting to how a child personally experiences their reaction to their parents’ separation and the major changes in their family. Each child in a family copes differently. Therefore, siblings can’t be compared to one another and need to be supported differently. For example, one child may be verbal and overtly grieving; another may appear sad but hides their emotions and a third might be angry and acting in denial and/or acting out. Divorce also impacts relationships outside the immediate family and social network and extended family and friends will understandably experience their own array of emotions after learning about the divorce.
9. Keep the lines of communication open…questions most likely will follow. Share “what you know for sure!”
Communicating regularly with your children is important and opens the door to questions. Be direct in your answers with information and plans that are age appropriate and helpful to your child. What you can’t yet confirm, be honest with your child about and inform him/her when you can. Also, be prepared there will be questions that you may be concerned about because you know the answers might be too overwhelming. Speak to each child at their level. Parents need to follow their gut when to be cautious and explain to their child in a kind and gentle way that the information they’re wanting is not for their ears. If you’re unsure of how to answer a question that’s complicated, it’s okay to pause and tell your child you need time to think about what they’ve asked and that you’ll get back to them.
10. Find a great therapist for the kids. They need to “process” this change. It’s brand new for them.
Having your children see a therapist to help them navigate the unknown territory of divorce can prove to be healing and very worthwhile. Research therapists who are specifically experienced in working with families going through separation and divorce.
Families can get recommendations for therapists through a school guidance counselor, pediatrician, family doctor, health insurance carrier or an accredited online referral service, e.g., psychologytoday.com
Once you find a therapist, it’s important to make sure he/she is a good fit for your family and the kids. Not every therapist is experienced or is comfortable working with all ages. It’s important to confirm that the counselor you choose works with your child’s age and understands the complexities of the changing family.
Bottom line: This is a difficult time for adults AND children. Be aware of the impact of the changing family and how it will influence you and your children in the long run. This isn’t about “getting it over with”. This life event will have an impact on your children.