It is important to tell your kids about your divorce in a planned way. Keep in mind that more children live in divorced/single homes than live in two parent homes. Your children will survive your divorce without scarring if both parents are mindful about when to tell them, how to tell them, and what to tell them.
How to tell your kids about your divorce. Ideally, both parents will be present during the conversation, and the conversation will not occur until the parents have determined the parenting time details of the divorce.
When to tell your kids about your divorce. Why is it important to know the parenting time details before you tell your children? It is important to your children because after they get over the initial shock of the information, the first question they will ask is, “Where will I live?” They will naturally go into “how does this affect me” mode, and the more answers you have to their questions, the less conflict and turmoil they will endure. To be clear, the very fact that you are getting a divorce will create conflict and turmoil in their lives. However, the more you plan, the less emotional damage will occur.
Timing is everything. Be mindful that your children will go through weeks and months of being emotional and “in their heads.” Don’t tell your kids in May or June when they are in the throes of finishing projects at school, nor in December when Christmas is ever-present on their minds. Don’t take them on vacation and announce the divorce. (Yes, I’ve had clients who thought that was a good idea.) Don’t tell them the night before the big game or the overwhelming test. Be mindful of the timing of telling your children. It will turn their world upside down and they will need time to adjust.
What to tell your kids about your divorce. What to say during the announcement is just as important as the timing. Don’t blame either party. Don’t even hint the divorce is occurring because of too much fighting. Why? Children fight with their siblings. So, when children hear “too much fighting,” they internalize that information, and days, weeks, or even months later they’ll begin to question their role in the fighting, which leads them to blame themselves for the divorce. If you must mention fighting, be mindful that you need to emphasize the fighting was between the adults and intentionally mention that the fighting between the adults is 100 percent unrelated to the children…but, my best advice to you is to not mention fighting. I’ve seen too many kids internalize it and be negatively impacted by it.
Repeatedly inform them that you love them (again and again and again). Remind them (again and again and again) that the other parent loves them, too.
Tell them that sometimes it is best for a couple to divorce because it allows them to be better people. The kids will ask lots of questions about why this is happening. They will be crying out for answers. Don’t take the bait. Why? Telling them more information is a short-term gain and a long-term loss. It may help them in the moment (for about five seconds), but it will inevitably either lead them to try to fix the situation, blame themselves, or permanently damage their relationship with one parent.
If one party wants the divorce and the other party does not want the divorce, it’s selfish to tell the kids that fact. If you can’t tell them the information suggested in this section, I suggest at least being neutral or silent on the issue. Kids need to love, and be loved, by both parents. One party’s determination that s/he doesn’t want to be in the marriage is not a license to the other party to forever impact their children’s lives by telling them it isn’t their idea. Why? When one party openly and repeatedly says (or acts like) this divorce isn’t his/her idea, the children begin to protect the perceived victimized parent and therefore blame the other parent. Whose interest does that serve? It serves one parent. It damages the children in ways that usually impact their ability to form trusting and lasting relationships.
If you are the parent who doesn’t want the divorce, give your children the best gift you can give them during this horrendously difficult time in their lives: Give them the gift of being able to love and be loved by the other parent. If your soon-to-be ex is a selfish narcissist or a deadbeat drunk, I assure you that your children will make that determination on their own, in their own time.
Many parents send their children to counseling the day after the announcement. I strongly discourage parents sending their children to a counselor just to check the box. Why? Children think there is something wrong with them when they are sent to a counselor. You, or your soon-to-be ex-spouse, or most likely both of you, have caused the breakdown in your marriage. Your children are not the cause of your divorce. There is nothing wrong with your children. They just need time to adjust. That said, there are situations where children should be receiving mental health services. Each child is unique, so address whether or not your child needs mental health services based upon your child’s actions and words, and not to check the box.
Finally, be prepared that regardless of how much you have planned and how mindful you have been with sharing and not sharing information, your children could secretly blame themselves for the divorce. Be aware of questions repeated over months and years about why the divorce is happening. If this is the case, I suggest you then seek counseling for your child. A trained counselor can help a child see that s/he is not the reason for the divorce.
If it seems confusing about whether or not your children should be sent to a counselor, simply ask yourself if your child is showing signs over time that s/he blames her/himself for the divorce. If so, send you child to a qualified counselor. If not, wait and see.
If you want to read more about how to tell your children, I recommend the following books: “How to Talk to Your Children about Divorce,” by Jill Jones-Soderman and Allison Quattrocchi; and “The Truth about Children and Divorce,” by Robert Emery.
In the next installment of this blog series, I will be covering who stays in the house during the divorce. If you want to learn more about the divorce mediation process in Oregon, feel free to download a PDF version of my book, “Divorce Mediation in Oregon.” Click here to learn more about divorce mediation.
Do you still have questions? I am happy to talk to you and answer your questions. Click here to schedule a 30-minute consultation.