Many parents feel that facing their children, telling them that the world as they know it is about to change, and explaining why this is so, is the most difficult aspect of the divorce. They may well be right. Many parents, due to their anxiety about this step, do a terrible job of telling the children. They don’t intend to do a terrible job, but their fears, concerns for the children’s ability to understand what is happening, and desire to “spare them the pain” as much as possible misleads them. Wallerstein and Kelly, in their five year study of children of divorce, found that 80% of the younger children were totally unprepared for the announcement of divorce, given no reassurances to help them through the adjustment period, and often simply found that a parent was suddenly “gone.” Children need reassurances that they will be cared for, that as much as possible their “normal” life will continue, and that their parents are divorcing each other, not the children.
How to Prepare for the Announcement
- Don’t tell the children until you are certain of the decision yourself. It’s probably best to tell them together; this presents a united front and reassures the children that the two of you are still their parents. It also avoids creating resentment and anger later when one parent feels this terrible job was “dumped” on them by the other parent
- Discuss the need to tell the children, and practice what you will say. It should be non-judgmental of both parents, entail a clear but simple explanation that there have been problems in the marriage, and that the parents can no longer live together. If you need to do this with another family member or a friend to practice it, do so
- Set aside time to answer their questions, and prepare yourself to answer them honestly. Think about what they might ask, and practice some ways to tell them answers that make things clearer, not more frightening or too complex
- Prepare yourself to keep your anger and hurt in check; arguing during this discussion or putting down the other parent is likely to make this matter even more painful for them. Remember, you are not having this conversation to deal with your feelings; you are there to deal with the children’s feelings, fears, and needs
- Find a time to tell all of the children together; it helps reinforce that you are still a family and still in this together as much as possible for their sakes
- Prepare yourself to hear their cries, anger, and fear; if you shirk from facing their emotions now, you tell them that they can expect you to be unable to deal with their feelings later
What to Say
- Explain that the parents used to love each other very much, but now are not happy together and have decided to move apart. It’s OK to tell the children the things you have tried to do to make things work out, but that these efforts haven’t worked. Explain the marriage will be ending, the parents will not live together anymore, but the parental relationship will not end.
- Take time to reassure the children about where they will live, what their lives will be like, and especially for young children, use concrete examples. “Mommy will still buy food and make dinner for you” and “Daddy will still take you to school in the mornings and to sports practices on the weekends” as these kind of concrete events are what mark a child’s world as predictable and understandable.
- If there will be changes, tell the children what to expect. If there’s no more summer camp, tennis lessons, or Friday night outings to the movies, let them know this too. If there are living arrangements that are undecided, be honest and tell the children this, but reaffirm that doing what is the best thing for them will remain uppermost in your minds. Let them know that both of you will be working hard to make sure they get the things they need and that things become more stable and predictable as soon as possible.
- McKay and colleague suggest explaining why the marriage is ending. Some parents fear telling too much to the children, but clear explanations keep children from blaming themselves. Further, it is better that the children hear the truth from their parents in a planned way, rather than overhearing it later, coming up with explanations for themselves, and becoming more distressed.
- If sexual problems were involved, tell the children that being close to one another was very hard. If an affair was involved, tell them that one parent began to love someone else because of the problems in the parents’ relationship. If you are angry and hurt, say so, but recognize that both parents have been hurt and are unhappy.
- McKay and colleagues also recommend consideration of telling the children who decided to end the marriage. You may decide this is too much information, or you may decide that it is simply too painful to discuss. However, the parent that has decided to end it may be able to reassure the children in clear ways so they don’t fear the parent ending their relationship as well.
- Let the children know that they did not cause the divorce, and that they can not change it. Children will still entertain fantasies of reunification and resolution, so be prepared for this and be willing to allow children to process the divorce in their own way and in their own time.
- Also let the children know that they can continue to love both parents, and they won’t have to choose one parent or the other. Tell them they can ask questions about things whenever they need to and can ask either parent. You know this is hard on them, but it will make some things better in the family. If you will no longer be fighting so much, avoiding each other, and feeling unhappy and tired as a result of constant marital stress, let them know that this will make some things better.
Dealing with the Aftermath
- Provide as much stability and predictability for the family as possible.
- Be prepared to repeat the things you told them again. Hearing it more than once will reassure them that you still mean it, help them understand what it all means, and let them know you still love them and will be there to explain the world to them.
- Be prepared for questions you didn’t expect to come up, misunderstandings of what’s happening and why, and the children’s difficulty accepting this. Children often are scared to ask deeper or more difficult questions for fear of the answers, or for fear of angering, hurting, or driving away a parent. Schneider and Zuckerberg in their book Difficult Questions Kids Ask [and are too afraid to ask] About Divorce, is a good book to understand what children say, and what they mean but can’t ask, and how to hear and answer them.
- For younger children, you can also expect some regressive behaviors; that is, they will become more like an even younger child for a time. They may be more clinging, return to thumb sucking or behaviors they ceased long ago, and may become irritable, withdrawn, or fussy.
- For school age children, you may find children fight with each other or friends, and they may be more aggressive than normal. Children may have more stomach aches and headaches. Younger children have less complex moral reasoning, and may be concerned about what is fair, who is wrong, and who is being punished. Help them understand that this is not the case; it is unfair on everybody, and nobody is “wrong” or being punished by the divorce.
- Children may try to side with one parent or the other, and during this time it is easy to feel you “won” over the other parent, or that the children love you more because you are the “better parent.” During this stressful time, the children’s love and affection may be much more special, soothing, and desired for you. Be careful not to let your emotions in this confuse their needs. They may be trying to align with one parent only out of fear that if they do not, they could lose both.
- Pre-teens and teens may be more vocal about their feelings, or may become more withdrawn and angry or depressed. They may want to live with one parent over the other, change their minds, and be angry with both of the parents because they are the ones who created the situation. Allow them their emotions and time to deal with this, and work hard to remain there for them while they work through conflicting desires and feelings of divided loyalties.
- Also expect school performance to drop quickly. A call to the school teacher, counselor, or nurse to let them know what is going on might be helpful too. You don’t have to give them details, but letting them know your child is upset, confused, or frightened about the divorce is enough.
- Be on the lookout for younger children that have problems coping with this; watch for eating and sleeping disturbances, loss of interest in formerly fun and desired activities, or nightmares. Realize that sometimes they will feel sad, and they need to feel this. Don’t try to “entertain away” their sadness, or tell them they shouldn’t feel whatever they feel, including sadness, anger, confusion, fear, etc… Schneider and Zuckerberg have short scripts for parents to consider that suggest ways to explore a child’s feelings, bring up difficult topics, and respond soothingly to children.
- Be on the lookout for a teen that has problems coping with this; watch for extended signs of depression and withdrawal, disconnection from friends, signs of drug or alcohol use, sexual promiscuity, and oppositional behavior.
- For some kids, acting out seems a natural response; if problems result from the divorce, mom and dad will have to get back together. Don’t be afraid to get professional help for them, or for yourself, at this time to help deal with this. An individual therapist skilled in working with children can help them understand what’s happening and process their reactions. A family therapist can help the family adjust to this time more easily as well.
- Some parents worry that being in therapy after the divorce will make courts, lawyers, and any professionals involved in the divorce think they are crazy. Most professionals and courts will not; they will see it as a sign that you are trying to deal effectively with this.