The most common question I get from parents divorcing is “when and how do we tell the kids about our divorce?”.
Assuming this might be one of your questions, I have some pointers, recommendations, and valuable resources I would like to share.
When/how to tell the kids?
Tell them together if possible: Ideally if you can “present as a united front” and share the news about your divorce together this would be the best way to let your kids know that you both have mutually agreed to part ways.
Decide on the main points you both want to share and not share, come to a consensus on which points you agree to share and practice if possible. (Important messages to share can be found via many resources: books, articles, videos. I would suggest you make sure to include the message that “the love between a mom and a dad can change to the degree that they decide they want to live apart and that is what has happened for us.” “But the love between a parent and a child never changes no matter what and we are going to work together to make sure we keep the same or support an even better relationship with you even after we move apart.” “There is nothing either of you did or could do to affect our love for each other.” “This wasn’t an easy decision for us to make and we worked hard to keep loving each other the way we did when we first married but ultimately have realized this is the best decision for us to make.” (Using a divorce counselor, coach or myself as a sounding board is a good way to do this for a trial run).
Leave out blame and criticism. Letting your kids know that one parent is to blame for any aspect of your divorce puts them in a position to judge one parent as good and/or bad. This will have negative psychological effects on them for years to come including negative effects on self-esteem, self -concept and can lead to depression and anxiety. Please be careful not to allow your kids to hear you speak negatively of your spouse as they are more sensitive and aware then you may realize.
Normalize feelings and encourage communication: Letting your kids know it is ok to be sad, and ok to be happy and ok to feel whatever feelings come up is OK. Grief comes with many different feelings including acceptance which includes hope for a new future that can be bright and positive. Make sure to encourage your kids to be able to ask questions whenever they want and when they are ready. They don’t have to share or speak about their feelings if they don’t want to or are ready to. Sometimes pressuring children to focus on their feelings can have a negative effect so please be patient and open to different copings style that may come up.
Every child is unique in their ability to adjust to change. Some children need a lot of time and preparation while others are quick to adapt. In general, I would suggest to refrain from telling children about your divorce until all the main pieces of your divorce plan are in place. Providing children with the knowledge that you are divorcing without having a clear plan in place can add undue stress for children. As a general rule of thumb, it is good to tell children between 1-3 months prior to a move for one or both parents. This is usually the biggest aspect of a divorce that is destabilizing for children as it comes with a whole host of other subsequent changes, such as timesharing.
Know when to get help: Because children have limited choice in the changes that occur they may need a safe space to explore their feelings and help them with adjusting to many new dynamics and aspects of their life that are changing. In general it is always good to seek counseling for children during a divorce. Find a therapist that specializes in helping children through divorce even for a one-time session despite any observable signs of distress so you can provide a safe foundation for which they can return when they might really need it. Signs of distress in the midst of divorce, may look like increases insecurity or nervousness in social situations, increased separation anxiety, increased isolation, appearing more cranky/vulnerable/emotional than usual, showing less interest in activities, and overall noticeable changes in coping that emerge following the divorce process.
Divorcing parents relationship is in a transition from partners to coparents. This might be a challenging transition that comes with a variety of emotional, relational and communication issues that need to be worked out. Children are sensitive to their parent’s wellbeing and therefore, the more you can shield your kids from the emotional upheaval you are experiencing, the better you can protect them from the effects that divorce. Of course, grief over the loss of your relationship and the family you have as it was it perfectly normal and some degree of exposure to this is ok. In fact pretending or presenting as if you have no grief for the relationship or changes in your family might signal that having emotions of grief in this context is unwelcome and may result in children disconnecting from much needed emotional processing.
From a coparenting standpoint some resources recommend that you jointly or individually create a “Parenting Goal Statement,” to help set some powerful and positive intentions for your future as co-parents. By collaboratively agreeing upon some shared parenting goals and beliefs, you can help improve your potential to cooperate and coparent for the benefit of your kids. These are statement you could potentially share with your children or not and if you do, can help set them up for what to expect from you both as you navigate this process.
Some examples are:
- We will shield our children from our conflict.
- We will not use our children as messengers.
- We will not use our children as confidants.
- We will not put our children in a position of “choosing sides.”
- We will keep child-related issues completely separate from financial ones.
- We will not criticize each other to or in front of, our children. (Devaluing each other can cause children to wonder what is wrong with them for loving such unworthy parents.)
- We will each nurture our children’s love for the other parent.
- We will agree beforehand what information we will share with the children regarding the divorce.
- We will encourage our children to express their feelings, and thoughts because we care about their experience and as parents we will mutually decide what actions to take for their best interest.
- We will share information about our children’s well-being, schoolwork, activities and schedules.
- We will make our best effort to have similar, consistent rules for the children and understand that this may not always be possible.
- We will reassure our children that they will continue to have two parents who love them because “although the love between a husband and wife can sometimes change, the love between a parent and a child never goes away”.
- We will reassure our children that the failure of our marriage is not their fault in any way. (children may feel that if not for them, their parents wouldn’t be fighting.)
- Because our children will suffer as long as issues remain unresolved regarding them, we will try to resolve those issues quickly and in a way that reflects the values stated above.
Above are great basic tenants and you may want and create more. Often I find these points embedded in parenting plans.
There are also so many great books to learn more about the needs of children through a divorce process and on how to effectively coparent. Here is a humble list of options below in addition to two websites that offer great resources to help small children going through divorce:
- Cooperative Parenting and Divorce: A Parent Guide to Effective Coparenting
- Divorce, Simply Stated (2nd Edition): How to Achieve More, Worry Less and Save Money in Your Divorce
- Mindful Co-Parenting: A Child-Friendly Path through Divorce
- Between Two Homes: A Coparenting Handbook
I hope you find these resources and information helpful.
I would be happy to talk out any of your concerns to help prep you as best as is possible in handling this delicate issue.
Tammy Berman is a licensed mental health counselor that specializes in helping people through the divorce process. She is the current president of the Collaborative Family Law Professionals of South Florida and is invested in helping individuals and families find protective and peaceful ways to resolve conflict and transition their family when divorcing.