Introducing the Kids to Divorce
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Many parents ask, 'How do I tell the kids?' If you’re like many divorcing parents, you worry about the effects the end of your marriage is going to have on your children, especially if they are still quite young. You’re absolutely right to think that it will affect them. It will affect them from the first word you say.
As you know, no lawyer and no other family member can stand in for parents when it comes to introducing the children to the reality of divorce. No one can script it for you. Only you and your spouse know each of your kids intimately and can respond to them as unique people and as siblings. But I have compiled some ideas over the years.
Preparing: consider how kids think and feel
Before you make an announcement, you’ll certainly think about your children’s ages and their level of understanding. But you’ll also consider how each of your kids responds to the world. Ask yourself some questions about each of them:
- Does her/his outlook tend to be positive or negative?
- How does he/she react to conflict and stress, especially between parents?
- How does she/he respond to major changes?
- Does he/she tend to feel responsible for or guilty about things that happen?
- Is she/he inclined to try to find ways to fix things?
- How does he/she respond to failure?
These questions touch on some basic orientations we all have. Actually making a chart of the answers to each question for all the children can help you to simply to see them more clearly— to separate from your own thoughts and emotions. It can also help you distinguish between what you may feel the need to say and what they are likely to hear and understand.
You might even start to devise your own script. All the better if both you and your partner go through this exercise, then sit down together to compare notes. You may readily find areas of agreement on the kids that will guide you toward a good collaborative approach.
Talking: keep it simple
There’s no getting around it: talking to the kids will be difficult. If at all possible in your situation, do it together and as partners, following prior agreement about who speaks when, who says what. Here are seven ideas people I have dealt with during divorce find useful:
- Be timely—Tell the kids before they overhear too much or start asking what’s going on
- Keep the language and ideas simple, conveying the basic information briefly
- To the best of your ability, be a model of calm to reassure them
- Tell them right out that you both love them and will always be the parents they can count on
- Tell them it is not their fault
- Tell them you don’t want them to be on anybody’s side—you’re both on their side
- Let them know that it is all right to be sad— you are sad, too
Observing: let them tell you
Many parents, in the moment, feel the urge to reassure the kids by explaining everything. First, that may cause information overload and confusion. Second, trying to cover ‘everything’ you think is important may actually cause you to miss things they see as important. Finally, giving them room to react reminds you to pay close attention to them, not yourself.
After you’ve said your piece/s, give the kids a little time to gather themselves. Resist the urge to fill a silence. Let their reactions, comments and questions help you really focus on them and the importance of speaking with them. When any of the kids shows you that they need to stop or shut down for awhile, just let it be.
Once you’ve introduced the process to your children, help them stay out of it. Communication is a good thing but there’s lots more than divorce to communicate about. Kids don’t need to know all the ins-and-outs and the legalistic minutiae of ending a marriage. Again, they’ll let you know if they have questions about what’s going on.
From the Author: McCormack Family Law, Cleveland, Ohio