When talking with your kids about divorce, preparation is key.
The upheaval of divorce is compounded when children are involved. Because divorce has such an impact on children, it is very important to prepare for your conversation with them about divorce. Preparing for the tough “break the divorce news” conversation in advance is crucial to how your children will approach, understand and heal from the entire process. Despite your differences, try to work with your partner, when talking with your children.
The questions your children will ask depend largely on their age, and how prepared they are for the divorce revelation within your family. Children living with high parental conflict or with emotional turmoil at home may not be surprised by this discussion. These children will still be impacted by this official announcement; their whole world is changing. The enormity increases the need for parents to be fully present and in-tune with their kids’ needs.
Kids may experience a form of shock and even panic, upon hearing that your family is changing. They may have a hard time accepting this dramatic news. Adapt your words and approach according to their reaction(s) and to your family dynamics. Instead of focusing on (or answering) why, try to keep your conversation focused on facts and realities.
This family discussion will inevitably bring up fears, questions and insecurities for your children. As such, there are several vitally important questions both you and your partner should address and be prepared to answer.
Children are likely to ask questions about how divorce will directly affect them:
- Where will we live?
- Will we still go to the same school?
- Will we have to leave my friends?
- Will we still see mom and dad?
- What will happen over summer vacation?
You don’t have to have all the answers to these questions at the time of the initial discussion. Being prepared with as many reassurances as you can offer will ease your children’s worry about their safety and “normalcy.” If your child will be staying in the same home or neighborhood, telling them they will still see their friends and attend the same school is
“Being prepared with as many reassurances as you can offer will ease your children’s worry about their safety and “normalcy.”
– Leah Hill | Divorce Strategies Northwest
If you / your family will be relocating out of the area, the conversation will be more difficult and complex. Find ways to boost their sense of security, by reminding them that they will always be with one of their parents. It may help to focus on positives— let them know they will be living closer to a relative(s), or have greater / more frequent access to something they enjoy— such as a sports team, beaches, or unique activities not currently available nearby.
Be prepared to spend time, listen closely, and sincerely hear what your child says, even if you don’t like what they share. Don’t dismiss nor discourage your children’s emotional response and reaction(s). Instead, acknowledge their feelings and reassure them that you hear them. Assure your children that you and their other parent are working to make this transition as smooth as possible for the entire family.
If your children pressure you about why divorce is happening in your family, the best answer is one that supports both parents and stresses your love for them–“Our relationship is changing, but our love for you is not.” Give few details (even if pressed), and resist the urge to explain any further.
Here are nine guidelines that parents should discuss in advance and agree to follow:
1. Avoid Bashing Your Ex To and Around Your Kids
When you speak disrespectfully about your children’s other parent, the kids are often hurt, confused and riddled with guilt. Their natural thinking is, “If there’s something wrong with Dad or Mom, there must also be something wrong with me, for loving them.” This can result in damaging your own relationship with your children.
2. Avoid Fighting Around Your Children
Studies show that conflict creates the most pain and turmoil for children of divorce. Keep parental battles away from your children – whether you’re on the phone or even when they are asleep. Hearing confrontation they can’t personally resolve is frightening and dis-empowering for children. It robs them of their childhood innocence and boosts their frustration, since they’re helpless to change the circumstances around them.
3. Avoid Pressuring Children to Make Difficult Choices
Most kids feel torn and confused when asked to choose between their parents; it’s a no-win situation. Often, they will lie to please one parent, and feel guilty about the other. A mature parent won’t put their children in that position.
4. Don’t Stress Their Innocence
Remind your children frequently that they bear no blame in any way to your divorce – even and especially if you are fighting with their other parent about them. Continue to remind them that the divorce is not their fault.
5. Remind Them That You While Things are Changing, You are Still a Family
Intentionally talk with your children about being “Team (insert your family name)“. This tactic emphasizes that you and your co-parent are a team in being there for them, shows unity, and models mature communication to them. Reminding them that they can still talk with both of you; the dynamics of secrecy, rivalry, and “dad vs mom” behooves no one.
6. Don’t Confide Adult Information in Your Kids
During this transition process, stressed-out parents are in peril. Sometimes they will confide in their children, for a variety of reasons. They will try to win their child’s allegiance, or to alienate them from their other parent. This immature strategy will often backfire in later years. The calm, low-drama parent is the safe parent for kids to confide in and trust.
Don’t blame your co-parent for the divorce when talking with your kids, even if you feel it’s justified. Doing so creates an emotional burden that children don’t have the emotional capacity to understand. Vent your anger and frustrations to your friends, your coach or therapist.
7. Don’t Use Your Kids To Communicate
Don’t ask nor expect your kids to relay messages to their other parent. Instead, use an online co-parent scheduling and communication program for that. And never turn your children into spies, sharing information about their other parent’s life and home. Doing so makes children feel uncomfortable, and puts enormous pressure on them. In time, they’ll resent you for this unfair attempt to split their allegiance.
8. The Emotional Toolbox
When you have a physical ailment or problem, it is normal to head to the doctor for support. Offer to your children that there are resources available to help them develop an emotional toolbox. This is a “doctor” (provider) who will provide support and help them process these fundamental transition(s). There is no shame in seeking therapy. Pediatric therapists are adept at helping children mentally frame change, ask questions, and understand their emotions.
9. Prepare and Educate Yourself
Many parents feel tremendous anxiety when preparing for and having this crucial conversation about divorce with their children. Prepare yourself in advance. Consider the possible questions and age-appropriate responses, before taking any action. Seek out professionals who practice mediation, which often results in a more positive, cooperative outcome. Divorce professionals can support you, especially if you’re not feeling confident about how best to approach your children. This is complex!
- Get advice from parenting coach
- Work with a divorce coach
- Practice with and seek wisdom from a licensed therapist who specializes in family transitions
- Seek out books, articles and various resources that provide wisdom and support
Understand the impact of your words, your tone and your emotions on your children’s innocent psyches. Your leadership, body language and attitude set the tone. More than anything, children need to see and feel reassurance, safe and love throughout the transition. This includes hugs, expressions of love and support, providing compassion and caring feedback.
Before you respond to anything, put yourself in your kids’ position, and try to empathize with all the emotions they are experiencing. This situation is painful for the entire family. That perspective will give your family a stronger, more stable foundation on which to face the changes ahead with compassion, security and unconditional love.
During times of change, children look to their parents for leadership and stability. Show leadership, strength, and an ability to be “present” for your kids, both emotionally and physically. The main take-away that kids need to hear (and feel) is that they will still be deeply loved, taken care of, and allowed to love both parents without fear of reprisal.
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