One of the most common concerns parents have as they approach divorce and separation is this: “What should we tell the kids, and how should we tell them?”
Telling your children that you are separating or getting divorced can cause enormous feelings of guilt and sadness in parents. Parents are also understandably concerned that their kids will feel pain, anger or confusion, and parents often want to shield their children from these feelings. I can certainly understand that.
Seeing yourself as the cause of pain to your children can be overwhelming.
Sometimes parents avoid telling their children anything at all until days before (or even after) the separation or divorce has occurred, and one of the parents has moved out of the house. Not telling the children the truth ahead of time leaves the children feeling betrayed and deceived by their parents. It also doesn’t prepare them for the event. Decades of research shows that children do better when they are told about the separation ahead of time. This allows them time to be sad and confused while being supported by both parents.
The best thing you can do is to provide the truth (in age-appropriate ways), and then help your kids through the big feelings that the truth generates.
Mutual Story of Divorce
One of the best ways that you can tell the children about divorce is to sit down with your partner and develop a mutual story: one that you’re both comfortable with telling the children. One that is honest and truthful but is age appropriate and warm. …More on this later.
One Way We’ve Seen It Done… The Not Great Way.
Each parent (without discussing it with the other parent first) tells the children, separately and at different times, why they are getting divorce. This usually leads to the children getting two different stories. Because marriage is complicated and complex, often each parent’s story is an individualized story from their perspective.
I have met with child after child who told me some version of this: “My mom told me that they’re getting divorced because they have different values and they fell out of love, and that dad asked for a divorce. Then when I went to Dad’s, he told me it was because mom wasn’t in love with him anymore, that he couldn’t make it work, and that she filed the divorce papers. Now I don’t know who is lying. I can’t trust either of them.”
Story telling is a bonding experience.
Friends, there is an alternative. Creating a mutual story of divorce comes from the age-old tradition of story telling as a bonding experience. Consider: Most children ask questions about their parent’s courtship and enjoy the hearing the stories over and over. They replay stories about times they enjoyed, again and again and again. Story telling is something that bonds us together.
When we take this bonding experience and integrate it into this difficult transition, you accomplish a few things:
- You help your kids see that you care enough to talk them through what’s happening
- You create a sense of safety
- You open the door to communication with them through the process
From a child’s point of view, the best divorce is not a “break up” of the family unit, but a re-organization of the family unit into two households.
Children shouldn’t be told that the divorce was caused by one parent or the other. This makes our kids feel like they have one “bad” parent – when they would prefer to have two “good” parents. If both parents take mutual relationship for the breakup, their children don’t have to be caught in the middle, confused about loyalty and betrayal. Cue the mutual divorce story.
The idea here is that you give the children a basic statement about the reasons of the divorce, while keeping the adult details out of the conversation.
Here are some examples:
“Your mom won’t stop drinking and I can’t handle it anymore.”
“Your dad is leaving me.”
The mutual story would be:
“We’ve not been happy together for a long time. We have grown apart, and it’s hard for us to get along when we’re together. It’s not fair to you guys when we argue all the time. We have decided that it would be better if we lived in two separate households. The fighting will stop, and we will both be happier, and we will be able to be there for you guys better than we have been. We will still be a family, just living in two separate homes. We both love you very much, and you have permission to love us both.”
“Your dad works all the time and he’s never around. I’ve been lonely and sad; you’ve seen me crying a lot. I’m tired of being lonely. It’s time for me to find people who appreciate me for me.”
“Your mom doesn’t understand that I work so much just so I can provide for you guys. She won’t work with me on it. I guess she thinks she’ll have better luck with someone else.”
The mutual story would be:
“You guys, we know you’ve been seeing us argue for a long time. We’re so sorry that’s been hard for you. We still love each other, but not in the way that we used to when we got married. We have decided to live in separate homes. We will still be a family; we will still work together as parents to make sure you guys feel loved and taken care of. Both of us love you SO much, and that will never change.”
“We have decided.”
You can see the difference in approach above. One option places blame on the other parent, either obviously or subtly. The other option mutually carries the responsibility of the divorce.
- Tell the truth about the separation and divorce when possible.
- Keep the adult details out of the conversation
- Younger kids need fewer words. Older kids can handle more complex conversations.
- Both parents should be present, and the siblings should be told at the same time whenever possible.
- Have this conversation in a distraction free space – a normal space at home, TV off, etc.
- Set aside time to answer questions the children may have. Several hours of unplanned time should be available after the conversation so that the children can process however, they need to.
Working together in marriage may have been difficult but working together in divorce for the benefit of your family is up to you. I cannot express strongly enough how important it is that your children see you working together to keep their world safe and secure. You can do this.