One of the most difficult challenges facing parents who are planning to divorce is what to tell their children. While indeed this is perhaps the most painful conversation that you will ever have, a frequently overlooked dynamic is the timing of this discussion.
Empathize with Your Child
As a parent, it is extremely important to see this experience from your child’s perspective. Once the actual decision is finally made, you are often driven by anxiety to tell your child as quickly as possible; as much to inform them as to escape your own feelings of stress and tension that builds as time goes on and you feel like you are “keeping a secret.”
What you need to understand is that hearing the news about parental divorce is your child’s own personal “September 11th.” This news is traumatic for most children, and typically unexpected. Consequently, just as you likely remember exactly where you were and what you were doing when you heard about 9-11, your child will likely remember many of the details surrounding this conversation.
I personally compare it to my hearing about the JFK assassination (although I’m clearly dating myself) and though I was quite young, to this day I can tell you exactly where I was and what I was doing when I heard that news. That is why it is so important that you recognize not only the impact of this news on your child but why the timing matters. Where they are, when it occurs, and what is going on at the time are all variables imprinted on your child’s memory and subsequent recall of this experience.
Avoid Recurring Events
It is therefore critical that you NOT tell your child about a pending divorce around a “recurring anniversary” event that will get triggered every year. You remember 9-11 EVERY year on September 11th, and even unconsciously relive the trauma that hearing about the Twin Towers crash caused you. Similarly, if you tell your child about the divorce around their birthday, any holiday, the beginning of school, the beginning of summer, the beginning of camp, etc., each time that event recurs, potentially for the rest of their lives, they will recall “oh yeah, THIS is when you told me about the divorce” and re-experience, even briefly, a pang of grief and sadness that accompanied the original news, never really allowing that wound to fully heal.
This is especially important as we are coming into “holiday time.” If you have recently decided to divorce, and you have not yet told your children by approximately the third week in October, AND you have the ability to wait (which may not always be possible) I would recommend that you delay this difficult conversation until after the New Year. Once Halloween occurs, holiday season has begun. Sharing this traumatic news between the end of October and the beginning of January will not only contaminate most children’s favorite time of year, but the divorce will be forever associated with the holidays, serving as an annual reminder to your child of when their world turned upside down and life changed forever.
At times, it is simply not possible to do the “ideal” and in that instance I encourage you to seek further guidance on how to best structure the timing to mitigate some of the potential fall out. Parents in the throes of a divorce are often not thinking clearly, but the goal for the sake of your children, is to share this painful news in not only the best possible way, but at the best possible time.