Whether they have the memory of an elephant or a fruit fly, there is one moment I guarantee your children are likely to remember for years to come: the divorce talk.
That's a lot of pressure to handle, especially when you're going through your own emotional turmoil. So the first thing I want to do is reassure you that "the talk" absolutely doesn't have to be a trauma that defines your children's lives and relationships forever more!
Sure, it's not exactly going to be a fun experience for you or for them, but if you approach it in the right way, the divorce announcement can actually mark the start of a much happier period for everyone involved, particularly if there have been a lot of parental arguments or tension in the family home.
So how should you approach telling your kids about your divorce? I recommend the following strategies to make the experience as gentle and reassuring as possible for your little ones.
Preparation is key.
No matter how old your children are, they're going to have lots of questions for you. Some will be obvious ("Who will look after me?"), some might come at you from left field ("Where will the goldfish live?"), but the one certainty is that there will be lots of uncertainty. It'll be a huge help to your children if you're prepared to answer as many of their questions as possible.
Children need certainty and reassurance. They need to understand that your divorce is not their fault, and that you and your ex will continue to love them and always be in their lives.
And they need to know they will be spending time with both parents, despite the divorce. Once you and your ex have a parenting schedule worked out, explain in simple terms exactly what that looks like. The more information children have about the changes they will soon encounter, the better they will be able to adapt to them.
Of course, there are some questions you just won't be able to answer, particularly if the custody arrangements haven't been worked out yet. In that case, reassure them they will still get to spend lots of time with both Mom and Dad, that you both love them and enjoy spending time with them, and that they may contact both of you at any time.
Nothing is as scary to a child as a big unknown so prepare for as many of their queries as possible.
It's all in the timing.
It's really important that you have this conversation at the right time in the divorce process. You don't want to talk with them too early –– before any specifics are worked out –– because they need the certainty of a solid plan. Similarly, the more you can work together with your ex to draft some talking points, the better. (There's some great guidance about what to include here.) Plan to have a meeting with your ex before you talk to the kids so you can both get on the same page about what's going to be said in the conversation. And of course, make sure you talk to the kids together, not separately. The more you can present a united front here, the better.
Be honest — but not too honest.
There is little point in fudging the details of what's really going on — kids are far too astute for that. Beyond a certain age, telling them that "Dad is going away for a while" is going to have those alarms bells ringing. So whether you've decided on divorce or a trial separation, be honest. Make sure the kids understand that even if it's a trial arrangement, they shouldn't pin their hopes on reconciliation.
That said, there's such a thing as being too honest, especially when it comes to explaining adult relationships to children. There are some things your kids do NOT need to know. If you're getting divorced because Mommy or Daddy has been having an affair, it's better to find a more child-friendly explanation for your split.
Don't play the blame game.
On that note, it's vital for your kids' mental health that you don't play the blame game. One of you may well be more at fault than the other but using your offspring as a weapon against your ex is only going to make the situation harder for your children. If they are to emerge from the situation unscathed, it's important that they are able to maintain a positive relationship with both parents.
Talk to each other with respect and lay any resentment to one side — at least when your children are present.
Of course assigning blame is almost instinctive when it comes to conflict and many children internalize that blame. Be sure to explain to your children that the break up is a grownup problem that has nothing to do with them or their behavior and that while grownups sometimes stop loving each other, they never stop loving their children.
How will your children react to the news of your divorce? To that, there's no easy answer, no "normal" reaction. They may be angry or upset, they may withdraw, they may even feel some relief if they've seen it coming. They may appear to take the news suspiciously well — in this case, offer the same information and level of comfort you would if they were outwardly upset. It may just take a little time for the news to sink in.
If they're not yet able to talk or to listen, reassure them that they can come back and discuss things with you whenever they're ready.
Whatever their reaction, be patient with them.
The weeks and months following your talk will be a rollercoaster of emotion — for everyone. To help your children through this period, offer them all of the love and reassurance they need and above all, keep things as normal as possible. Try to follow your usual routines and stick to your usual parenting rules. Children are incredibly resilient. They'll get through this, and so will you.
Finally, don't hesitate to reach out for individual or family counseling if emotions are overwhelming or if there are concerns about the child moving forward in a healthy way. Child development specialists, family and child counselors, or religious leaders can be lifesavers for yourself and your kiddos in these situations.
Divorce is rarely easy — whether you're having custody issues, financial problems, or you want to find a way to parent separately, but together, mediation may help you find a more peaceful way forward. Contact me now.