If only there were a fool-proof formula that parents could follow and feel reassured that they were saying the right thing, the right way, and at the right time when it comes to telling the children about your separation or divorce. Unfortunately, there is not because every situation is different and every family (in terms of communication styles, personalities, history, etc.) is different, too. But, luckily, there are some guidelines to follow that will surely help. These include:
This Is A Marathon, Not a Sprint!
When it comes to talking to your children about divorce, it is never a quick, one shot deal. It needs to be a process, a conversation or dialogue that evolves over time and includes lots of room for the expression of feelings (theirs) for reassurances that they are loved and will continue to be parented and loved (by you), and for answering questions. Think of this as a series of discussions and go slowly.
Take Baby Steps
Be careful about speaking of too much change at once. Kids can be quite resilient but they do need time to regain their momentum and their sense of balance after hearing big family news. It wouldn’t be helpful to tell your children you are getting divorced, the house is for sale, and we’re moving to Kentucky all in one sitting. The same goes for talking about mom’s new boyfriend in the same conversation as the “We aren’t going to live together anymore” one. There will be time for each bit of news to be shared with them, but not all at once! Small doses of information regarding changes generally works best. It’s also important to remember to put pauses in between each piece of news or any change you are speaking about, so your child or children have an opportunity to hear and process what it is you are saying. (Children do not process information at the same rate as adults do).
Watch for Cues
Pay attention and observe how your children are responding (expression, body language, behavior) to determine if you are giving them T.M.I. (too much information) or if it would help for them to hear a little more from you. Ask them what you just said and see if they are truly comprehending what you are talking about (or if they just stare at you with a vacant expression or run to grab their electronics). Don’t be afraid to repeat yourself or express the same message using different words.
Plan Private Time
Let your children know that there will be time after this first conversation for each of them to speak with (each of) you individually. This takes the pressure off your children to have all of their questions and feelings ready immediately and lets them know they will soon have another opportunity to talk about this, express feelings, and ask questions.
Choose Your Words Carefully
Plan out what it is that you are going to say. Rehearse first so that you won’t fumble or choke trying to get the words out. The more clearly you can speak, the better. Seek feedback on what you plan to say from trusted friends and family, a Divorce Coach, a Marriage Counselor or a Family Therapist. Remember that what you decide to say should be tailored to your family’s unique needs and to the age and developmental level of your children. Keep in mind that there is no need to reinvent the wheel here entirely as, when it comes to speaking with children about divorce, there is lots of wonderful information available. Look through books about divorce, read articles and blog posts on the web, and find articles written by professionals and by other parents who have divorced, too. Educate yourself and arm yourself with information before having the first conversation with your kids.
Who Says What?
Decide in advance on who says what starting with, will you tell the children separately or together? If your family has typically had important talks with all members present, you might opt for telling them together. If that is not the case, consider what might work best. If separately, what will each of you say? If together, what will each of you say and when—will you take turns speaking? Will one of you take the lead and the other reinforce the message? There is no cookie cutter solution to this as every family must make their best, educated guess as to what will work
Set the Stage
Be mindful of the where, when, and how. Where should this conversation take place? At the dining room table? In the family room? Picking a spot that your children feel comfortable in is important…picking an unusual spot to have a conversation might be alarming and complicate matters. Think ahead about where this should happen.
Consider the time of day that your children’s energy level is appropriate to their sitting down with you and listening to major news. If your children play sports and are totally worn out at the end of the day, then perhaps a Saturday morning or Sunday afternoon conversation would work best. Try to balance giving them important information with considering what is going on in their lives, i.e.-the week they are studying for finals might not be the best choice, but the week after might do, etc..
Remember that whatever you have read, heard, or seen, what you decide to say should be tailored to your family’s unique needs.
State and Re-State the Obvious
What might seem clear to you and I, may not be so clear to your children. When talking about divorce, your children will need to be reassured, repeatedly that: 1) There is nothing they did or did not do to cause this divorce (it is an adult problem only) 2) While some things will be changing, what will never change is the fact that you love them, and, 3) You will always be their Mom/Dad. Now more than ever, children of all ages (even teens!) need to know that your parenting energy and love, which they depend on, will always be there for them.
Follow up with teachers, baby sitters, family friends, coaches, clergy who are familiar with your child or children and gather information about any changes detected in mood, behavior, appetite, sleeping habits, etc. Learn what your children are saying to others about your family’s transition as well.
Talking with your family about divorce is not easy, but it is necessary and it can be done well. How you handle this is important in terms of setting the stage for future conversations and in encouraging your children’s open expression of feelings as you all move through the divorce process and beyond. Allowing your children time to process the news, answering their questions (age appropriately) and encouraging open conversation going forward will help you all to make the transition and re-establish your momentum, over time.
Wishing you great success in all of your relationships,