By Dr. Kristin Davin
Divorce is a complicated and stressful life transition with many ups and downs, uncertainties, and unexpected twists and turns, which would explain why it is ranked as the second most stressful event in an adults life according to the Holmes Rahe Stress Scale.
Imagine the painstaking and stressful process for parents who now have to tell their child or children they have decided to divorce. Stress city! Working with numerous couples who are in this specific situation has taught me many things, but the one thing that rises to the top and that I work hard to impart is before you tell your children about your impending divorce, get your ‘stuff’ together and come up with a plan.
Coming up with a good plan together is important because it is all too common that one parent makes a unilateral and selfish decision to tell their child or children on their own, without consulting the other parent, showing no regard for their feelings or the feelings of the other parent.
Two words come to mind. Bad idea.
If parents really care about the emotional and psychological well-being of their children then it is imperative that parents first come up with a plan together, without children being included. The goal being to take actionable steps that will help their children through the impending divorce in a caring and childcentered way.
Now, asking parents to actually communicate and work as a team to the best they can is a big ask (I know) and can be tricky. And I also know that I am asking them to communicate on this very sensitive subject when most likely one of the main reasons why they are divorcing is because of communication issues. That’s the paradox. But here we are.
I share with them that being proactive now and taking strategic steps will help them in the future. However, if they choose to go ‘willy nilly’ and proceed with reactive responses, trust me the outcome will not be good. The lasting effects of poor planning will stay with and affect the whole family for a long time and it will be challenging to pick up the pieces.
Thus, it is vital that parents, even when they don’t want to, present as a team and put their child or children first when they decide to talk to them about the divorce. It’s a necessary family meeting and done together. Further, when parents present this way, it will help children observe that despite the divorce, their parents are talking to them together. They are thinking, we are still a family. Both of my parents are here with me right now.
So, when thinking about what you and your spouse are going to tell your children, specific questions should be addressed and answered:
What is our plan?
What do you want to tell them? How much? This will also be dependent on how old your child or children are.
When do you want to have a family meeting? Where will the meeting take place?
Who will do the talking? Who will take the lead?
What do we know definitively about our divorce that will help ease their pain and uncertainty? For example, where will you be living? What will or will not change for them?
Anticipate some questions they may ask – or not. It is very common for children to not have many questions – initially. They may need time to think things over. Remember, when parents have decided to divorce, they have had weeks, often months to go through many of the emotions of deciding to divorce. They have been the holder of the secret. When children are told about the divorce, they are just receiving the news now. They are emotionally far behind and depending on their age, even further.
When you speak to your children remember some key components:
The information you as a parent provide should be simple and age appropriate. You will not be sharing the same information with your 16 year-old son or daughter as you would with your 8 year-old, so don’t do that. Find a way to have a family meeting that most if not all children can attend and then meet with older children if necessary, individually. The goal is to have a family meeting and start the process.
However, that being said, even if you have a child that ‘acts’ a bit more mature than other children his or her same age or ‘looks’ a bit older, please do not infer they can handle more ‘adult like and complicated’ information. They cannot. They are still a child. They need guidance and support from both of their parents. Putting them in an adult role too early has dire long term consequences.
Take the time to think about each child individually. What are their strengths? What can they emotionally handle? What other stressors do they have going on in their life that might make this more challenging for them to process?
Discuss what will stay the same and what will change to the best of your ability at this time. Many children worry that everything will be different. Fear steps in. The things that stay the same are critical to their overall emotional well-being. For example, will they be going to the same school, have the same friends, keep their bed, have their stuffed animals? The small things are the big things for children, regardless of age. They need to know that despite the upheaval in their life that is around the corner, some things will remain the same. This provides safety and consistency, which they desperately need at this time.
They will, no doubt know other children at school whose parents divorced and maybe their situation is terrible. They will begin to think that their situation will be terrible too. They will stress and worry. Reassure them that it is ok to feel what they feel and let them know they can always talk about their feelings because they are important. It is equally important that as parents you have your own resources (not your children!) to process your feelings around getting divorced so you are emotionally available for them when they need you.
Finally, inform the school that you are divorcing. However, it is not necessary, nor would I recommend this, that you tell them all the details. Short and to the point. This allows teachers and other school professionals to be aware of any behavior or academic changes.
Remember like divorce, family meetings are a process and seldom one and done. What you both choose to do at the beginning and how you set the tone, will be the game changers as the entire family processes the divorce as the days, weeks, and months progress.
Learn how to put your feelings for your soon to be ex aside and your child or children’s feelings at the forefront.
Do the right thing and choose wisely.
About the Author
Proactive and approachable, ‘Dr D’ has been described as a ‘straight shooter.’ She helps people embrace change, cultivate healthier relationships, and become more effective communicators, both personally and professionally. Her areas of focus are: divorce, marriage, dating, life transitions, and relationships. By tapping into a person’s strengths, she helps people maximize their life and live authentically. For advice and suggestions on how to navigate your life, follow Dr D on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.