If you are considering separation and divorce and you have children, you likely have a ton of questions: “Will divorce cause irreparable harm to my kids?” “Am I ruining their life?” “What is the best way to tell them?” “What should we tell them?” “What are the best arrangements?” If you are asking these questions, you are joining the ranks of amazing parents who want to proceed with separation and/or divorce in the best way possible—for the sake of the kids. You are a good mom or dad for even being worried about these things and taking the time to ask these questions. Read on for some helpful answers. And by all means, don’t stop here. There are many amazing resources out there that can help you navigate your separation well. Research shows that kids can absolutely be resilient and well-adjusted in life, despite their parents’ divorce.
1. Be unified. First, take some time to talk together about what you want to tell the kids. Agree to the “story” or the type of details that you feel are or are not necessary. There are a lot of factors that go into what is appropriate to share. Consider the ages of your kids, what they have been exposed to, what they have observed or heard, their maturity level, etc. Make a bulleted list of what you both agree is important to share with them. And then, ideally, tell the kids together. No matter what and how much detail you feel is appropriate to share about the reasons for the divorce, here are some must-have bullet points to consider:
- “This is not your fault.”
- “We both love you very much.”
- “Our love for you will never change.”
- “We aren’t getting back together.” (If you are sure divorce is happening, let them know this is final. That while you still care about each other and always will as the parents to your amazing children, you are not going to be getting back together.)
- “We didn’t make this decision lightly, we put a lot of thought and effort into this decision.”
- “It’s okay to have feelings about this…we are sad too.”
If your kids ask you why, you can let them know there are lots of grown-up reasons for why parents divorce. There is a balance between being honest and being evasive. If your kids have seen you fighting and arguing, you can remind them of the fighting and arguing and that despite your best efforts, you haven’t been able to resolve all the fighting. If it is a complete shock to them you may need to explain a bit more to help your child(ren) understand how this happened. Maybe something more like, “I know things may look fine, there are a lot of things that go into a marriage that are just for grown-ups.”
2. Don’t talk smack. Maybe your spouse had an affair. Maybe she decided to leave you for another man. Maybe he picked alcohol over you. Maybe she has been checked out with work for the better half of the last two decades. Whatever the reason, you are doing yourself, your children and your entire family a huge disservice by expressing your feelings of anger, hurt or disdain toward your spouse/ex-spouse with your children. You may be thinking…I never do that. And maybe you don’t. Maybe you don’t say “Your dad was a lying, cheating jerk.” Maybe you do it more subtly, like “Don’t be like your dad” when you catch your child in a lie. Or maybe they just see you roll your eyes when they tell you mom made mac and cheese out of the box for dinner again last night. It’s all hurtful and it all leaves a scar on your child.
3. Do not include the kids in the conflict. Married or separate, there is no value to your children being included in your marital or co-parenting problems. In fact, doing so can create great harm. The funny thing about divorce is that you are likely getting one because you have trouble working through your conflicts together. Expect this to continue as co-parents (I know this part sucks…you can decide to not be married but you can’t decide to not be co-parents). You will continue to have conflict. Make a promise to yourself and each other (in your new role as co-parents) that you will NOT include your kids in your conflict. Send them the message that you are the grown-ups and you have this whole parenting thing covered.
4. Help them understand what to expect. Having a plan and letting children know what to expect can help relieve some of the anxiety of separation. Since there are often a lot of unknowns once a decision has been made to separate, start with what you do know, ie, “We do know Mommy will stay in our home and Daddy will move closeby.” “We do know that we will be selling the house in the next few months and Mommy and Daddy will each find an apartment nearby.” “We don’t exactly know what the living situation will be yet, but we do know that you will stay in your same schools.” Let them know that you are working together to determine the best arrangements for them and that you will let them know about any changes as soon as you can.
5. Give them time with both parents. Research shows that kids are more resilient to divorce when two things are present: 1) they do not include the children in their conflict (I thought it was worth saying again) and 2) they have meaningful time with both parents. Reassure your kids that they will have lots of time with both parents and that they will continue to have a close relationship with both of you. And then (assuming parental fitness is not an issue) follow through!! Do not interfere with the time your child has with the other parent because it may be hard for you. I can’t imagine what it would be like to wake up on Christmas morning and not be with my kids. But, if I were divorced, that is an expectation I would need to accept at times. Also, let them know, “It’s okay to love us both!! It’s okay to have fun at Mom’s house and at Dad’s house!”
6. Help them process their emotions. I tell parents that even though separation and divorce is not how they pictured their family, there are some positive things that can come from separation and divorce for your kids. Teaching your kids how to handle the difficult emotions that can come up during a separation is valuable, necessary and life-changing. Teach them how to find comfort in healthy places, teach them that negative emotions are okay and a part of life. Talk to them about how to grieve.
7. Use resources! I believe this is the main difference between couples who achieve successful co-parenting relationships with resilient children and those who do not. There are books, blogs, therapists, workshops, classes, podcasts, mediators, attorneys, etc. that can help give guidance. Learn from the wisdom of experts who study, research and guide people through effective divorces. Don’t go this alone.