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How Do We Tell the Children?

This question is posed often by my coaching clients who are worried about how the divorce will impact their children.

No matter what level of dysfunction  and/or bad behavior that existed prior to the divorce, both parents typically have the same exact fears for their children’s wellbeing. It is important for parents to remember this even in the midst of their feelings of rage and righteousness. Remember that your fellow parent is afraid too. And both of you might be wrestling with feelings of guilt and failure as you tackle this step together.

I always encourage my clients to have a MUTUAL STORY. This means that both parents are using the exact same wording as they tell their children together about the impending divorce.  Each of you may still have very different perspectives about what happened but that is not something that is helpful for the children to hear.  For example, father might have had an affair after feeling his marriage has been loveless for years. The mother might feel that she has been doing all of the tasks for the children while the father works and has fun outside of the house. The children are 5 and 10 years old. How might you explain it to them?

In coaching, we might create a MUTUAL STORY like this:

“Your father and I have realized that we were not working well as a team.  We have been having a hard time problem solving together and we even feel like we want different things out of life. We have thought long and hard about how to make the situation the best for everybody involved.  We are both always going to be your parents and this is not due to anything that you have done. We both love you and will still be with you – but we will be doing this at separate houses. If you guys have any questions at ANYTIME please let us know. You might experience ALL kinds of feelings as we get through this change and we are here to listen to them. We might not have magic solutions but we all are always ready to talk about it”

I greatly encourage my clients to deliver this message in a family meeting that is non-emotional in tone. If the children experience their parents breaking down; they can in turn, become very afraid. Your children will take their cues from you. If you are delivering and handling the news well – so will they! If beforehand, you are worried about emotions leaking over- practice your story first. Do it in the bathroom mirror and on your way to work until you feel that you can say the words without falling apart.

Notice that I DID NOT say – Mom and Dad fell out of love with each other. Please do not say this! Children are very black and white thinkers. When they hear those words; they often interpret it to mean that their parents could potentially also fall out of love with them. They are not able to grasp the complexity of that one, so I encourage my clients to stay away from the word “LOVE” in their story. NOTICE I also said – This is NOT your fault. Children are very narcissistic in understanding the world. It is age appropriate for them to feel that whatever events happen around them is a direct result of themselves. Children often need to be reminded that they are not the source of the marriage break-up for many years to come.

In my years of doing this work, I have heard from many angered parents that they are going to tell their children that it was the other spouse who broke up the marriage. This is where I work at managing emotions. When a party tells their offspring anything of this sort, it creates great turmoil; no matter what the childrens’  age is. Kids might feel angered and in turn, alienate from the blamed parent. This is one form of Divorce Poisoning. I have witnessed these children become full of rage when they hit adulthood and realize that they were manipulated to hate the other parent.

Timing is also something to consider. If your child is one who ruminates or experiences anxiety; it is often not beneficial for there to be a large time period between the announcement and the move out. At the same time, there does need to be time for the children to adjust to the idea before it happens so that it is not a sudden shock to their day-to-day life. During that time, be aware of your children’s behaviors. Do they suddenly regress? Not sleeping alone anymore? Calling our your name repeatedly? Acting out? Know that these are often symptoms of the change and should settle down. But if they continue for months then please consider some family or child counseling.

Parents are often shocked during the time period after the announcement. They will tell me that the children seem fine. I then educate my clients on the fact that grief in childhood looks very different than grief in adulthood. Children often grieve in bits and spurts. They are busy growing-up and engaging with friends and schooling so they usually do not slow down enough to pay attention to sadness for extended periods of time. You might see a “flare” or have a “challenging day” when visitation starts, a holiday comes around or a family ritual is changed. That is when the finality of the divorce will become more of a reality for them. So do not be surprised if your children do not grieve on the same timeline as yourself.

Research proves that children are actually functioning better a year post divorce than they were before the split up. This is assuming that the parents are not using the children as messengers, a new set of rituals have been established, visitation is occurring consistently and the parents are co-parenting well. It is not the divorce that causes trauma to the children – it is how the parents behave post divorce. So think about how you would like your children to recall the divorce transition? Did they lose their mother or did she become more emotionally available to them? Did their father begin introducing the kids to a string of girlfriends or did he role-model a healthy family in his next relationship? Did either fall into Depression? Financial Strain? Continued Rage? or Powerlessness? Or did both parents demonstrate resiliency and empowerment?

Imagine your child in therapy in twenty years. How would you like them to share THEIR story?  Think about what you would like them to say and MAKE IT HAPPEN!!!

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