Beth and Joe just looked at each other. Had they really just decided to divorce?
Though they had talked around the idea in counseling and with friends, neither truly expected it to come to this. Yet, both realized–here it was.
Then, the next question hit–
How do we tell the children?
In the middle of their own heartbreak, most couples have no idea how to talk to their children about divorce. What should they say? How do they keep their children from being hurt? How do they explain what went wrong? If you are thinking of divorce, you may share this challenge.
While it’s never easy–a few key ideas offer the best starting point for talking to children.
Couples can divorce each other as spouses–but never as parents. More, children’s security comes from their parents’ relationship.
In healthy marriages, Mom and Dad work together, laugh together, make decisions together, and resolve problems together. Even when they argue, they find a way to take care of each other in the midst of the arguing. All this naturally creates security for their children.
In unhealthy marriages and unhealthy divorces, parents’ inability to work with and care for each other destroys their children’s security.
But, healthy co-parenting in divorce can return the security.
When parents work together to create two homes for their children, they create a new base of security. As parents join forces for their children’s’ sake, they help ensure children will survive and even thrive in the midst of divorce.
So, before talking to your children, find a mediator or other professional who values co-parenting to help you craft a parenting plan that enables you to work together for the sake of your children.
Second–Communicate the decision together.
No matter what the next stage brings, children need to see that their parents will work together to care for them. As parents tell their children together, the united front for giving this news concretely demonstrates that parents will continue working together later. No matter how angry or hurt you may be, telling the children together lays the groundwork for keeping the children first in all the other decisions.
Finally–focus on 3 key points:
“We love you.”
Children grieve deeply the loss of their parents’ marriage. Their home. Their way of life. Most of all they grieve the loss of the assurance that love lasts.
Children need to hear parents say out loud and repeatedly, “We love you.” Then, you need to back that statement with actions.
Children need parents to physically show up for parenting time, for games, and for special events.
They need their parents to emotionally support them in processing their grief about the divorce.
Children need their parents to honor each other so children are free to openly love and relate to both.
All of these actions demonstrate real love. As your children experience these tangible expressions of parental love, they come to trust that their parents will continue to be a source of security–from separate houses.
“This is not your fault.”
Children inevitably assume they caused the divorce. Their misbehavior. Their poor grades in school. Their fighting. Right up front, parents should frame the decision to divorce as their decision.
This may be particularly hard if the divorce is not your idea–and you truly didn’t want it. For many spouses, they not only don’t want the divorce, they feel divorce is wrong. It can feel like integrity with your children is being compromised to act like this was your decision when it wasn’t.
While parents should never be put in a position of violating their conscience, they should also not put children in a position to apportion blame. As children grow up, they learn for themselves the type parents they have, the values their parents hold, and the level of integrity they live by. Children will naturally discover the root issues leading to the divorce–they don’t need to learn these upfront.
Sometimes, children’s highest regard for parents comes as children grow and learn more about how much their parents protected them.
Parents can say something like, “We are going to divorce (or, for younger children, Mommy and Daddy won’t live together any more). This is not your fault. You didn’t do anything to cause this. This is our decision.” This avoids pinning the choice on one parent and focuses instead on the reality that is coming.
It’s good to avoid phrases such as “We don’t love each other anymore.” Even if true, this confuses children. If parents can stop loving each other, they can stop loving children.
“We are going to take care of you.”
Divorce impacts every area of life for adults and children. Parents likely fear coming changes. That fear can tempt parents to avoid addressing those changes with children. This leaves children feeling confused and afraid.
Beth and Joe were able to assure their children that they would get to stay in their school and that Dad would keep their house. That assurance settled the initial fears for their children. As children ask questions, if answers are known–give them.
On the other hand, Beth was unsure where she would live. Beth and Joe simply offered, “We aren’t sure where Mommy will live, but we are working that out. As soon as we know, we will tell you. As Mom finds the most likely places to live, you will get to see them and help her pick.”
Parents who work together demonstrate to their children that, even as life dramatically changes, their parents will take care of them.
Telling the children is never easy. But, it can be healthy. Parents who focus on reassuring children and framing a plan provide a base of security for their children and path forward.
If you would like help to create a healthier divorce, please call The Resolution Center at 317-344-9740 or email info@TheResolutionCenterIndy.com. We look forward to serving you.