A divorce is a life-altering event.
The two grown-ups who are divorcing will feel the repercussions of the break-up of their marriage for years to come.
For children, the sense of havoc and destruction is even more intense. This is a conversation your children will remember for the rest of their lives.
The news often comes as a bolt out of the blue. That’s why HOW the news is delivered is a sensitive matter that needs to be well-thought out.
Here’s some advice on what to do and what not to do when you sit down to tell your children:
1. The right setting
Choose an appropriate time and place. Breaking it to the children on the way to school or right before dinnertime is examples of how not to go about it.
Many children will run from the room as soon as the word ‘divorce’ is mentioned.
Try to make sure that children don’t leave the room to avoid the discussion. Whether they want to or not, they must hear what you and your spouse have to say. Have the conversation in a place where everyone can sit and speak.
Don’t go into this conversation thinking the right words will come automatically. Having planned what to say helps you to stay on course and deliver the message even when emotions run high.
2. The time factor
Trying to rush the conversation about a pending divorce will do a lot of damage. Children need time to process and understand what is going to happen. The rug is being pulled out from under their feet.
Giving them time to grasp how this will change their lives forever helps. Allocate enough time to the discussion to allow your children to express their feelings. A lot of children will cry. Others will become angry and act out. Some children feign indifference.
“Children are individuals. How they present their hurt will differ,” says Sarah French from UK Careers Booster.
There should be a time after the discussion when children can ask questions, especially if they’re older.
3. Stand United
Although you and your spouse may be at loggerheads, this is a time when a united front is needed.
Feelings are raw, and there may be a great deal of anger and resentment. Such feelings should be put aside when telling your children that you’re getting divorced.
Both parents should be there when telling the children unless they cannot be in the same room because one represents a physical threat to the other. The conversation requires both parents to behave in a responsible, mature manner.
Mud-slinging and ‘he said, she said’ accusations should not form part of the conversation. Those are matters between you and your spouse and have nothing to do with the children.
4. Have the details sorted out
You and your spouse might not yet have everything finalized. There are, however, some things you should know ahead of time and be able to share with your children.
The most important is where they are going to stay. Children thrive in a secure environment. A divorce threatens that environment, driving anxiety levels up.
Your children need to know what their lives will be like post-divorce or in the immediate aftermath of the separation. Tell your children where they’re going to be living and a broad outline of the parenting schedule.
Children will want to see both parents to reassure themselves they are wanted and loved. Don’t overwhelm children with too much information. They might become confused which adds to their already growing anxiety.
5. Tell all your children simultaneously
Don’t tell your children one at a time. The risk is that someone might blurt the news out by accident. Expecting them to carry such a huge burden of keeping a weighty secret is both unrealistic and unfair.
A child who hears of their parents’ divorce from a sibling will be both hurt and angry. The damage done will be hard to repair.
The relationship between siblings strengthens during the stressful time a divorce presents.
Brothers and sisters lean on each other for support as they are going through the same thing together. The conversation about getting divorced is a time where siblings will look to each other for reassurance.
The childhood mental problems often have a lasting negative effect.
6. Find the sharing balance
During the discussion, parents should neither overshare or under share.
Having the right balance is tricky.
This adds o the necessity to be prepared before the conversation. Children do need to know why the marriage is breaking up on an age-appropriate level. What they don’t need to know is every sordid detail of what led up to this moment.
Casting your spouse in a poor light by airing out the dirty laundry of the marriage may seem satisfying at that moment. After all, you want to look like the good guy. In the long-term, it will cause more harm than good.
Children love both their parents and want a relationship with them. Don’t deny them that by vilifying your spouse.
7. Don’t drag your children into the middle of the divorce
Children should never be put in a position where they must choose between their parents.
This applies to where they live and who they love. Never make them feel they can’t love or see both of you.
A child’s first thought when they hear of your divorce is that it’s their fault. Putting them front and center in the divorce will only make their sense of guilt grow.
Don’t use them as a weapon. Leave them out.
Give older children a chance to state their point of view on where they want to stay and other arrangements. That doesn’t mean giving them the right to dictate the terms of decisions made about them.
Allow them a voice but make the final decision as parents.
Your children deserve nothing less
Recent research indicates that up to three-quarters of parents spend less than 10 minutes telling their children they’re getting divorced. The damage they do as a result of this irresponsible act is irreversible.
As hard as it may be, parents must do justice to their children when explaining the pending divorce. As innocent bystanders, your children deserve nothing less. Give them the tools to make sense of their new reality and face it with resiliency.