I spend a lot of my time working with couples. Full disclosure, I prefer to help them stay together. Long-term relationships are not easy and they require continual care and attention. There are times however when a couple decides to divorce. When this decision is reached, some of the clinical work must turn toward telling the children. This conversation often brings up parent’s anticipatory fear and worry.
The major areas that make up this conversation are “the when, the where and the what.” Parents preparing themselves for this conversation usually believe that they need to have their divorce plan fully organized. They think their answers need to be well thought out and what they say need to both comfort and sooth their children. Parents want their children to know, “it wasn’t your fault.” Phew. This is a lot of pressure! The first thing I offer parents is permission to slow down and calm their own nervous systems. If they are calm, “emotionally anchored,” this will be the bigger gift they bring to this conversation than anything they might actually say.
Back to the when issue. It is a good idea to help couples think through some aspects of how they visualize their post-divorce family life. Will they continue to co-habitate in the family home? Will one parent move into a new home? Will they “nest” (the children remain in the family home while each parent take turns leaving during their non-custodial time)? I help parents discuss in general terms who will take care of their children on given days even if a full “parenting plan” has not yet been crafted. Some additional thoughts on the when part of this discussion: it is best to speak at the beginning of a weekend so there is time for children to absorb the information. It is also important to avoid having this conversation on important holidays or birthdays.
And now the “where.” It is generally a good idea to speak with children in a familiar yet neutral place. Familiar can be the local park or the beach where the family often spends time. It can be in the family home though not in anyone’s bedroom. Bedrooms are not considered neutral spaces; they are safe, nurturing spaces that need to be emotionally protected. Lastly, the “what.” Children regardless of age want to know 2 basic things: am I going to be safe, emotionally and physically, and will this change lead to more family harmony. Parents will want to have this 1st conversation together and will want to keep it short. This is not a “1 and done” but rather the beginning of many conversations to come as their children will inevitably have more questions and concerns. Parents may say something like, “mom and I have been working on our marriage and things just haven’t worked out. We’ve decided to end our relationship as husband and wife but we will continue forever to be mom and dad. We are still a family and always will be. You guys are safe and we hope our decision will bring much more calm and peace to all of us.” Parents can tear up; modeling emotions is fine as long as it is not excessive. Questions may be asked and the key is to thank children for asking, and then answer honestly and age appropriately. Don’t disparage the other parent. And if whatever they are asking has not yet been figured out let your children know that they will be told as soon as it is figured out.
Telling children about divorce is not an easy conversation yet it can be managed with guidance and planning. Feeling anxiety about this discussion, how a child will experience it, and how it will affect their life is normal. Projecting calm however and emotional stability is paramount. Like many things, our children take their cues from us.