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Have you ever dreaded a moment so much that you delay it, find every excuse not to have it, and hoped you could hire someone else to do it? That is how the parents I talk to in my practice often portray the moment when they have had to tell their children they are getting divorced.
While it is always a life changing moment, there are ways to lessen the pain initially, and even afterwards.
Children prefer for things to be familiar, for their world to be predictable, and for life as they know it to remain basically unchanged. Divorce throws a wrench into all of those needs and wishes, at least at first. That is why there is often a reaction on the part of your children that is a cry for their family to stay the same, but is also a cry for the loss of the wonderful naivite’ of childhood when things are as they have always known them to be.
This does not mean it is wrong to be divorced, if it is the best decision for the parents and has been well thought out after truly trying to make things work. It just means that you need to be prepared to care for the feelings that will emerge in your children.
After meeting with many families going through this transition in their lives, and speaking with children whose parents became divorced, I have learned quite a bit about ideas that can make this easier for everyone.
When you tell your children the news
Make sure you do it together with both parents there, and make sure it is presented the same way by both of you, without blame, sarcasm, or contradictory stories.
Let your children know that this is something you spent a long time thinking over, that you took it very seriously, that your decision will not change, and that you are very sorry.
Tell them how much you love them, that there are some things that have not been decided yet and some questions you might not be able to answer, such as living situations, but that you will let them know that information as soon as you know.
Remind them that they are still part of a family, that their parents will always be their parents, and your love for them will always be the same even if the love you feel for their other parent has changed.
Be OK with whatever feelings they express on the spot. Some kids feel grief when they were not aware of any discord, while others feel relief when there has been a lot of tension and fighting. Some kids also become immediately angry, others try to fix it and try to fix your marriage, and others seem to have very little reaction at all, as they are not clear about what this all means and how it will affect them. Let them know their feelings are normal and expected, that you are there to talk anytime, and remind them about all the people in their lives they can talk to (from a therapist, to teacher, other relative, friend, pastor, and so on) if they don’t want to talk to their parents about their feelings at first.
Let them know this was an adult decision, and it had nothing to do with them. Many children feel they are to blame, especially if they ever were the source of tension in the family.
Tell them about the things that will change, but also let them know about the things that will remain the same in their lives. This is very important and calming.
Don’t tell them at night before bedtime. I know this seems like a very specific guideline, but there are three important reasons for this:
Children are able to remain calmer during the day than after it becomes dark at night.
If there are hours left in the day, it can give you an opportunity to do something nice, fun, reassuring, and distracting during the duration of the day until bedtime.
If your children are old enough to have important connections with friends where feelings are talked about, they will be happy to have a few hours to be in contact with friends before it becomes too late to get in contact with anyone their age.
After the divorce takes place
As you move into two separate households, it is expected that you will create an environment that matches your personality and parenting style. If some facets of both households can be similar, though, like furniture, food, rules, schedules and routines, it will be ideal for your children.
Try to make your households fun and as full of laughter as possible. Develop new traditions, too, like the new place you go for Sunday brunch each week.
Let the children need you more, cuddle with you more, be more emotional, or quiet. Just be strong and present and let them know you are there and can weather this storm with them.
Don’t cry to your child. Lean on friends and adult members of your family, and get support from professionals.
Some parents become competitive with each other, trying to make sure the time their children spend with them is more fun. When you try to “win” at parenting, but at the other parent’s expense, you just rob your child of having two parents they look forward to being with equally.
Don’t use your child to get information about things happening in your ex’s life, and don’t use your children to send messages from you to your ex.
Keep adult topics, feelings and discussions just between the adults. It is very upsetting to children to be put in the middle and they are not capable of handling it without it causing them emotional difficulty.
Please know that you will all survive this time. As with most good parenting, if you interact with your children in kind and intuitive ways, and interact with your child’s other parent in a way where you meet your own standards for good, mature, and respectable behavior, you will be on the right track!
Rachel Bernstein has a Masters in Education and is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. She is the School Counselor at the Wilshire Boulevard Temple Schools and has a private practice in Encino. She has been working with children, couples and families for 20 years.