Sometimes relationships end in divorce or separation. It is one of the more common “adverse childhood experiences” that can occur over the course of a child’s lifetime. Almost 50% of all first time marriages will end in divorce within 15 years, according to the CDC .
It is never an easy decision to end a relationship…even harder when children are involved. So what do you do when divorce or separation is inevitable?
What do you tell the kids?
More importantly, HOW do you tell the kids? How MUCH do you share with them?
These types of questions are not uncommon when parents make the decision to separate or divorce.
Parents should expect their children (and themselves) to go through the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally, acceptance). However, parents should be prepared for how children react to the news. There is no one way to respond. Upon hearing the news, kids can be angry, shocked, sad, scared and everything in between.
We know that it can impact children negatively, in the short and long-term. Depending on their age, children can have sleep or mood problems, may become clingy, have tantrums or lead to school problems.
How to Buffer the Effects of Divorce or Separation
However, we also know that there are certain factors that can buffer the negative effects, such as if parents are able develop and maintain a co-parenting relationship that keeps the focus on the child, if the child has a good relationship with at least one parent, parental warmth and sibling support. When fathers are able to stay involved, children fare better, especially if there is low conflict after the divorce/separation.
For a practical and easy to read co-parenting self-help book, check out one of my favorites that I recommend to families called “Parents are Forever: A Step-by-Step Guide to Becoming Successful Co-Parents after Divorce” by Shirley Thomas.
When parents feel ready and able to share the news with their children, they should make a plan about what to say. Above all else, the conversation should stay NEUTRAL and provide just enough information to let your child know what is happening but without becoming too overwhelming.
Key messages to relay to the child:
- We will always remain your parents.
- We love you very much.
- This is not your fault.
Consider this, “We loved each other very much once, but things change. We have decided to live apart. However, we both love YOU very much and that is never going to change. We will always be your parents.”
RELATED: Tap the power of words when counseling about divorce (Mdedge.com, published October 25, 2016)
Explain what to expect in the coming days
It will be important to share information on what the new normal will look like as details are worked out.
“When parents separate, it means they live in different houses. You will spend time at both houses so you can continue to spend time with each of us. We will both work to make sure you will have what you need at each house.”
Try to identify what items are needed at both houses to make each place comfortable and safe for the child. Keeping enough clothes, a separate toothbrush, toys and books at each house can decrease the stress around what to bring each time when going to visit one parent or the other.
Let children’s questions guide HOW MUCH to tell them at once.
You know the phrase a “deer in the headlights?” For all children, this news is not easy to take in one sitting. You will have to allow your child time and space to process and think and have a chance to put together their own questions over time.
Be prepared to have periodic check-ins with your children about the logistics.
Children don’t want to have to choose sides.
When in doubt, remember what Thumper said in the classic movie, Bambi?
It is important as other family members hear about what is happening, that they too be advised to follow this advice. It can be confusing and upsetting to children if they have to hear negative things about their parent said in anger or retaliation.
Show your child you are always available to listen.
I often advise parents to learn how to listen and watch for feelings and to support their children in processing the entire spectrum of feelings-the good, the bad and the ugly. Helping children verbalize their feelings, honestly and without fear of angering or upsetting the parent is important.
So how do you do that?
Learn to label feelings. “I see that you are sad.” “You are mad about everything that is happening.” “You are scared you won’t see me anymore.”
Acknowledging the feeling your child may be experiencing can help your child feel understood and may get them to share more. But even if they don’t, you can follow up with a gentle hand on the shoulder, a hug or a quiet reminder that you are there for them.
Some children are not talkers and instead prefer to withdraw. If you find your child is having a harder time talking to you about how they are feeling, give them other ways to express their emotions. Art, music, yoga, journaling or even going through the exercise of writing a letter and throwing it away can be helpful.
It can get worse before it gets better. It may also be concern again later.
Parents should also remember that children affected by divorce or separation may show anger, changes in behavior or sadness at various time points. If the divorce/separation occurred when a child is young, problems may arise at a later date as they mature and can think about the experience in different ways. Special events or holidays can also become triggers.
Children may somehow feel the situation is “their fault.” This is true for children and teens, no matter what age. Older children may also lash out for little things or anything else BUT the situation at hand because they are just plain angry, upset, unsettled, confused and not yet know HOW to bring this up to you.
It’s ok to reach out for help.
This time is stressful for everyone. It’s to be expected. Make sure you seek support from other family members, friends and others you trust. If you have any concerns about how your child is handling the change, talk to your chid’s doctor. If you feel comfortable, you might want to talk with your child’s teacher too, so he/she are aware and can monitor your child’s mood and behavior in the classroom.
Be kind to your children and to yourself. Divorce and separation force families to develop a new rhythm and the adults to redefine their relationship with one another as co-parents. It is not an easy road, but it will get better.
Handout for Families
Here is my one-page handout on parenting tips for families facing divorce or separation. Download the FREE handout by clicking this link: Talking to Kids about divorce.
For more information about this topic, please see the following links:
- Traps Divorced or Separating Parents Should Avoid (Healthychildren.org)
- How to Talk to Your Children about Divorce (Healthychildren.org)
- Divorce: How to Protect Your Child (AhaParenting.com)