Telling your kids about your pending divorce may be the most difficult conversation you'll ever have. Even if the announcement isn't a huge surprise -- perhaps you're already separated or you've been arguing constantly -- it's only natural for children to want their parents and their family to stay together. Having to dash that dream is tough. "This is a conversation that children will remember for the rest of their lives," says M. Gary Neuman, author of Helping Your Kids Cope with Divorce. There's no perfect way to break the news, but these tips can alleviate some of the sting.
Present a united front.You and your soon-to-be-ex should sit down with your children together and explain the situation. Even if the divorce isn't a joint decision, it's best to present it as such and to incorporate the word "we" as much as possible when explaining the decisions that have been made. "This is not the time for accusations or bitterness," says Judith Ruskay Rabinor, Ph.D., author of Befriending Your Ex After Divorce: Making Life Better for You, Your Kids and Yes, Your Ex. "This isn't about you; it's about your children's emotional well-being." Besides, kids need to feel confident that their parents can still work together as a team to parent and guide them.
Address the entire family. Experts agree that it's best to have this conversation with the entire family present and then to follow up with each child separately. But if you're concerned that your older child is going to take the news hard or that her reaction will upset a younger child (after all, a school-age child understands the concept of divorce more than a toddler or preschooler does), you and your spouse may want to talk to each child individually.
Plan what you'll say. This is not the sort of conversation that you improvise. Dr. Neuman advises couples to come up with key messages that they think are important for their kids to hear. For instance, parents could take turns covering these important points:
- "You know that Mom and Dad have been having problems. We've tried to fix this, but things aren't working out."
- "We both love you very much. Nothing will ever change that love or the fact that we will always be here for you."
- "We will always be your mom and dad. But we aren't going to be husband and wife any more. Your dad [or mom] and I are getting a divorce."
- "You are great kids. It is our fault that this is happening -- not yours."
- "Even though things are going to change, we will always be a family."
Expect a mixed bag of reactions. Dr. Rabinor braced herself for lots of tears and questions when she and her former spouse told their then 8-year-old daughter about their plans to divorce. She was taken aback when the first question her daughter asked was, "Am I still having a birthday party?" But kids are innately egocentric, so it makes sense that their primary concerns are how this decision immediately affects their lives. "It's normal for children to be concerned about whether they have to switch schools or soccer teams, or if their friends can still play at the other parent's house," Dr. Rabinor says. It's also normal for them to cry, yell, retreat to their rooms, and slam doors. You know your child best. Read her cues to determine if she needs space and time for the news to sink in or whether she needs a reassuring hug.
Be open to questions. It will take time for your children to process how they feel. You should expect to have many more conversations with them as the separation and divorce proceed. "This first discussion is really a door opener to ongoing dialogue and questions between parent and child," says psychologist William Doherty, Ph.D., director of the marriage and family therapy program at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul. Both you and your spouse should be open to answering questions and responding to your children's emotional needs. Be honest with them about what you know and what you don't know.
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