For completely understandable reasons, every parent hates the "mom & dad are getting a divorce" discussion. It may even garner a worse ranking than talking about the "birds & the bees." Why? Talking about sex just embarrasses some parents; divorce is about breaking up the family, which speaks to any child's fundamental sense of home & security. I don't think there is a cookie-cutter solution for how to tell your children because 1.no two kids are alike & 2. no one else knows your children better than you do. There are however, some important guidelines that you should bear in mind:
- Be honest-Do not sugar coat the bald fact; by this I mean do not say something like "mommy or daddy is going away for a while"; worse do not say things like your father or mother left because they don;t love "us" anymore. Be straight with them & with yourself. Let's face it, kids "know things;" maybe they have heard you fighting [no matter how hard you've tried to hide it or maybe one parent seems "meaner" or just isn't around very much anymore. The bottom line is chances are excellent that they will be suspicious [even fearful] about it long before you actually tell them. Often times they will blame themselves, something you must dismiss immediately as false.
- Less is more-there's a big difference between being honest & telling them every little detail. The fact is the less you can get away with beyond the bald facts, the better. They don't need to know the gory details & while you will need to be age appropriate [your 15 tear old will be able to understand things that your 8 year old may not], & in the case of siblings, never tell your your older children anything that you don't want your younger ones to hear because sooner of later it will filter down by accident or design. Also remember, they don't want to hear one parent badmouth the other. This line bears repeating: do NOT badmouth your soon to be ex-spouse. Doing so only increases their anxiety & triggers uncomfortable issues of divided loyalty. Bear in mind that just the bare facts is going to upset their universe so don't speak to them like they are your friends, confidants, or therapists.
- Reinforce the fact that they are still loved-OK, this one may seem obvious to adults but kids need to hear it...a lot as the process unfolds. They need to hear that both parents still love them, which is yet another reason not put them in the position of "choosing sides."
- Reaffirm their root sense of security-Explain how this will change their lives in a very specific, age-appropriate & concrete way. What do I mean by this? While again, you needn't give them all the gory details [because at this stage you may not have the answer], they will need to know information like, will you be moving; where will they sleep; where will the "other" parent sleep; what about their things; what school will they go to; who will pick them up; when will they see each parent; who will be their primary caretaker; will they still see their grandparents....& on & on. Basically you will have to address all the elements of their world big & small.
- Remember this is a "process"- What do I mean by this? The information above is going to encompass MANY conversations, not just one big one for a lot of reasons. For one thing, in order to be age appropriate, you will have to provide information in small bites so that they can be processed & absorbed. Also you may be repeating the same things several times before the reality "sinks in" Remember this was not an overnight decision for you but you are now essentially presenting your kids with a "fait accompli" [read: a "done deal"]. In addition, even though there is a ton of information above that will be the subject of many conversations, your kids will have at least an equal number of questions & issues which will be critical to them [even though for example, whether you will be moving 2 blocks away or staying next door to their best friend may seem completely insignificant to you]
Basically, this is a time when your kids will need every ounce of your love, patience & compassion. What makes that so difficult is that as a result of the toll the divorce process takes on adults, simultaneously you may feel that you are at your lowest capacity for all of those things. One way to manage it is through the ton of divorced parents groups in communities everywhere. Even if the people don't seem like "your type," one of the many critical things you will all have in common is this process.
Ellen Gunty,M.A. is an experienced family mediator & child custody evaluator in the San Francisco Bay area. Note: The above is simply meant as guidance so while every attempt has been made to provide the correct facts, nothing here should be seen as "legal or mental health advice." Before acting it is always wise to consult your own professional.