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How to Tell Kids About Divorce

We're Getting Divorced, How do I Tell the Kids?

Deciding to divorce your spouse is one of the most difficult and emotional decisions you can make. This is compounded tremendously when children are involved. The ramifications physically, emotionally, and financially can be devastating. So how do you break the news to your children?

That question presumes that YOU should be the one informing the children. In most cases, that is not the preferred way to proceed. “Your” children belong to both of you, and neither of you want to feel excluded during this process, especially when informing the children. There can also a high level of distrust between spouses during this time, and neither one of you would want to be second guessing what the other parent told the children at this point in time, nor should you want the excluded parent speculating about how terribly you mishandled that conversation.

I have always believed the best way, if possible, is for both you and your spouse to do it together. Obviously, if there is physical/emotional abuse and/or substance abuse involved, this route may not be advisable.

So how do you do it? First, have a conversation with your spouse about how and when the two of you will inform the children. Pick both a calm time and location, and be fully there for the children. It is their moment to receive assurance from each of you together, in a unified manner, that they are loved and that their lives will go forward, guided by both their parents in a positive manner. This may be the last conversation the two of you ever have with the children jointly. Put aside your differences, and focus on the love each of you have for the children.

Agree that neither of you will demean the other, directly or indirectly. But more importantly, tell the children, and show them by your body language also that you each love them, and always will. Your children have a right to love each of you, and to continue to receive that love from each parent throughout their lives. In fact, they need it now more than ever.

Handling the Conversation with the Kids

In that initial conversation, both parents should be allowed to communicate with the children, not just one. Both should assure your children that they are loved by both parents, and will continue to be loved. Further, make it clear to your children that they are not at fault, that sometimes parents simply can no longer live together in the same house.

Assure your children that you each respect the other parent, and that both parents will continue being involved in their lives and will do everything in their power to strengthen the child’s relationship with both parents. Then, put those words into action and do it. Parental alienation, in any form or amount, adversely affects children for years. It can leave ugly scars that will linger and, if it occurs, will have to be dealt with for years to come. Don’t be a part of that. Your children deserve more.

Listen to your children during this conversation, and other conversations thereafter, and not just what they are saying, but what their body language is saying. Allow them to talk, without you putting words in their mouth or thoughts in their head. Even at a young age, children have opinions, desires and the need to be heard. Be there. Listen. Validate their feelings, and then redirect them, if necessary.

Consistency and Stability are Important for the Kids

Next, as parents, agree as much as possible, that the two of you will commit to keep consistency and stability the norm for your children. Think about how you can do this. For example, can you afford to keep them in the same neighborhood with their friends? In the same school? On the same sports teams? Involved in the same church?

Minimize the disruptions. You want your children to not only survive, but to thrive as they move through these changes in the family. Studies have shown how much better children do emotionally, psychologically, physically and educationally when the parents work together to harmoniously retain consistency for their children.

Make sure that you emphasize, as much as possible, the manner in which their lives will remain consistent with the past. If they are remaining in the same neighborhood, in the same school, with the same friends, you should stress these points. If not, then let them know that they will be able to visit these friends often, and then follow through with allowing your child to visit those friends at their homes, and in your new home.

Be flexible on the parenting time your children spend with your former spouse. They need to spend time with both parents, and to see both parents working hard to make that happen. Don’t count the days you each have with the children. Emphasize quality, over quantity.

Children want consistency and assurance; they did not ask for this divorce. They want to go on with their lives, as best they can. If you not only speak these thoughts, but live them, your children will be emotionally and physically healthier and, later one, healthier adults who can form lasting marital relations for themselves. It’s not a battle for the affection or love of your children, they can never get enough love. They need to see, to hear and to feel respect from both parents. And they need to see, to hear and to feel the respect their parents have for each other. They need to be able to openly share the joys and sorrows that happen in both households with each household, without fear of alienating a parent.

Respect for Each Other as Parents

Show your children, by your actions, that you respect their relationship with the other parent. For example, don’t try to be the first to plan a child’s birthday party, or to out-do the other party. That only leads to a myriad of problems in the future that no one wants. If you can’t agree on who hosts the party, or that the two of you can’t host together, then try alternating years. Or plan two parties, it really doesn’t matter who throws the party on the actual birthday. You can make both parties fun, without competing.

Further, think in terms of opportunities and not missed time. If a parent’s birthday or mother’s/father’s day is approaching, ask your child what they’d like to do for that parent. Suggest that they make something. Cost is not the object, the thought is what counts.

Don’t Demean Each Other as Parents

If the other parent goes low, you go high. Think before reacting. I always tell clients don’t respond to an email or text when you are angry, tired or feeling sorry for yourself. This often leads to negative consequences. Before you push that “send” button, step back and take a breath. Get away. Have someone objectively read the prospective message and advise you before you send it. You will seldom regret sending a delayed response, but most assuredly will regret a reactionary response.

Stay Involved in Activities to Relieve Stress

Going through a divorce, and caring for children during this time period can be stressful. You should make time for yourself, and find healthy ways to relieve the stress. And during the time period that the other parent has the children, quit worrying about the other parent and your children. Rejuvenate yourself. Take time to clean house, run errands, read a book, or visit with friends.

Get Counseling

If after all of this, you still cannot handle the stresses of the divorce and children, don’t be ashamed. Seek professional help. Your children need you and want you, but they need a healthy and relaxed version of yourself.

It may be difficult to always want to follow these suggestions, but when you put into perspective what really matters in the long run, which is the emotional and physical health of your children, this should temper any urge you have to act otherwise. In other words, always follow the golden rule and treat the other parent the way you would want to be treated. Ask yourself, what would I want the other parent to do, and then follow that for yourself relative to him or her.

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