Going through a divorce holds it’s own fair share of heartbreak for the couple, and if children are in the picture, there’s the gut wrenching reality of having to break a piece of their heart as well.
Separating couples come into my office frequently seeking guidance in divulging the news of the divorce to the kids, and I can see the pain in their eyes. Often the difficult conversation has been avoided and procrastinated as, really, there is no good time to tell your child that what they know of their family life will be changing forever.
Parents are relieved to hear that there are many approaches that can be taken to ease the stress for both parent and child, when breaking the news of divorce. Being intentional about how we communicate this life-changing news to them can make a huge difference in the child’s ability to cope in both the short and long term.
The more parents can prepare both emotionally and logistically, the more positive the conversation with your child will be. This is a heavy load to transfer to children, and parents know it. Give yourself plenty of time to reflect on your own thoughts and emotions regarding the information that will be shared, so you are not interjecting your own anxiety during the time that is set aside to address your child’s needs.
Studies have shown that kids remember the "divorce talk," and surrounding details 20 years into the future, so it only makes sense that parents would do their best to plan the environment in a way that contributes to the least amount of pain and trauma.
Plan the conversation for a time when you’ll be readily available both before and after, usually weekends work best for this. Having both parents present yields the most positive outcomes as children receive comfort from seeing parents as a united front.
This is a time when it's vital to set aside any personal conflict or tension between spouses, and give your whole emotional selves to your child. This means the discussion is best phrased as “we” and “us” when discussing changes that have been made.
A great approach is using the metaphor of the family as a team “even though there will be changes, our family is always on the same team and we will get through this together”
I keep a basket of "fidgets" on my desk because when kids are getting restless or anxious, stimulating other areas of the brain allows them to stay focused on what we're discussing. Also, children learn and communicate through play, so incorporating it into a conversation will increase the odds of them remembering what’s being said, as well as giving your child a safe outlet for their feelings.
Encourage younger children to bring a favorite stuffed animal or toy along to the family meeting, which will provide them with a small sense of comfort and security. Make crayons and paper available if art tends to be a calming activity for your child. Children oftentimes express thoughts and emotions through art.
Use a social story to outline the basics surrounding the divorce and how certain aspects of the child’s life will change, as well as stay the same. A social story made for your child is also a great reference for future questions that come up, or times they’d like to talk more about what’s happening.
There are many books about divorce that give kids a chance to safely process some of their feelings at a distance, and help adults to find helpful language for discussions.
A sheet of "feelings faces" available online can help younger children tremendously in identifying their feelings.
Depending on age and developmental level, each child will process the information in different ways and at different times. It's important that parents discuss the divorce and resulting changes in a way that is clear and to the point. The overall goal is to remain truthful, while only divulging what is necessary and in your child’s best interest.
Children preschool age and younger will pick up on a parents’ energy level and emotional state. They are watching you, and desperately need a calm, confident adult to articulate that they will be okay, and to explain things succinctly. Make a point to lay out major changes they will take note of, including how they’re basic needs will be met.
Elementary age children still view the world primarily from their own egocentric point of view, but are beginning to gain more understanding into the broad implications of divorce. They will often assume some blame for the divorce, if not told otherwise. It is imperative that children are explicitly told that the separation is the choice of both grown-ups and that it is absolutely never their fault in any way. Focus on immediate concerns of the child and provide a general basic explanation such as “We’ve worked hard on our problems, but we’ve decided it’s best for the family for us to live separately.”
Pre-adolescents and teens may be offered a more detailed response, while still avoiding blame and avoiding personal details when possible. There is a balance to be found in disclosing main issues with honestly while also maintaining healthy boundaries with your child.
All ages will benefit from parents repeatedly emphasizing that the love between parent and child never changes – “While the relationship between moms and dads can change, the one between us, and our love, will never ever change”
I can’t stress enough how important this one is. Although uncomfortable for many parents, your child is entitled to have their own strong emotions for the loss they are processing. Regarding almost every detail relating to the split in their family, they are utterly powerless and they know it. Allowing and encouraging your child to identify and express their feelings is, hands-down, the best thing you can do for their emotional health and well-being.
Take several pauses throughout your discussion to wait for reactions and check in to see if your child has any questions. Reflect back to your child what you hear, and let them know everything they feel is normal and okay. Be there in the moment and allow them to feel their pain, resisting the urge to try and fix or minimize.
It is crucial that parents continuously reiterate to their child that they can always be approached to discuss the family changes and their related feelings. These conversations are easy to avoid for both parties, but avoiding working through the intense feelings surrounding divorce will only serve to create more emotional and behavioral problems down the road.
Parents should take responsibility for initiating conversations and being deliberate about checking in with their child every few days afterwards. “How have you been doing with all the changes we talked about?”
The shocking reality is that over one million children will be affected by their parents divorce each year. There's a lot of depressing research out there on kids adjustment to divorce, leaving us with plenty of room for possibilities for improvement.
Parents have the power to take care of themselves emotionally by seeking their own supports, so they can be fully present and supportive to their child throughout the process of their divorce. Parents can be proactive and intentional about creating a positive and loving atmosphere while communicating the difficult news of divorce.
Modeling and teaching children how the family works through tough times is a lesson that won’t soon be forgotten.