Whether it’s the first heartbreak, a scraped knee, or losing a beloved pet, watching your children hurt is undeniably harder than hard. When life presents a potentially unpleasant or painful situation, our gut tells us to protect and shield our kids, even if it means being a little less than honest or presenting a watered-down version of the truth. Most of us do so with the best of intentions, hoping and praying that we’ve somehow spared our children from unnecessary anguish.
Nothing could be truer when you are facing the task of telling your children you’re splitting up. In my coaching practice, parents often ask me, “How can I keep my children from feeling completely devastated when I tell them we are getting a divorce?”
What they really mean to say is, “How can I bypass the hurt or at least make it hurt a little less?” While you may have the best of intentions, side-stepping the upset doesn’t really help our children prepare for what lies ahead.
Whether approaching a first conversation or subsequent talks with children, here are some key points to keep in mind.
First, shore yourself up.
Talking about divorce isn’t just hard for kids, it’s also hard for parents. Before initiating a conversation with your children, be sure to sort through your own feelings about how life is changing. Think through what your children will need to hear (i.e., when they will see Mom and when they will see Dad, where they will live, what will change about their day-to-day lives and then, plan ahead for how you will responsibly manage your feelings during the conversation.
Use clear language
Sometimes, parents mistakenly think they can soften the blow for kids by not using the words “separation” or “divorce”. Instead, they may say something like, “We’ve decided we need a break from each other to think things through.” Other parents try to dodge the bullet by offering an alternate explanation for why things are different, such as “Mom/Dad has a big project at work and will be moving out for a while so he/she can be closer to the office.” When this happens, kids are often left hanging in limbo. They may also hold fast to the hope that things will eventually go back to the way they were before. To avoid confusion, be sure to talk with your children in a direct way, using clear language.
Resist the urge to sugarcoat or gloss over
While there can be some advantages to Mom and Dad living apart, avoid exclusively presenting a “divorce with benefits” perspective (i.e., two Christmas celebrations, two birthdays, more presents, things really won’t change that much, we’ll all be much happier). Children need to know that it’s both understandable and normal to feel sad about divorce.
Additionally, trying to downplay the upset may:
• Give your children the impression that you aren’t taking their feelings seriously.
• Leave them wondering if there’s something you are not telling them.
• Cause confusion about what’s really happening.
• Send a subtle message that it’s not okay to talk about their real feelings.
Offer a sense of stability
Along with addressing how things will be different, give your children solid ground to stand on by talking about what will stay the same.
For example, you might say something like, “Although the relationship is changing between Mom and Dad, there are things in your life that will stay the same. We will still be your Mom and Dad, and we will both still love you very much. You will still go to the same school, you will have the same friends, and you will still be part of a family–people who are important to you now will continue to be a part of your life.”
Also, whenever possible, do your best to minimize the number of changes that kids have to deal with in the early stages of your separation or divorce. Keep in mind this does not necessarily mean that children should maintain one primary home and only have occasional contact with the other parent. When safety is not an issue, children benefit most when they have consistent and regular contact with both parents.
Don’t feel like you have to have all the answers.
If a question or issue comes up and you’re not sure what to say, don’t feel pressured to answer on the spot. Instead, let your children know that you need some time to think about the issue or question. It’s also fine to tell them that you don’t know. However, be sure not to leave them hanging. Keep in mind that it’s essential to follow up and get back to them very soon with an answer.
Additionally, it’s important to understand that, no matter how well you explain things or how carefully you word your answer when it comes to answering “why,” you will probably never be able to completely satisfy your child’s need to know.
Above all, resist the temptation to impulsively provide them with more information, or too much elaboration on the reasons for the divorce.
Christina McGhee, MSW is an internationally recognized divorce-parenting coach and is the author of Parenting Apart, How Separated and Divorced Parents Can Raise Happy and Secure Kids.
An earlier version of this article was first posted on DivorceandChildren.com.