Divorce is never easy, and it's particularly challenging for parents of young children.
In addition to worrying about the legal issues of child custody, parenting time, and child support, there is the very personal consideration of how the children will handle the divorce emotionally.
Unfortunately, as much as you want to spare your children, you can't make your divorce completely free of pain and stress for them. Fortunately, though, the way you choose to communicate with them before, during and after the divorce can help them navigate this challenging time and even come through on the other side with great resilience and a good relationship with both parents.
Here are seven tried-and-true tips for talking to kids about divorce.
By the time you tell your children about your upcoming divorce, you will probably have made your peace with the idea. The news will likely rock their world, however, even if it's not a complete surprise. If possible, break the news together with your spouse so you can both reassure the kids of your love for them and answer their questions together.
This should go without saying, but choose a quiet, private venue—home is best—and leave plenty of time for questions. A weekend morning or early afternoon is best, so that children won't have to go to school or tobed with the news swirling around their heads. They will need unscheduled time to process the information and ask questions.
Of course, you're the one with news to break, but your mission is to establish a channel of communication with your kids about this very important issue. To do that, you're going to need to know what they're thinking and feeling. And while you're talking, you can't be listening. When talking to kids about divorce, it's important to let them know that you want to hear their questions and what they're feeling, even if they're angry at you.
You may be tempted to give your kids a lot of information, but resist the temptation. This is big news, and it will take time to absorb, so stick to the basics: you are filing (or have filed) for divorce, you both love them very much, and you will both still be there for them all the time, even if not in the same home. Don't overwhelm your kids with explanations they didn't ask for and may not understand. Again, be open to questions; they will tell you what they need to know.
Especially with young kids, don't go into lengthy detail about what a parenting schedule is going to be. Give them information closer to the time they'll need it.
Divorce may truly be the best thing for your family at this point. However, you should expect your children not to feel this way. You may feel that you have little control over whether you divorce, but remember that your children will have no control at all, and that the foundation of their security has been utterly shaken. So even if your marriage was very unhappy, your children may prefer that you remain in it.
Your children's primary focus, whether they are preschoolers or teens, will be on how this divorce will affect them. This is actually developmentally appropriate. They're not being selfish; they are trying to figure out what their world will look like, and practical things like "Who will take me to soccer practice?" are of paramount importance to them. Don't dismiss or minimize their concerns.
The same ideas can be framed in very different ways depending on the language used. You want your children to understand that they will still have their family, even if the configuration is somewhat different. Use language that supports this concept. For instance, instead of saying, "You'll be visiting Dad from Thursday to Sunday, then you'll come home," you might say, "You'll be at home with Dad from Thursday to Sunday, and then you'll be at home with me."
It should go without saying that you should never talk negatively to your children about their other parent, no matter how awful the other parent has been to you. Your children want, and need, to love you both. If one parent talks badly about the other, the children will feel like they are betraying one parent by loving the other, which creates great stress and anxiety. This is one of the worst things you can do to your child.
Especially for younger children, having similar routines at both homes can be comforting. You may want to have duplicates of favorite books, toys, and comfort items, so there is always one wherever the children are. Some families even have the family pet travel back and forth with the children; this can be enormously comforting.
When talking to your children about moving back and forth between homes, reminding them that they will have the same bedtime routine at their other home, and verbally walking through it with them, will be comforting for them.
If your children are young, they may (like many children) get it into their heads that something they did caused the divorce, and that if they do the right thing, they can fix the problem. Reassure them, as often as needed, that this was a grownup decision, that it was not their fault, and that the divorce does not change your love for them. And while you shouldn't badger them to tell you their feelings, you should periodically reiterate that you are open to talking about the divorce whenever they need to.
If you have children and are divorcing, we invite you to contact the Law Office of Shelly M. Ingram, LLC. We welcome the opportunity to discuss your children's needs with you and help you plan for communicating about your divorce with your children.
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