Ah jeez, I hate getting this kind of email from a reader:
My wife and I are currently going through a divorce. We are committed to easing our children’s transition during this otherwise tumultuous time. At present, our children do not know that this is occurring. Do you have any recommendations on how to tell the children? Is there any books you have read that can approach this subject with the children in a story like manner versus a “we’re getting a divorce” bomb being dropped?
Don’t misunderstand, I love getting email from fellow dads — or even the occasional mom who wants to know a bit more about how us guys think about things — but this just opens up all sorts of sadness and upset for me. But let’s give it a whirl…
First thing I’ll say is “don’t do what we did.” Linda and I had been separated for a few months, in separate places, and realized we had reached the point of no return and beyond. A divorce was the next step in our journey and we agreed we’d sit down together and tell the kids what was going on, as was recommended as a best practice in the various books I’d read to try and figure out what the $#@(^% was going on with my life and how to best insulate the children from the chaos.
So what happened? One afternoon while the kids were at her place one of them asked “are you and daddy getting divorced?” to which she answered “yes” and was then surprised when they burst into tears and all three kids freaked out. I later learned that because of the preponderance of missing-dad divorced families in our community (a separate discussion) they feared that divorce = dad leaves. One good reason to tell the children when you’re together, so they can at least see you’re both in the same room.
When Linda told me what had happened, I was quite literally speechless I was so upset. It was such a bad way for the kids to learn that I think it took a few weeks for them to breath out and accept that divorce did not mean that I was going to vanish or move out of state (they asked me about both of those scenarios early on) but that they’d actually end up having more time with me than when we were married.
You can safely conclude that I wouldn’t recommend our accidental approach. 🙂
Instead, if divorce is the only way out of the situation you and your spouse are in, I would encourage the two of you to have a civil discussion about things like timelines, separate households, and parenting time agreements before you talk about any of this with the children.
If you can’t stand being in the same room together, have the discussion via email. Can’t get that to work without the upset / anger / hate / disappointment / judgment spilling in? Ask a pastor or relative to help out as the mediator for the exchange. I hope that’s not the case, but old hurts can last a long time and influence behavior even years and years later. ‘nuf said on that.
Once you have a rough agreement on when one household will become two, an approx schedule for the divorce itself, and at least a basic idea of when the kids will be with you and when they’ll be with mom, it’s time for what will be one of the hardest moments of your life, a family meeting where you have to tell your kids that their life is irrevocably changing and thing are about to get a lot more confusing and chaotic.
Most importantly, I encourage each of you to emphasize again and again that it’s not their fault. You aren’t getting a divorce because of them or anything they have done. That it’s all about you two as adults trying to find peace, harmony and happiness. I’m pretty convinced at this point that whatever you say the kids will blame themselves, but they’ll rerun what you say during this family meeting for years into the future, picking at each word and looking for hidden meaning.
You love your kids. That’s obvious by your message. So do whatever it takes to break the news to them in a way that makes it very, very clear that a divorce is between adults and has nothing to do with the children and their presence in your lives.
Even if it’s not true.
Because the more you can proceed with at least some level of harmony and cooperation, the more the children can move beyond the agonizing heartache of mommy/daddy not being with them and into the brave new world of two-households and two separate lives.
Good luck to you. It’s not going to be easy.