Talking to your kids about divorce

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…

divorce / broken heartFirst 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.

4 comments on “Talking to your kids about divorce

  1. When we told the kids, we focused on “you don’t lose people in a divorce, you gain people.” I used my family as the example and explained that Grandma Gloria was, in fact, my step-mother. And Grandpa Ron was my step-father. Their little eyes lit up and I could see that they understood the concept.

    In fact, as the kids began to get comfortable with the idea, I told them, “You see… Daddy may go on to more kids. Mommy’s done, but Daddy could bring you another brother or sister.” The kids got so excited at the thought and ran to their dad, “Daddy! Mommy told us that you’re gonna have more kids!” Oops. OK… maybe I got a little ahead of myself at the time, but today, their brand new step-mom is going to have a baby. The kids are thrilled.

    My point being: focus on “you don’t lose people – you gain people”. Be brave and good luck.

  2. Dave, I literally could “feel your pain” in this post and can so imagine how upsetting it was when it “slipped” out to the kids without you being present.

    My divorce was quite unpleasant though we did tell the kids together. My boys’ mom pretty much disappeared shortly thereafter and has not been a part of their lives for many years now…another story.

    What transpires FAR TOO OFTEN in the divorce process is that soon-to-be ex’s fight OVER the kids not over what is BEST for the kids. Thank you lawyers for aggravating this sorry state.

    They call it “Family Court” and they call the lawyers “Family Lawyers.” I’ve re-named them more correctly, “Anti-Family Court” and “Anti-Family Lawyers!

    I could go on and on…but readers, please pay attention to the wisdom Dave is offering…it’s YOUR mistake/problem, NOT YOUR KIDS!

  3. My son (A) was 5, almost 6, when his dad (M) and I separated. M and I never fought or anything, so we didn’t have to worry about being uncivil in front of A. Rather than sitting him down and giving him a concept that he was too young to *really* understand, we approached it as gaining a new bedroom/home and expanding our worlds, rather than something being stopped/taken away. I think too many people approach it as “quick! Teach them everything so they understand!” and it gets overwhelming. I got the new apartment. A would come over during the days for the first little while, get to know the space, start “owning” his new room, learn where everything was, then a few weeks later, we had our own sleepover. As he became comfortable with the new space and arrangements, *he* started asking more questions as he needed to know more, and M and I answered each question as honestly as possible, without going into overwhelming detail, because if A wanted to know more, he’d ask more. And he did. It’s now been 6 years. All is good.

  4. Hey Dave – this is an especially timely post for me. My divorce just finalized on March 30. We chose to tell the kids together that we were divorcing, and while things haven’t been all sunshine and roses since then we’ve managed to cooperate and coordinate on helping them through this period.

    The kids have had some struggles in adjusting by I would have expected nothing less. They’ve turned to their mother more than me (she’s got primary custody) and I’m OK with that as long as they are talking to someone. We have gotten both of them into counseling to ensure they have plenty of people looking out for them as well. I’m just doing everything I can to let them know that I love them and will always be here for them when they need me (even if being there is in the form of a phone call on the nights they’re not physically with me.)

    This approach seems to be working. I was even able to have a more in-depth conversation with them the other day about my decision to leave the marriage. I didn’t go into any more details than they needed to hear, but stressed that I loved them unconditionally and they did nothing to contribute to my decision. I expected tears from them (which I got,) but those were quickly followed by hugs when the kids told me they just wanted me to not be sad. I feel like I’m closer to my kids now than I have been in quite some time.

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