“We have decided we need to get divorced, but what should we tell the kids, and how should we tell them?”
This question is the MOST common question that I get as a facilitator of divorce.
Let’s face it: Telling your kids that you are getting divorced can cause parents to feel overwhelmingly guilty and ashamed… even when there’s nothing to be ashamed of. Parents are also understandably worried that their kids will feel pain, anger or confusion. And what parent doesn’t want to shield their kids from these feelings?
Seeing yourself as the cause of pain to your children can be overwhelming.
Sometimes parents avoid telling their children anything at all until days before (or even after) the separation even happened, and one of the parents has moved out of the house. Not telling the children the truth ahead of time leaves the children feeling confused and lied to by their parents. It also doesn’t let them prepare them for the event. Decades (yes, literally decades) of research shows that children do better when they are told about the separation ahead of time. This allows them time to feel sad and confused while being supported by both parents.
The best thing you can do is to provide the truth (in age-appropriate ways), and then help your kids through the big feelings that the truth generates.
Mutual Story of Divorce
One of the best ways that you can tell the children about divorce is for you and your co-parent to sit down and come up with a mutual story: one that you’re both comfortable with telling the children. One that is honest and truthful, but is age appropriate and warm. …Let’s come back to this later.
One Way We’ve Seen It Done… Less than ideal.
Each parent tries to handle it on their own. They the children, separately and at different times, why they are getting a divorce. This leads to the children getting two different stories from two different parents. Because marriage is complicated and complex, often each parent’s story is an individualized story from their perspective.
I have met with dozens of children who told me some version of this: “My mom told me that they’re getting divorced because they fell out of love, and that dad asked for a divorce. Then when I went to Dad’s, he told me it was because mom just didn’t love him anymore. Now I don’t know who is lying.”
Story telling is a bonding experience.
Let’s consider doing this a different way.
Creating a mutual story of divorce comes from the age-old tradition of storytelling as a bonding experience. Most children ask questions about their parents courtship and enjoy the hearing the stories over and over. Think about how kids tell stories about events they enjoyed, things that were funny… over and over again. Story telling is something that bonds us together.
When we take this bonding experience and work it into this difficult transition, you accomplish a few things:
1. You help your kids see that you care enough to talk them through this hard transition
2. You create a sense of safety
3. You open the door to communication with them through the process
From a child’s point of view, the best divorce is not a “break up” of the family unit, but a re-organization of the family unit into two households.
Children shouldn’t be told that the divorce was caused by one parent or the other. This makes our kids feel like they have one “bad” parent – when they would prefer to have two “good” parents. If both parents take mutual relationship for the breakup, their children don’t have to be caught in the middle, confused about loyalty and betrayal. Cue the mutual divorce story.
The idea here is that you give the children a basic statement about the reasons of the divorce, while keeping the adult details out of the conversation.
Here are some examples:
“Your dad won’t stop drinking and I just can’t deal with it anymore.”
“Your mom is leaving me because she says I’m an alcoholic.”
The mutual story would be:
“We haven’t been happy together for a long time. We’ve grown apart, and it’s hard for us to get along when we’re living together. It’s not fair to you guys when we argue all the time. We have decided that it would be better if we lived in two separate homes. The fighting will stop and we will be able to be there for you guys better than we have been. We will still be a family, just living in two separate homes. We both love you very much.”
“Your dad works all the time and he’s never around. I’ve been lonely and sad, you’ve seen me crying a lot. I’m tired of being lonely. It’s time for me to find people who appreciate me for me.”
“Your mom doesn’t understand that I work so much just so I can provide for you guys. She won’t work with me on it. I guess she thinks she’ll have better luck with someone else.”
The mutual story would be:
“You guys, we know you’ve been seeing us argue for a long time. We’re so sorry that’s been hard for you. We still love each other, but not in the way that we used to when we got married. We have decided to live in separate homes. We will still be a family; we will still work together as parents to make sure you guys feel loved and taken care of. Both of us love you SO much, and that will never change.”
“We have decided.”
You can see the difference in approach above. One option places blame on the other parent, either obviously or subtly. The other option mutually carries the responsibility of the divorce.
Tell the truth about the separation and divorce when possible.
Keep the adult details out of the conversation.
Younger kids need fewer words. Older kids can handle more complex conversations.
Both parents should be present and the siblings should be told at the same time whenever possible.
Have this conversation in a distraction free space – a normal space at home, TV off, etc.
Set aside time to answer questions the children may have. Several hours of unplanned time should be available after the conversation so that the children can process this information however they need to.
Working together in marriage may have been difficult but working together in divorce for the benefit of your family is up to you. I cannot express strongly enough how important it is that your children see you working together to keep their world safe and secure. You can do this.
Think you need help developing your mutual story? We can help.
Written by Katie Zuverink, LPC Supervisor