Getting divorced is one of the most difficult experiences people can have in life. On the stress scales, it’s right up there with death. And the hardest part is telling your children.
As a child specialist, one of the things I do is help parents develop the story to tell their children. We always want children to know the truth, but sometimes not the whole truth, and certainly not the details of the truth. Information given is based on the child’s age and their understanding of relationships. Most important is to let the kids know that they had nothing to do with the decision…. that it is not their fault. Children often feel responsible for parents divorcing, particularly if parents argue about them, and they may feel guilty that they were to blame. It cannot be said enough times that “it has nothing to do with you!”.
Information can be given to kids differently, depending on their ages. The general rule is to give kids just enough information, but not too much. They will ask questions which you can answer as honestly and simply as you can, remembering that it is important to maintain a boundary between parents and children. It is not appropriate for children to know everything or be involved in every decision.
Mary and James were married for 12 years and have two children, ages 5 and 8. They came to me very afraid to tell their children they were getting divorced. They were divorcing because Mary felt too tired and wanted to end it, after trying unsuccessfully to work on the problems for several years. James reluctantly agreed. There were specific issues of feeling not given to, lack of connection, time priorities, and sex. But these details certainly didn’t need to be enumerated for the kids. After considerable discussion with me, the couple decided that together they would tell their kids that they’ve made a sad decision to separate because they don’t want to be fighting with each other any more…..that they felt it wasn’t good for anyone in the family to be around so much unhappiness and tension, and they felt they could each be better parents individually. They reassured their kids that they would each see them very frequently and work out a schedule where they’d spend lots of time with each parent. They reassured their children that they were well loved by each and that they had nothing to do with the decision.
This all sounded great in my office, but it wasn’t quite as easy at home. The older daughter started crying and telling her mom that she hated her, and the little girl just sat and whimpered. Now, these reactions were anticipated by Mary as she knew her kids well, so we strategized ways to handle them. It took lots of comforting, but in a short time the kids began to deal with their new reality. (the names and circumstances have been disguised to protect the privacy of the couple)
This discussion is not to say that telling your kids you’re getting divorced is easy, but it is doable. Children are resilient and when talked to with love and understanding, they will thrive.