HOW DO WE TELL THE KIDS ABOUT OUR DIVORCE?

 

Note: This article is for difficult divorces, not for amicable divorces. 

Many books and articles recommend that you and the other parent should tell the children together.

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But that works only if the reason for divorce is NOT a destructive issue like a pattern of infidelity, physical abuse, chronic emotional abuse, life-destroying addictions, or gross neglect.

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In the case of a life-saving divorce like one of these, I often recommend that the nurturing parent tell the kids alone.

Why?

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Because often the other parent wants to spin a story that isn't true, or is only partially true. Or they try to pin much of the blame on you. Or they promise to tell the kids about the divorce, but never do.

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WHAT TO SAY TO KIDS IN A LIFE-SAVING DIVORCE

Experts on childhood grief and sadness suggest giving only basic information, such as—

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—"Mommy and Daddy are getting a divorce," plus just one or two sentence as to why—with no anger or crying— just the facts.

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—In my case, I wanted my little kids to know the truth, but they were very young, about age 5, and I did NOT want them to know specifics about my husband's illegal and immoral secret life. (If your custody agreement includes a non-disparagement clause or if you suspect your ex will try to accuse you of parental alienation, ask your attorney what you can safely say.)

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—As a Christian, I valued the sanctity of marriage. So I did not want them to think our divorce was for frivolous reasons.

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—In my case, I said, "Daddy did some bad things. And Mommy forgave him, but he kept doing them. After a while, if someone does something bad over and over, you realize you cannot stay with them."

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AGE-APPROPRIATE INFORMATION

I refused to lie to my kids, but I had to walk a tightrope of saying just the right things. My ex was involved with illegal/immoral behavior, but I did not want to destroy him.  My kids loved him (and they didn't know about his secret life).
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In my mind, the kids had the right to know truth at an age-appropriate level. It's their life and their family and they are entitled to know—and not to find out from some distant family member or stranger. However, they viewed him in a positive light.  I didn't want to stand in the way of that relationship. The court required monitored visitation, but the kids were so young, it never occurred to them that a monitor wasn't normal.

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Another reason I didn't tell them any details was that I didn't want them to blurt it out to others. I had concealed my ex's illegal behavior for years, hoping and praying he would change, so no one knew.

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There's some academic literature finding that destructive parents pass along those tendencies to kids (Jaffee study 2003). I didn't want my kids thinking that their father's illegal choices would doom them to making illegal choices themselves. 

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So, that was all I said. When the kids asked, I would repeat that same three sentences. I gave a bit more information when they were about age 12.

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OPENING THE DOOR TO FURTHER INFORMATION

I told my children that at age 21, they could ask me anything. Why? Because, by then, they had enough life experience to handle the information without being sent into a tailspin.

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If they asked, I would tell the whole story and answer everything truthfully, but they needed to initiate the conversation.

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I would never bring it up because I wanted them to have the best relationship with their father they could have.

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They eventually did ask me, and I answered their questions. I was prepared for a long discussion, but in truth, they each only had two or three questions. One child had already figured it out. The other was shocked and horrified. But by this time, they were adults and better able to deal with the truth.

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Of course, if your ex is involved in criminal behavior, or is physically or emotionally abusive, sexually abusive, endangering, or neglectful to the children, you may want to start by simply getting to safety. See below for Other Resources.

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HOW TO HELP CHILDREN COPE

Unless your kids have been begging you to divorce (and some teens do), your children may be shocked, sad, worried, or stressed. You know the personalities of your children better than anyone.

The keys to moving forward are—

—You, the nurturing parent, need to be composed. Take some deep breaths. Ask the Lord for "the peace that passes all understanding." ("The peace that defies all logic," is how I say it.) When your children see you calm, they will handle the shock better.

—Spend a lot of time with them. They want the reassurance of a supportive parent who is present and available.  "I'm right here." "You are loved." "You make me smile." (By the way, if the other parent is harsh and critical to the kids and rarely shows them love and acceptance, don't tell the child the other parent loves them. Just say nothing.)

(Note: Don't lie. If you tell the kids that a mean parent is loving, your children will become confused and believe that love is shown by indifference or rage. Or they might realize that you, the one parent they trusted, are lying to them. Or they will see that you're not safe either, because you're ignorant about how destructive the other parent is. So, just say nothing. Often they figure it out by their teen years.) 

—Comfort them. Be warm, give a slight smile, put your arm around them or touch their hand, saying, "I am with you. We're okay right now. I'm going to do everything I can to make sure we're okay."

—Let them cry and tremble. This has been shown to help them recover long term. Sit with them and let them cry. You can say, "I know it's a change, but we're going to make it through with God's help."

—Hug them (or whatever reassures them). Kids who don't like to be physically affectionate might prefer to go for a walk or drive with you.

—Reassure them that they will be safe and cared for. "I will do my best to take care of you."

—Don't be specific about changes until you know what the changes are. And even then, reveal them one at a time, maybe several days or weeks apart, rather than piling them on. Kids get overwhelmed more easily than adults. They may also worry excessively if you reveal the changes before you need to. Just smile and calmly say, "I'm working on that, and we'll figure it out as we go." Or "I'm looking at several options. We'll see what works best."

—Don't discuss legal issues, court dates, or child support and whether the other parent is making payments on time. This is a legal matter, and kids should not know about it.

—Do put a custody calendar (a parenting time schedule) on the refrigerator door, or wherever the kids can see it. (Apps such as OurFamilyWizard.com have calendars for kids that allow older kids to see the schedule without seeing any correspondence between their parents.)

—If you can afford it, have the kids see a therapist for a while. If money is a challenge, dial 2-1-1 about low-cost or no-cost options.

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YOUR ATTITUDE

—Be composed around your children. Don't break down and cry in front of them. Don't show your fears or despair or loneliness or worries. These are adult emotions and your kids are not capable of dealing with them.

—To your kids, you need to look self-controlled, stable, warm, and dependable. The message is that "I'll figure it out and in time everything will be okay. We'll have some changes and ups and downs, but we'll land on our feet." Notice how vague that is: you're not promising a big beautiful house or a trip to Disneyland. You're just telling them that your priority is to take care of them.

—Share the painful and angry and fearful emotions with friends or a therapist, but not with your kids.

—Deal with your own nervous tension and fear about the future with a support group, friends, or a therapist.  (Make sure these are people who support your decision to divorce, otherwise they will increase your turmoil, not reduce it.)

—Reduce the conflict as much as possible. Don't argue with you ex in front of the kids, even though it might feel good to fight back. Observing conflict between two parents does  damage to children. Don't show your anger at your ex.

—Plan some fun leisure activities with your kids. It might be as simple as a walk, a visit to the park or library, a trip to the pet store to "visit the pets" or a day at the natural history museum.

—Planning the future is easier when you have a calm and intelligent advisor to help you think clearly. If you know a smart accountant or business owner or certified divorce financial analyst (CDFA) in your neighborhood or church, ask for help looking at your options.

 

 

DON'T GIVE THE NEWS ALL AT ONCE

Don't announce the divorce and all the changes that will take place at once. That's too overwhelming.

First, tell them you're getting divorced. Then in a week or so, tell them the next change. For example, Daddy (or Mommy) is moving out. Then the next week, the parenting schedule. Each change takes time to adjust to.

Don't dump all the news about future changes at once. For example, don't tell them they will have to move and change schools and say goodbye to friends or pets or favorite possessions or grandparents. Let it wait for a while. Why? Because plans change, and some kids will hear news and stress out unnecessarily. You don't want them unable to concentrate on the schoolwork due something they cannot control.

 

 

LATER, WHEN THE KIDS HAVE ACCEPTED THAT THE DIVORCE WILL HAPPEN

—Too many major changes are hard on kids. That's why the court system often awards the home (temporarily) to the parent who normally cares for the children on a day-to-day basis.

—Older children, confident children, or sophisticated children want slightly more information about logistical changes so they feel they have control over their decisions. But young or anxious children need to be shielded if possible. (Of course, where you sense danger, it's best to flee, regardless of the suddenness.)

—Kids need to be able to make decisions about how to arrange and decorate their new room at the other parent's home. They will feel calmer if they help you make a plan: what beloved objects (toys, stuffed animals, pillows, PJs, etc.) should stay with you, and which should go to the other home. Also help them create a list of which items should travel with them during custody exchanges. Approach it as a fun project. For young kids, you can make a decorated box for each home: Mommy's Home Box, Daddy's Home Box.

—Keep a list on the refrigerator of what needs to transfer at each exchange to the other parent's house: school work, backpack, medication, eyeglasses, uniforms, costumes, sports equipment, musical instruments, toiletries, electronic devices and power cords, etc.

 

OTHER RESOURCES

—Getting the kids to safety might require legal help. It might mean asking your attorney if you can move closer to your parents or other supportive people. It might mean asking for a temporary restraining order if your ex exhibits criminal behavior: theft, assault, stalking, vandalism, violence, sexual abuse, property damage, drunk driving arrests, etc.

—Some good authors on helping kids deal with shock (or trauma) are: Peter Levine, Maggie Klein, Gabor Maté. They have free You Tube videos too.

—If your ex sometimes uses manipulation or deceit, communicate only in writing, or use a co-parenting app such as OurFamilyWizard or AppClose or other similar app for your smartphone.

—There are many books on divorce for kids that help them understand better. See the age-graded list of children's books on divorce and the comparison chart herelifesavingdivorce.com/kidsdivorcebooks/  Some books are comforting and some are informative. Older kids and confident kids tend to need the information. Younger or more anxious kids need the comforting books.

—If your ex is deliberately trying to turn children against you, spend time educating yourself on how to protect yourself against parental alienation, what to say to your children, and how to act in court to show up as a cooperative, reasonable parent. See SECTION 10 of my recommended book list. www.lifesavingdivorce.com/links)

—If your ex has traumatized the children, there are organizations that teach you specific parenting skills. See SECTION 20 on my recommended resources webpage. www.lifesavingdivorce.com/links

—Despite what you've heard about "divorce destroying kids," about 8 in 10 children of divorce turn out fine, with no longterm serious emotional, psychological, or social problems. www.lifesavingdivorce.com/kidspresentation  and www.lifesavingdivorce.com/abuse-is-worse-than-divorce

 

 

 

 


Do You Need Support?  I’d like to invite you to my private Facebook group, "Life-Saving Divorce for Separated or Divorced Christians." ANSWER the 3 QUESTIONS. This is a group for women and men of faith who have walked this path, or are considering it.


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