You can't possibly predict exactly how your children are going to react to the news of your divorce. Their reactions depend on their ages, maturity levels, personalities, emotional makeup, and the relationships they have with you and your spouse, among other things. In this article, we explain the kinds of emotional reactions your children may have after you tell them about your divorce.
Calming their emotions
Interestingly enough, you may find that their emotions mirror yours. Those emotions may include anger, depression, disbelief, fear, rejection, and sadness.
Telling your children about your divorce is apt to trigger a new flood of emotions inside of you, even if you thought that you had them under control. For example, you may feel guilt about the fact that you couldn't make your marriage work and that now your kids are hurting; anger toward your spouse if he or she did something to cause the divorce; sadness because your news made your kids cry; and so on. Be prepared to do whatever you need to do to deal with your own emotions because if you're an emotional basket case, you're not much help to your children and are likely to make them even more scared and worried than they already are.
State By State: In some jurisdictions, parents who are getting divorced are required to take parenting classes taught by mental health professionals. In these classes, parents learn about children's reactions to divorce, effective parent-child communication, and resources that can help parents and their children go through a divorce.
Practice the art of "active" listening
If you've never practiced active listening with your children before, now is the time to start. Active listening requires you to stay attuned to the feelings behind your children's comments and questions and lets them know in a nonjudgmental way that you heard what they said.
For example, say that your 10-year-old son tells you, "I'm scared about what's going to happen now that you and Daddy are getting divorced." Rather than telling him not to be scared or that being scared is silly, ask your child, "What are you scared about?" Carefully listen to his answers and reassure him as much as you can.
Active listening doesn't involve interrupting to correct your children, preaching or lecturing, or analysis or problem-solving. Its purpose is to encourage your children to open up to you and to tell you what they think and how they're feeling. Active listening can help you gain information and insights into your children that you can use to help them cope with your divorce.
Active listening promotes a feeling of love and trust between you and your children, which are feelings they need in order to deal with their parents' divorce.
Fielding their questions
After you tell your children about your divorce plans, give them an opportunity to ask questions. Your children's initial questions will probably relate in some way to how your divorce will change their lives and what will stay the same. For example, depending on their ages, they may want to know
Answer your children's questions clearly, calmly, and honestly. If they ask you something that you can't answer, admit that you don't know or that it's too soon to tell. When appropriate, tell them that you will give them an answer by a certain date or as soon as you can. If your children don't ask direct questions, you may be able to intuit their thoughts through their behavior and actions or by reading between the lines when they talk to you.
Your younger children may have a hard time grasping the concept of divorce and realizing that you and your spouse will always continue to love them and care for them. They may ask you the same questions over and over, which can really tax your patience. Understand that right now they need constant reassurance.
Tip: You can help your younger children deal with your divorce by reading them age-appropriate books that deal with the subject. We recommend the following titles to help your younger children acknowledge and express their fears and worries about your divorce and the changes that are occurring in their lives:
And don't be surprised if your children don't ask you many questions at first. Learning that you're getting a divorce may come as quite a shock to them, even if they're aware that you and your spouse were having marital problems and even if they have plenty of friends with divorced parents. They may need to let the news sink in before they're ready to ask you questions. They'll likely come to you with questions after they've shared your news with friends, especially if their friends' parents are divorced and their friends tell them what their parents' divorce was like for them. Let your children know that you're willing and available to talk with them about your divorce and to answer their questions whenever they want. If they seem reluctant to ask you questions, take the initiative by talking with each of them individually about your divorce and asking them whether they have any questions about it.
Tip: Pick up a copy of Difficult Questions Kids Ask and Are Too Afraid to Ask About Divorce by Meg F. Schneider and Joan Offerman-Zuckerberg (Fireside). We recommend this title if you want advice on how to tell your children the truth without frightening them, how to strengthen your relationship with them, and how to keep and build their trust. Regardless of the age of your children, you should find this book helpful.
Divorce can be particularly difficult for preteens and teens, so you may want to purchase some of the following books for them:
If your kids act uninterested in the books when you first bring them home, leave them in a place where they can see them and, when they're ready, they may start reading the books. Also, before you give the books to your children, you may want to read them to gain insight into what your kids feel like right now. That insight can help you do a better job of parenting them during your divorce.
John Ventura is a bestselling author, attorney, and a national authority on consumer financial and legal problems. Mary Reed is the founder of Mary Reed Public Relations. This answer has been excerpted from their book Divorce for Dummies (Second Edition, Wiley Publishing). This material is used by permission of John Wiley & Sons, Inc. The book is available at Amazon.com or www.wiley.com.
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