It’s a life-altering moment when children learn that their parents are getting divorced – and it’s an experience that many children recall for a lifetime. But according to therapist Lisa Herrick, Ph.D., an estimated 75% of parents spend just 10 minutes discussing this life-changing experience with their children! Instead, parents should sit down and take the time to discuss divorce with their children, listening to their thoughts, concerns, and fears.
Legal separation and divorce can be an extremely difficult and emotional experience; for parents, there’s the added concern over their children’s well-being during and after the process. How you tell your kids about your divorce is very important, as this will have a significant impact on their perception of the experience.
When Should You Tell Your Kids About Your Divorce?
Dr. Herrick recommends telling the children approximately two to three weeks prior to the actual separation. This provides your children with an opportunity to absorb and understand what’s going to happen, thereby lessening the upset and trauma from this event.
Many parents are tempted to tell the older children before telling the younger children, but this secret can be a tremendous burden for the older child. Kevin D. Arnold, Ph.D., ABPP recommends telling the entire family at once, so there are no secrets and siblings can offer much-needed support to each other.
In the weeks leading up to the actual separation, parents may take the opportunity to prepare their children, explaining how the divorce will affect everyday life. Consider your child’s routine and how different aspects of that routine will be different following the separation. For example, explain that Dad will no longer sit and eat with the family at dinner during the week or Mom will no longer be there to read a book at bedtime on the weekends.
Whenever possible, try to focus on the gains instead of the losses. So instead of focusing on the fact that one parent will no longer be there to read a book at bedtime, try to focus on the new “gain” – the fact that the parent will soon begin reading a book at bedtime via Skype or a Facetime chat.
Present a United Front When You Tell Your Kids About Your Divorce
According to Herrick, it’s important that both parents show unity when discussing the separation and divorce process. She recommends reinforcing a few key points:
Reinforce the fact that both parents still love the child and the child can still love both parents. There is no need to take “sides.”
Reiterate that the decision to get a divorce was an adult decision – one that had nothing to do with the child or his/her behavior.
Explain that nobody is to blame for the divorce.
Reinforce the fact that you are still a family; your living arrangement will simply be a bit different from its current form.
Also, remember to tell your children about your plans (i.e., for separating and moving out) so they understand what’s going to happen and when those events are going to happen. For younger children, remind them of the plan on a regular basis.
Use Technology to Make the Process Easier
Technology can go a long way toward helping children to cope with the divorce process.
For example, a parent can help with homework or read a book via Skype. A parent can even join you for dinner via Skype.
Younger children can learn how to use the phone to call a parent if they’re feeling upset or homesick. Get creative and use technology in any way possible to ease your child’s transition during the divorce.
Ask Your Children to List Their “Wants” for the Divorce
According to HelpGuide.org, your children may benefit from making a list of their “wants” and “needs” during the divorce and why they have that particular want or need. This can serve as a more positive way to address your children’s fears and concerns. It also provides you with a chance to brainstorm new ways to make the divorce easier for your kids.
Here are a few examples of list items:
I want my parents to get along because it makes me feel guilty and sad when they fight, especially when they fight about issues that are related to me.
I want dad and mom to continue coming to my soccer games because I really enjoy having you both there to cheer for my team.
I want my parents to avoid saying unkind things about the other parent because this upsets me. It also makes me feel like I have to pick a side.
This list can serve as a good starting point for periodic discussions about issues that may be causing stress, worry, and upset for your child.
You can also re-address this list at a later time to make revisions and to discuss how well both parents are meeting these wants and needs. This list can serve as an important catalyst for spurring discussion with your kids before, during, and after your divorce.
Attorney Gerald M. Tomassian is a partner with the Fresno-based family law firm, Tomassian, Pimentel & Shapazian. The co-founder of the Collaborative Law Practice Group (CLPG), he has been practicing family law in California since 1988, assisting clients with divorces and legal separations. He also assists with related legal issues, such as child support, child custody, and spousal support. TPSLawFirm.com.