Putting your children first when you’re getting a divorce can seem like an awfully tall order, especially if the breakup of your marriage is full of conflict. After all, you have your own emotions to cope with! Plus, concerns about how you and your spouse will resolve the financial and legal issues in your divorce and what your future may be like may distract you.
Certainly, you have a lot on your plate. But remember, you’re the parent. You have a responsibility to your children to tell them about your divorce in as caring and as sensitive a manner as possible. You also have an obligation to provide them with all the love, attention, and support that they need throughout your divorce so that you can minimize any emotional trauma that they may experience. If you don’t, research shows that they may struggle as adults to lead happy, well-adjusted lives.
The best way to handle the situation is for you and your spouse to break the news about your divorce together to your children, even if you have to put your animosity toward each other aside for a while. By explaining your divorce together, you convey to your kids that, although your marriage may be ending, you can cooperate as their parents, that they still have a family — just a different kind of family — and that you both will remain actively involved in their lives. Such behavior is very calming and reassuring to them.
Before you tell your children about your divorce plans, taking the time to decide what you’re going to say to them is a good idea. Get your story straight so that you don’t contradict one another or send them conflicting messages. If you and your spouse need help deciding what to say to your children, talk things over with your religious advisor or schedule an appointment with a mental health professional.
Warning: You should both agree that when you talk with your children neither of you will blame the other for your breakup nor encourage your children to side with one of you against the other. Putting your kids in the middle is unfair to your children and can inflict irreparable emotional harm. Furthermore, when you criticize your spouse, your comments can backfire on you — your children may side with the parent you maligned.
Tip: Here are more tips to discuss with your spouse before you break the news to your children:
Be honest with your children about why you’re getting divorced, but keep their ages in mind and avoid sharing the lurid details behind your split. Tell them as much as they need to know and no more. If you haven’t been able to hide the discord in your marriage, you may want to acknowledge what your children already know by saying something like, “We know that you’ve heard us fighting a lot, and here’s why…”
Don’t hide the fact that life is going to be different for everyone in the family because of your divorce. Prepare your kids for some of the changes to come. Reassure them that your divorce hasn’t and will not change your love for them and that you both will continue to be involved in their lives. But don’t promise them things you can’t deliver. Make sure that your reassurances and promises are more than hot air. Otherwise, your children will become distrustful of you and cynical about your reliability and honesty.
Be very clear with your children that your divorce has absolutely nothing to do with them. Otherwise, they may feel somehow responsible for the divorce and assume that if only they had behaved better or gotten higher grades you wouldn’t be ending your marriage.
When you tell your kids about your divorce, avoid angry or irritated facial gestures and body language, and don’t argue with your spouse in front of them. Such behavior contradicts the messages you want your kids to hear from you.
Try not to get emotional when you tell your children about your divorce. Watching a parent cry or get very upset can be frightening for children. Don’t add to their anxiety with histrionics and overly dramatic behavior. You’re likely to make them more concerned about your emotions than their own and, as a result, they may not let you know exactly what they’re feeling.
If you and your spouse don’t plan on breaking the news about your divorce to your kids together, try to agree about which of you will tell them. This decision may be an easy one for you to make because one of you has no interest in delivering such difficult news to your kids or because one of you is emotionally incapable of doing so. Or, you may both agree that the parent who your children most often turn to for emotional support should talk to them. You and your spouse should also reach a general agreement about what that parent tells your kids. That way, if your children later ask the other parent questions about your divorce, that parent won’t tell them something that contradicts what their other parent said. Receiving contradictory information from the two of you can unsettle your children more than they already are after learning about your divorce plans.
Tip: If you separate before your divorce is final, your children should visit the parent who moves out as soon as possible so they’re assured that they’ll continue to have a relationship with both of you. However, if your children refuse to visit their other parent or act reluctant to do so, don’t force them to go. Also, make sure that they have their other parent’s new address, phone number, cellphone number, and e-mail address.
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, @ 2005). This material is used by permission of John Wiley & Sons, Inc. The book is available at Amazon.com orwww.wiley.com.