Telling the children about your divorce
Telling the children about your divorce is a task no parent looks forward to. How will they react? Will they blame you? Will they blame themselves?
I’ll let you into a secret – your children’s reactions may surprise you.
In all cases, it’s a conversation that needs thoughtful planning. In Telling the children about your divorce we consider the best ways to discuss separation and divorce with your children and young teens.
How to have the difficult conversation
Telling the children about your divorce can be one of the most nerve-wracking aspects of the whole process. If you and the children are not at risk (physically or emotionally) from your spouse, it’s best if you present a united front. It’s important that, where possible, you and your ex decide together how and when to tell the children in a way that the youngest of your children can understand. This way they all feel part of the conversation.
Be clear that this is a change in the relationship between their parents only, it is not the end of their family and it signifies nothing about your love for them.
Focus on what impacts the children
Focus on how your separation will affect them, for example, if one parent is leaving the family home, or if they will be. Give them as much certainty as possible about what will happen in their lives.
Give your older children the opportunity to ask questions and be prepared to hear things you might not expect. Their reactions may not be what you anticipate – and they may change over time as they process the news.
You do not need to get into the gory details of why you are divorcing with your children. It is better for them not to get drawn into emotional arguments. You can simply say that you and their other parent have both decided you’ll be happier apart, but it has nothing to do with how much each of you loves them. Later in Telling the children about your divorce, we’ll look at how to set boundaries over what you share.
You’ll always be a family
When Telling the children about your divorce it’s important to remind your children that you will always be a family, even if they don’t live with both parents in the same house. You get to decide what your definition of family is – reassure them that divorce doesn’t mean that their family doesn’t exist anymore.
Luckily, now we are deep into the 21st Century, there are lots of children’s books and programmes that feature families living apart. Watch and read with them together and let your children see how there are many ways to have a ‘normal’ family life. The Centre for Separated Families has a list of recommended books to help.
Tell them it’s not their fault
Children, particularly young children, often believe that they are responsible for the breakdown of their parent’s relationship. This is because they try to make meaning from their own view of the world and the younger the child, the more egocentric that is. It’s a normal part of child development but can cause children to believe they are the cause of issues in their parents’ marriage.
Children may believe if they’d been better behaved or got better school reports or achieved greater success in sport or exams that their parents wouldn’t be angry or upset.
Remind your children frequently that your separation is nothing to do with them. Neither parent is separating from the children, simply from each other. Let them know it isn’t their responsibility to ‘fix’ the situation and there’s nothing they need to do other than keep being themselves.
Listen with your ears and watch with your eyes
Telling the children about your divorce isn’t a one-off event. You need to listen with your ears and watch with your eyes. Respond to their changing needs. Sometimes you’ll notice your children being vocal about their hurt and upset. There may be lots of questions, tears and even rages at you about the situation. Remember, if you feel lost, sad and confused, it’s likely that your children feel this way too.
You may need to tune in to what isn’t said or done. They might not be talking about your divorce but you notice their behaviour has changed. Have your children become quieter and withdrawn? Have they stopped caring about things that were once important to them? Are they moody or taking less care of their school work, appearance or friendships? Are they angry at everything?
Understand that your children will be going through a whole range of emotions – just like you. If your children are teenagers some of these changes may be linked to normal pubescent behaviours, but any teenage angst they feel will likely be exacerbated by uncertainties within your family unit.
Give the children space to process
When Telling the children about your divorce, give them space. Just as you needed space to process the end of your marriage, so your children may need space to process the fact that the family unit as they’ve known it is coming to an end and a new family situation is unfolding.
Acknowledge and allow their feelings rather than policing them (as long as they’re not hurting anyone). Your children need to know they are not being shamed for feeling bad, and that feeling upset, angry, fearful or guilty are natural responses.
Let them know you’re there to talk or listen if they need it. If they would rather speak to someone else, help them find someone safe to share their feelings with. Maybe a family friend, an older friend who’s experienced their parents’ separation, or a counsellor.
Be open and honest – but have boundaries
Don’t hide the facts from your children – they are smart! And But this doesn’t mean telling them all the details of your relationship breakdown. They don’t need to know their other parent is ‘bad’, ‘selfish’ or an adulterer. It rocks your children’s world to hear you talk badly about their parent. You are responsible for your behaviour, and your ex for theirs. Chances are, if your ex has behaved poorly, the children will see that anyway.
Be open and honest about the things they do need to know – the things that affect them, and age-appropriate explanations for what is happening. However old they are – even if they are in their late teens or early twenties and in relationships of their own, they are your children and you are the parents. There are aspects of your relationship that they may not need to know.
Being honest might mean saying “I’ll be honest with you – the answer to the question you have asked is none of your business and I’m not going to answer it. I am the parent and you are my child. I’ll be honest with you about things you need to know”.
Tell them what’s happening next
It’s human nature to want to know what’s happening. We all find change hard, especially when it’s imposed on us. Let them be involved in some decisions if possible, to give them a sense of control and autonomy.
Let them choose new bedding, or what’s for dinner. If you create new weekly routines, let them be part of shaping that, with appropriate limits. For example, they don’t get to choose which days they’re with which parent, but they might decide a new tradition of having pancakes and a film on the Friday nights they are with you.
Keep your children and teens in the loop about things that impact them. Tell them what’s happening. If you don’t know what’s happening next say so.
But remind them that until something does change, everything will be as it is now and that they have you and they are safe.
Let them enjoy their relationship with their other parent
Don’t criticise their other parent even if they are criticising you. It’s hard, but take the higher ground.
Accept that you cannot influence what the other parent does (in the absence of safeguarding concerns). Parallel parenting, rather than co-parenting, is useful if you cannot agree on a parenting style. It means you take responsibility for what you do with the children and let your ex do the same. So the children might experience different styles, rules and habits with each parent. So long as your ex is not being harmful, your children will adapt.
Letting go of the need to control what the other parent does gives you inner peace and allows the children to enjoy their time with that parent. It also means they don’t get caught in any crossfire. It is far better for their wellbeing that they live in two, different, peaceful households than a raging, angry one.
If you suspect that your children or teens are struggling to cope emotionally, get them support. Speak to their school or GP – many schools have resources for children of divorcing parents. Seek a referral to CAMHS if you feel that greater support is needed. Let your children know that it’s okay not to be okay and that this means them too!
Get support for yourself if you need it – and you probably will. Asking for help isn’t a weakness but a sign of great strength. Who can you ask to support you? What small things would make a big difference? A few hours with childcare or a home-cooked meal? A coffee without the children so you can vent and cry with a trusted friend?
Ask for what you need
Think about how you’d respond if a friend needed your help. Would you make extra chilli and deliver it? Would you have her children for a couple of hours after school? Remember that the help that you’d be delighted to give is waiting for you if you’d only ask.
If your mental health is struggling, don’t be afraid speak to your GP. You do not need to struggle on alone. Mental health is as important as physical health, and you’re likely to be feeling lower than usual. Medication and or talking therapies might be useful to support your transition into being a separated parent.
Be kind to yourself
These are challenging times for all of us – the challenge is only going to be more difficult if you are divorcing. Know that you are doing amazing work keeping your family alive at the end of every day.
Homeschooling is tough. Spending months in the same house with little respite is tough. Money may be tight and with the decision to divorce, life just got a whole lot more uncertain. Though it’s worth it, for all of you. Children included, even though they may not see that yet.
So be kind to yourself. If you find it hard to be kind, reach out. Both myself and the ladies in The Absolute Academy can support you to put yourself first whilst still being the great mother, sister and daughter that you are.
I’m always happy to chat through how I can support you. You can book in a call here.
Emma Heptonstall, the Divorce Alchemist is author of the Amazon best selling book How to be a Lady Who Leaves, the Ultimate Guide to Getting Divorce Ready. A former lawyer, Emma is a family mediator and founder of Get Divorce Ready the online self-study and group programmes. Emma has been featured on BBC Radio, The Telegraph, the iPaper and in Marie Claire Magazine. To find out more visit www.emmaheptonstall.com