1. Strategize before you tell them. Talk with your co-parent about what and how you want to tell your children. You may want to talk with a child or family therapist first to learn about age appropriate strategies based on child development. As much as possible, you want to be on the same page, sending the same message to your children, to minimize confusion in this confusing time.
2. Tell them together. You want to show a united front. Yes, you are no longer going to be married or living together but you are still one unit as co-parents. Demonstrating this to your children will help alleviate anxiety and show them that you both are there for them even if you live in separate homes.
3. Find the right time. First, you should tell your children as soon as possible after you decide to separate or divorce. Children are quite intuitive and although you might believe you have kept your marital difficulties from them, they most likely know something is happening. And the longer it takes to address their concerns and provide information, the more time your children will have to fill in the blanks themselves, most likely with inaccurate, illogical and worst-case-scenario ideas. Second, pick a time when you have enough time to address their concerns and when you have no other plans. Imagine your child having to go to a soccer game only minutes after you tell them you are divorcing. Ensure they have quiet time to process.
4. Put your emotions aside. Telling your children you are divorcing may be one of the most difficult conversations you ever have yet if you are emotional, it could impact how your children respond. First, if you are emotional, your children may become even more emotional, as you are sending the message of how "horrible" this will be. Second, your children may feel like they need to take care of you and that they cannot express their feelings for fear of making you feel more sad or uncomfortable. Find a supportive outlet such as a friend, family member or counselor to talk through your feelings with. This is not to say that you cannot show emotions in front of your children. Rather, it is about minimizing the expression of intense emotions. After all, you should be the support for your children rather than your children being the support for you.
5. Clearly state that this has nothing to do with them. Children and teens are egocentric in nature, meaning they are self-focused and this is developmentally appropriate. As a result, they often believe that they caused the divorce, because of something they did or because they were not good enough for your love. Repeat, repeat, repeat to your children that you love them, that they did nothing wrong, and that they in no way influenced your decision to divorce.
6. Acknowledge that changes will occur and do not make promises. You cannot guarantee what life will look like after your divorce. You cannot predict the future and you may not know what will happen in terms of division of assets and liabilities. So, for example, do not promise your children that they will remain in the marital home. You can tell them that you hope to make that happen, that you are going to do your best to make this transition as smooth as possible, and that you will inform them of any changes as soon as possible, of course telling them together.
7. Provide as much detail as possible. Your children are going to have many questions and fears such as when they will be able to spend time with each parent, will they have to move or change schools and other such concerns. If you and your co-parent can set up an initial trial parenting plan including parenting time, it will alleviate some of your child’s concerns.
8. Accept their perceptions and reaction. You really do not know how your children will react. They may be quiet and not say anything. They may act as if nothing has happened. They may cry. They may be angry. They may even feel relieved. And their reaction or perceptions may make no sense to you. Yet their perceptions are their reality. For example, if your child feels they caused the divorce, encourage them to talk about it and provide support and understanding as a way to attempt to alter their perceptions rather than dismissing them.
9. Encourage them to ask questions. Divorce is going to be a part of your children’s lives, so it is important for them to feel that they can ask questions and express their thoughts and feelings. They should not feel that this is a taboo topic. Recognizing that divorce is an emotional time for all, your child may benefit from talking with a counselor to help them through this time of transition.
10. Focus on maintaining a positive co-parenting relationship. Research has demonstrated that the amount of co-parenting conflict is directly proportional to how children adjust to a separation or divorce. Your marriage may be ending but you are still a family. Your co-parenting relationship is life-long and your child deserves a relationship with both their parents. They deserve both parents cheering them on at soccer games and smiling proudly at their high school graduation. Do not make them choose between their parents.
Paulette Janus, LCSW is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and founder of Janus Behavioral Health Services with offices in Lincoln Park and Wilmette. Paulette has over 15 years experience providing individual, couples and family psychotherapy, specializing in children, teens and families. She is also trained in and provides alternative dispute resolution interventions including family/divorce mediation, collaborative divorce coaching and child specialist services, and co-parent coaching.