We work really hard with our couples at TMP and Engage With Love to avoid divorce, but sometimes it still happens. Once that decision is made, the next step couples face is how and when to tell the kids. This isn’t a pleasant task and it is often handled badly. Especially when a couple is hostile toward each other. It’s easy to let emotions take over common sense and things are blurted out in front of the kids that can cause serious psychological distress to them.
It grieves me when I see parents use their kids in power plays to manipulate their spouse or hurt them further. It downright angers me when I know parents are trying to turn their children against the other spouse by being critical or blaming the other parent for the marriage ending. But the situation that always leaves me shaking my head is when a parent gives their child too much detail or shares things the child cannot process. I had a parent once who told his daughter her mother was having an affair and was texting her lover thousands of times a month. Then he showed her the phone bill as proof. This child was 12 years old! Your children do not have a mental or emotional file for this kind of information. Avoid the temptation to share details with your child.
Even if you cannot stand the sight of your spouse, now is the time to put on the big girl and big boy pants and play nice. Not to make life easier for your spouse but to help your children deal with one of the most painful events they will ever experience. Here are some things to consider if this is ever a conversation that needs to happen in your family.
- Talk to the kids with both adults present. It is critical that you and your spouse handle this conversation together. Come up with a game plan ahead of time and determine when the talk will take place, what will be said, and who will say what. Kids need to see that even though their parents may be thinking about splitting up, they can still be a team and work well together when needed. It gives them stability when everything else seems to be falling apart.
- Be honest. Kids are very perceptive. In fact, if your marriage is rocky, they have probably already picked up on this. Make sure what you tell your kids and the length of the conversation is age appropriate. By no means do kids need to know all the details of their parents’ relationship but they do need some information so they know how to adjust to the new family dynamics. Here’s an example of how you can start this conversation: “Kids, your mom/dad and I would like to talk to you about something. You’ve probably noticed that we’ve had a hard time getting along lately. That can happen for adults too…just like how you guys sometimes have a hard time getting along. We’ve tried to find ways to get along better but we’ve decided that the best thing for us is to live in separate homes. Even though things will change in how our family looks, your mom/dad and I will still always be here for you guys to help with homework and everything else you need. “
- Reinforce the fact that the issues in the marriage are not the kids’ fault. Often kids will internalize what is happening with their parents and assume they have done something wrong. They’ll think if maybe they had been a better kid or listened more, their parents would stay together. Make sure you reiterate this is not true.
- Try to keep things as consistent as possible. The news of a separation/divorce is devastating enough for kids. During this time, it’s best to try to minimize any other changes in their lives if possible. Try to keep their routine as similar as possible to what it was before the news of the separation. This allows your kids some comfort of knowing that even though their family unit is changing, there is still some consistency in their lives.
- Keep the peace in front of the kids. Don’t argue with your spouse in front of the kids – not even on the phone. And don’t bad mouth the other parent in front of the kids either. When this occurs, it makes kids feel they have to choose sides. Keep the issues you have with your spouse between you and your partner.
- Be mindful of the ways your kids may respond to this news. It’s normal for kids to be angry, cry, withdraw, or get depressed when they hear their parents are separating/divorcing. If these behaviors go on for more than a few months, they may need some additional help processing how they are feeling about the situation. Contact a local therapist and make an appointment to discuss any concerns you may have. Also keep in mind this can be a time when kids start acting out. They may realize the only time their parents get along is when they are discussing the discipline/behavior issues of the child. Often children are willing to make themselves the scapegoat in order to see their parents get along about something.
You may have already grieved the ending of your marriage but remember, it’s a major loss for your kids too. For more tips on how to handle these types of delicate conversations with your kids, give us a call at Power of Two Counseling in Richardson, Texas. We can work with the entire family as a unit or see the kids separately and help them come to terms with the changes in their family. Remember! You can choose not to stay married but you will always be co-parenting and co-grandparenting. Ending your marriage with dignity and respect is what will help your kids adjust to their new lives.