One of the first and most important questions divorce mediation or collaborative divorce clients asks is, “How do we tell the children about our divorce?” The answer to this most important question is complex. There is not one clear or a simple “one size fits all” answer. How you tell your children about divorce depends entirely on your individual and unique family circumstance.
No one is really prepared to tell their children about the upcoming divorce. Perhaps you are even doubting your own feelings about the separation. You have guilt, fear and are concerned about your actions or inactions. After all, it took you months to finally make the decision, or worse, the decision was made for you. While you know it will be very painful to have this conversation with your child(ren), you look forward to sharing this information. The good thing about all of this, is that you are actually doing something about this unknown. You are educating yourself by reading and you are starting to formulate a plan.
How Children React to Divorce
M. Gary Neuman, a well-respected marriage and family therapist (seen on Oprah twice in 2007) is an expert on children’s post-divorce behavior. He tells parents that children under the age of nine tend to respond to hurtful situations with sadness, but that’s not necessarily the case for older children.
Anger and resentment are much more prevalent after age nine. ”Anger gives a child experiencing divorce a sense of control,” says Neuman. “Since it is a more assertive response than crying to mommy – children between nine and twelve see anger as a grown-up way of handling their emotions. At this stage, kids usually also try to detach themselves from the family and may appear ambivalent about the divorce,” he adds. “Don’t be fooled. Both the anger and lack of interest are a defense mechanisms.” The pre-teen is at an awkward state of maturity. Their ability to understand emotions is still rather limited and therefore their behavior can seem distant and unfeeling.
According to Neuman, when you talk about divorce to your nine to twelve year old don’t be surprised if they see it in strict black-and-white terms and want to lay blame squarely on one of their parents. Possibly they can view the divorce as a rejection of them personally. They may push you to treat them like an ”adult,” asking for detailed information about the relationship.
What to Tell Your Children About Your Divorce
When your children ask why you are getting a divorce, you don’t need to go into great details. Talk about what happened in your relationship, without placing blame. “We didn’t know how to stop arguing and walk away from a fight,” is the type of language that Neuman suggests. As with all children, pre-teens need to be reminded that you love them, that you will always still be their parents, that they will be safe and cared for and that you are working out the details so that everything will be okay.
When it comes to questions about the future, Neuman suggests an answer that reminds your children that both Mom and Dad still want to be in their lives, because you both still love them. “Then,” says Neuman, “spell out custody and co-parenting arrangements as clearly and in as much detail as you can.” If you’re not sure how to talk to your children about the divorce, seek out professional help through mediation, therapy, courses and books.
A great book on this topic is, “Explaining Divorce to Children,” by Earl Grollman. This book covers topics such as: practical rules for telling children about divorce, religious views of divorce and parental dating. I find this to be a useful book for parents, divorce mediators, collaborative attorneys or therapists who work with divorcing couples and their children.
I recommend investing the time and effort in learning how to talk about divorce with your children. As parents, you should educate yourselves together, as this learning process empowers both of you equally to co-parent. This process may prepare you simultaneously for what is to come during and after the divorce. If you are divorcing and use divorce mediation or collaborative divorce, you will learn to set aside your differences and resolve the immediate conflict in your lives and how to resolve conflicts after the divorce.
I wish to congratulate all couples who go through a painful divorce and choose a non combative way to divorce through the process of either mediation or collaboration. Furthermore and more importantly, the kudos go to all who go through the pain of the divorce or separation and are able to put their own feelings second to the feelings and emotions of their children.