Challenging conversations can actually bring your family closer, as difficult conversations can be opportunities for growth. Talking to your children about difficult topics can demonstrate to them that you have their best interests at heart, that you are courageous enough to face problems and that they can rely on you for information and guidance. There are many difficult conversations we need to have with our children but informing the children you are getting divorced may be one of the most difficult of all.
Why is the divorce talk such a difficult conversation? First of all, we need to understand that as parents we are programmed to protect our children. If our child is being bullied we know what our role is. Sometimes we must temper out reactions so we can truly assist our children – but there is no doubt that we have a visceral response when our children are in danger of being hurt physically and emotionally. I can certainly recall times when my own “mother bear” reared its head and I wanted to retaliate against the bully that was attempting to harm my child. Of course, I realized that it would be wildly inappropriate for a middle age Child and Family Therapist to be taking down some 8-year-old that was teasing my child on the playground – but I won’t pretend that the thought did not cross my mind!
This desire to protect also applies to conversations about sex and drugs. There is some outside force that might harm our child – and we want to prepare and protect our child against something dangerous. Our protective role is clear. So, the truly complicating factor that makes talking to your children about divorce so difficult is that the parents are the source of the pain. This causes great dissonance. How do we help protect our child against ourselves – when we are the ones causing great sadness and distress in our children? This may be the reason so many parents avoid this conversation, or rush through it by trying to tell their children that everything will be fine.
The bad news is that talking to your kids about divorce is one of the most difficult conversations that parents can have with their children. Although I understand and empathize with the guilt parents may feel in this situation, this guilt and discomfort should not be used as an excuse to avoid doing what must be done. I caution parents that avoiding this conversation, or candy coating it in some way, may only cause additional distress and pain in the long run for the children.
The good news is that if the parents do this conversation well, they can help their children adjust and heal much quicker. Change is inevitable in life, and how we approach the divorce talk can teach children that grace and dignity can be part of grieving and healing. There is no perfect way of having this talk – but it is best when it is done in an authentic and thoughtful manner.
Some tips for talking to your children about divorce:
- It is always best if both parents can tell the children together. You brought the children into the world together, and you owe it to your children to make their needs more important than your marital difficulties. It is important to come together and hold the space for your children during this conversation. The parents need to be the leaders – and leaders show their true strength during the most difficult of times. This will demonstrate true courage in the face of adversity and set the template for your children to develop grace under fire.
- Give them an explanation. Do not give your children too many details regarding your marital difficulties but do provide an explanation that makes sense to them. Let them know your love has changed, and sometimes adult love changes and no longer fits together like it once did. Let them know as a couple you have done many things well – like creating them – but unfortunately you did not work out your problems well together. Honour each other in front of the children and let them know you are sad as well – but do not let your sadness or feelings dominate the discussion.
- Acknowledge that this is a sad day for the family. Tell your children that whatever they are feeling is ok. It is ok to be sad, mad, disappointed and fearful of the changes. Don’t try to “sell them a line” that everything is great and they will be happy again soon. Do not be afraid of their sadness – acknowledge it – and let them know there are some things that are worth feeling sad about.
- Be honest about what will be changing and what will not be changing. Let them know that their schedules and living arrangements will be changing. Tell the children that some things do not change. Let them know that although adult love can change– the love between parents and children is a unique kind of love and it never changes.
- Let them know that a plan is in place. It is best if you have this worked out beforehand. Children need to know their schedule. Reassure them that you will still work together as their parents, and rather than just one home they now have two safe harbours in the world. Let them know there may be bumps ahead – but you will do your best to work through the bumps and that they are your top priority.
Leading your children through changes in your family can build a deeper intimacy with your children. It is a real-life experience in which they can see you continue to do your job as a parent even under pressure. Our challenges and human vulnerability often connect us – and this can be the gift that emerges as your family changes and evolves.