by Kelly A. Bennett, Esq.
She sat in my office, resolute that she wanted a divorce. He worked all the time, in fact extra time including nights and weekends. His workaholism left her and their three children alone to do all the school work, attend the kids’ sporting and school events, and even church. Alone.
When he was home, he was controlling and demanded the house be in perfect order. That food be on the table at precise times and presented in a manner acceptable to him. When things weren’t up to snuff, he punched holes in the walls of their lovely home and berated her in front of the kids.
She was already living the life of a 90% single mother and she was exhausted from it all. He had reluctantly agreed to go to one marriage counseling session, but when he didn’t like what he heard, he refused to go back. She was done. It was over.
But as this mom sat with me, gathering information on how the divorce process worked, and although she had the full support of her aging parents (with dad there, as a shot of courage she needed to take that first step of meeting with us, her lawyers), there was still a lingering cloud of hesitation. Almost a smell of fear in the room. When asked if she was ready to move forward, the tears began to flow.
What was it? While she knew she would be stepping into a new life of safety, peace in her home and freedom to be her authentic self, she was still hesitant. Why?
It was all about the kids – how would she tell her kids?
Telling children that mom and dad are splitting up is life changing. It is something children will typically remember, forever. The mother in my office that day was right to hesitate – because it meant that she was very mindful of the life-long impact the divorce discussion would have on her children. Ask any adult with divorced parents how they learned their parents were divorcing, and most will recount the event with amazing detail. It sticks with them.
So how do you tell the children?
The mom in my office that day put off her divorce. It was procrastination, really, because she was avoiding telling her kids despite the fact that life at home was not the life she wanted her kids to experience. She didn’t know how to tell her three children (who were ages 7, 11 and 13), so she sucked it up and lived another three months in miserable conditions (and her kids did too).
What to do when you simply don’t know how? Here are three practical things to consider, and put into play so you can get on with it:
1. When You Feel Ill-Equipped, Get the Help of a Therapist.
A good marriage and family therapist, particularly those who specialize in treating kids, is a great resource. See the therapist yourself, and get a few sessions in just for you, to start. Therapists are great at helping you reframe your view of the upcoming divorce, and help you think “healthy”. They can be a great source of relief.
In addition to the tools a therapist can give you to have a positive divorce conversation with your children, there’s also the option of breaking the news to the kids during a therapy session. Sometimes we need that assistance from the pro’s when we just don’t know how to approach the situation.
2. Where Possible, Agree with Your Spouse in Advance to Tell the Children Together. Make it the Goal of the Parents to Present a United Front.
Obviously, there’s got to be a level of civility between you and the other parent to have a positive family discussion. If you both know “its over” – agree to disagree, but get on the same page when it comes to telling your kids. Deciding what and how to tell your children in a joint-parent meeting is critical. You don’t want it to escalate into a conflict in front of the children. They’ll be harmed by that experience, and it’s not what they signed up for – so being prepared and in agreement is super important here.
If you and the other parent aren’t sure what to say together, get to a therapist (yes, we’re back to #1 above). Smart parents care enough about their children to put their relational dysfunction aside and put their kids’ well-being front and center. If the two of you can do this right, it can result in a positive tone and reduce your childrens’ fears about their future.
3. Be Mindful of the Stages of Childhood Development – It’s Not “One Size Fits All” When it Comes to Children’s Responses to Divorce Conflict.
Telling a three year old is going to be very different than telling a 12 year old about mom and dad splitting up. The questions and concerns can vary wildly, depending on your child’s age. I looked at a lot of research in this area, on the differing concerns kids have about divorce, depending on where they are in their development.
A great resource on the phases of childhood development was an article by John Hoffman “An Age By Age Guide for Talking to Kids About Divorce” in the January 15, 2016 edition of Today’s Parent magazine. The author interviewed several child psychologists on this topic. The consensus was:
Ages 0 to 5: Children here are slowly beginning to develop independence – but it’s slow, slow, slow! They are obviously highly dependent, and that fact colors their world.
Babies and toddlers have a keen sense of dependence on their parents and their caregivers. They can’t process complex events or issues, can’t anticipate the future and have a really hard time understanding their feelings. So discussions about “the future” will likely result in frustration or fear. The key here is to keep it simple.
Preschoolers are also highly dependent on parents and caregivers, but they are beginning to develop independence. They have a limited ability to understand cause and effect and they have no cognitive ability to think way ahead into the future. Preschoolers’ understanding of the world is “me-centric” – they see themselves in the middle and the world revolving around them. They can think about feelings to a small degree, but their ability to talk about feelings is limited.
Usually, kids in this age group require a lot of simple explanations, repeatedly over time, before they can understand that mom and dad have separate houses, and other mechanics of divorce. Preschoolers need simple, concrete explanations. Tell them which parent will be moving out. Tell them where they will live, and who will be taking care of them. Remember, their world is all about them. “Who will take care of me? Where will I live? Will I still have a daddy?”
Let them know how often they will be with the other parent. When they ask you questions (and they will), give them short, simple answers. Don’t worry – if they have more questions, they’ll ask. Know that with preschoolers, you’ll likely have multiple conversations about the same or similar things. Be ready for them and keep them short.
In this age group, you may children express fear, anger or emotional instability through clinginess, anxiety, whining and overall irritability. You may also see preschoolers revert in developmental areas (temporarily), like potty training or sleeping through the night. So what’s the best approach to reduce these negative reactions?
A focus on providing consistent nurturing and care by both parents will give your toddler/preschooler a sense of stability and reassurance. The name of the game here is structure and routine, with both their parents. Best case scenario? The same structure and routine at each parent’s home (which is why smart divorcing parents get on the same page in this area).
Ages 6 to 11: In this age group, your kids have a bit more ability to think and talk about their feelings, but they still can’t really process the complexities of divorce. Although they are still pretty egocentric in their view of the world, in this age group kids are beginning to develop relationships outside of their home. For kids 9 to 11, they tend to be “all or nothing” or “black and white” thinkers. That black and white thinking often translates into assigning “blame” for the divorce on one parent (or the kids blame themselves).
You may see fear, anger, sadness or anxiety which are distress signs. Kids in this age group often really miss their absent parent and fantasize about how they can get their parents back together. Fantasizing about orchestrating a reconciliation is a big sign that kids are blaming themselves for the divorce. They may feel that they’ve got to make a reconciliation happen (that’s a lot of pressure on a kid). This is an important sign to recognize, because it slows the healing process for your children. Most important in this scenario is helping your school-age children understand that the decision to split up was an adult decision. A decision that they didn’t cause and which they definitely can’t influence.
For kids in this age group, the experts recommend parents continue to keep the school-age kids in stable environments and stick to routines. Don’t force your kids to talk about their feelings – they have the ability to express their feelings to a certain degree, but they may clam up if they feel pressured to talk.
Indirect approaches seem to work well because they are less threatening. Give your school-age kids age-appropriate books or positive kid-centered videos about divorce. Read and watch them with them – and be open to discussing the material. Try making indirect conversation by mentioning things like “I know sometimes kids feel sad or afraid when their parents are getting a divorce.” This cracks the door open to safe discussions, and helps your children focus on their feelings and talk to you when they’re ready.
Ages 12 to 14: This is a fun age, but can be really challenging in the divorce context. In this “pre-teen” age group, kids have a much greater ability to understand the multitude of divorce issues. You’ll likely see a greater ability to engage in discussions and ask more questions about the divorce in order to gain a greater understanding.
Layered on top of the desire for greater understanding is an increased need for independence. Preteens start placing greater importance on their relationships outside of the family. And of course, the questioning and testing parental authority is on the rise in this age group.
We see a lot of clients with pre-teens and teens who exhibit a roller-coaster ride of emotions and behaviors. Some of this is just a function of being a pre-teen or teen. Most often, our clients’ discover through therapists that it’s the “one foot in (childhood), one foot out (into semi-adulthood)” syndrome, all wrapped up in the context of divorce. Some kids here want to get into the adult issues of divorce. But discussions of adult issues typically does nothing more than increase anxiety and pressure on a child.
Anxiety often shows up in pre-teens and teens as irritability and anger. You might see an uptick in text messages and phone calls from your kids, constantly wanting to know where you are. They may start having headaches and a lot of sleepless nights.
The challenging part is that kids in this age group are often moody and reluctant to communicate. It’s really helpful if you keep those lines of communication as open as possible, conveying your availability to talk any time (even if they don’t seem to want to talk). Open lines of communication decrease the chance that your child’s emotional struggles go unaddressed.
Don’t be fooled into thinking your pre-teen or teen doesn’t want you in their lives. This is far from the truth – they need you and crave connectedness, usually with both parents. Be mindful of the fact that your teen may be “testing” you or the other parent, to see if you really care about them.
Putting off divorce because you don’t know how to break the news to your children is a no-win situation. In a toxic home environment, head-burying simply means you and your kids suffer that much longer in an unhappy household. The more dysfunctional it is, the longer your kids are being “taught” that this is how marriage should be. Procrastination in this area is really a self-imposed hostage situation, preventing you and your family from getting on the road to healing and happiness.
Are you delaying the inevitable out of fear for the children? It really can be as simple as making a decision. Know where your kids are in their development and seek the help of a great counselor to guide you through. Your life can change in an instant – it’s there for the taking!