When I started researching a question that often comes up when couples are divorcing — When to tell your children about divorce? — I realized that we had mostly done everything wrong!
In my own experience and from years of helping women through divorce, I know that unless children are very young, they usually know that a divorce or separation is going to happen before we “officially” tell them. They have usually had front-row seats to all the “fireworks” as my youngest son described it.
If your relationship has come to the point that you are contemplating divorce, it is very hard to keep that situation secret. Something has caused your relationship to deteriorate, and those realities are difficult to hide. Even young children have an uncanny ability to sense our emotions even though we are trying to put a positive face on things.
The main causes of divorce are usually:
- Abuse (emotional or physical)
- Addictions (porn, gambling, alcohol, drugs, work)
- Loss of respect and care and intimacy
- A few couples actually do just drift apart and children might not see the signs of that as clearly as the other things mentioned that outwardly affect everyone in the family.
Some of these causes of divorce are easier to hide than others. We have also discovered that more and more children find text messages or photos to a lover or porn on a parent’s computer.
That’s not a good way to find out your parents’ relationship is in trouble or divorce is on the way.
As Soon As Possible
Most experts tell us that we should tell the children about the divorce as soon as possible when you and your spouse have decided to divorce, before major changes start happening.
Trying to keep the fact that your marriage is falling apart secret is exhausting emotionally and physically. Trying to pretend everything is fine usually doesn’t work especially when kids are already probably smelling the smoke.
Early on after discovery of the girlfriend, we were still in the same house…and in the same bed (dangerous from a STD standpoint!). We were each in counseling and even tried counseling together. We were supposedly trying to fix things. But one evening, my youngest son found me crying out on the back deck when it was just beginning to get dark. I told him what was going on. My older children already knew by then, too.
When You’re Level-headed (Not Emotional)
Experts also tell us to wait until we’re not emotional to tell the children about our divorce.
Let’s see. Hmmm. For a long time, I cried whenever I tried to talk about the divorce. It also took me a long time not to be furious about what had happened to our marriage. It would probably be two or three years after the divorce before I was not still emotional about the whole thing.
Emotions also remain erratic and intense if one partner has another relationships or wants alcohol more than he or she wants a strong family. Or if porn or gambling or drugs or work are more important than the good of the family. Those realities are hard not to get emotional about when telling our children about the divorce.
In our Midlife Divorce Recovery work, we have found that even mild-mannered executives or soft-spoken grandmothers can go completely berserk when faced with the discovery of lying and infidelity or discover one more gambling debt or one more episode that proves drugs or alcohol are in the picture again. Trying to be level-headed in those circumstances is difficult.
I’m just saying, children over the age of eight or nine usually know what’s going on long before a formal decision to divorce is announced.
Putting off telling the children about the divorce until we are not emotional means the conversation will probably never happen.
Tell Them Together (Both Parents)
Almost all the books and articles we read about how to tell the kids about our divorce says we should tell them together, except of course when abuse is a contributing factor in any way.
This advice sounds so neat and tidy. Both of us calmly sitting beside each other on the sofa, maybe holding hands, carefully telling our children that the family they have known for their whole life is ending … and that we want them to know why we think this is the best thing for all of us. That scenario did not happen with us! And by the way, it didn’t happen in most of the cases of divorce I know of.
The truth was, I didn’t want the divorce! I didn’t think divorce was the best thing for anybody … especially our children! I couldn’t honestly tell them I thought it was.
I was also furious that my wasband was making this conversation necessary. Supposedly with soft words and great maturity and understanding, we were going to tell them that we were ripping apart the family and the security and everything we had created together for more than three decades!
Examples of how not to tell your children about the divorce
I had to finally ask myself: Are we really supposed to be all zenned out and simply doing a “conscious uncoupling” in the face of the tornado that was happening in our family’s life?! Is that even realistic to imagine? Does that say anything about the realities of two “homes” or continual complications about holidays, family events, celebrations, moving, financial struggles and everything else that is part of divorce?
I remember a woman in one of my 10-Week RADICAL Divorce Recovery Classes telling the class that her soon to be ex-husband had gone to their two daughters’ school, called them out of class and told them about the upcoming divorce alone, and then he went back to work, and they went back to class.
That is pretty much the worst example of how to tell your children about the end of your family I have ever heard. What’s worse it that he was oblivious about what that information would do to them in the middle of an ordinary day at school. Horrible!
Another clueless soon-to-be-ex-husband said excitedly to one of his children, “Hey, guess what, after the divorce, you’re going to have a new brother and a sister ….” or something equally obtuse. What could he possibly have been thinking?!
And no, we personally didn’t tell the kids together. We did see a counselor together with all of the children there when we were trying (once again) to reconcile. In looking back, I don’t remember that my then husband ever said a word.
Tell The Kids Together
Prevailing expert wisdom is that if there is more than one child, having them all together when you break the news allows the children to process the information together and get support from each other. Additionally, it prevents one child from knowing by themselves and having to keep a secret from his or her siblings. I think that is wise advice.
In a perfect world, I guess we would all be in the family living room or around the kitchen table with hot chocolate and cookies talking about the coming tsunami. Again, that never happened with us.
Our kids were all aware of all the separations and reconciliations and more separations and reconciliations until I think it was a relief when I finally said, “Enough is enough!” and filed for divorce.
Personal experience, and after working with hundreds and hundreds of women, tells us that the perfect plan for telling the kids usually never happens.
Another reality when you’re telling your kids about the upcoming divorce: Kids often all have wildly different reactions to the news of your divorce, however they get it. Anger. Sadness. Confusion. Worry. Fear. Anxiety. And occasionally, relief.
For more from-the-front-lines information about how to help your children through divorce, click here to take a look at our Parenting Through Divorce program developed by an older child of divorce. It’s an honest, conversation with young adults whose parents divorced about what they needed most from their parents. Try the first section free.
Older children seem to have more intense and personal reactions to the divorce. It is important that children respect each other and how they are each reacting to the same event. It’s important for kids not to let their different feelings about the divorce negatively affect their relationships with each other. They are going to need each other now more than ever.
In our case the older siblings were out on their own and away from the home mostly. Our youngest was the one who had to bear most of the day-to-day dysfunction. He is the one who had to schlep back and forth from Mom’s house to Dad’s apartment with all of the inconvenience that involves. (He is also the one who developed the Parenting Through Divorce program. The children still at home need ongoing support from their older siblings.
What kids really need to know when they realize there is going to be a divorce – regardless of how you tell them
- They deserve to know the truth.
- They need to remember that they still have two parents
- They need to realize that things are going to change.
- They need to be assured that life will be good again because we can make it good.
Being gracious and kind and flexible and sensitive to our children when telling them about our divorce and during the whole process is a worthy goal for both parents. Children are resilient, and we can teach many, many powerful life lessons through divorce. Kids will take their cues about how to respond to our divorce from us.
Both parents need to be positive and in control and reassuring that we will all get through this. We can’t sugar-coat the fact there are going to be challenges for all of us, but that life will calm down, and the future will be good because we can each individually and all together make the choice to make our future good.
If we refuse to get better and move on ourselves, our kids likely won’t recover very well either. We should worry less about how to tell them about a divorce they have probably already figured out anyway. We should worry more about being good examples and giving them tools and resources to face hard things in life, including our divorce.
We, as parents, can either make the trip easier for them or infinitely harder. It’s our choice. For the good of our children, let’s all choose wisely.