Telling your children about your divorce is one of those conversations you dread having and you’ll never forget it. How children react to divorce starts with that conversation.
Antonio Borello’s two children were both under aged six when Antonio and his wife were separating. Their reactions were quite different. Here’s Antonio:
My son was probably around three and a half, four, so he really didn’t understand what was going on. Prior to officially separating, the kids and I had spent a lot of time at my parents’ house. They had moved closer to us, and we helped them to get their house repaired and that happened right around the time my wife and I were separating. So initially, I moved in with them.
I think that the transition wasn’t like this obvious break, although I think it was challenging for my daughter. I think that the thought of getting divorced was something that was very scary to her. She was probably in 2nd grade. She was really afraid because she had seen some of her classmates and friends that had gone through divorce and keep crying and not wanting to meet their mom or their dad. Once she realized that not too much was changing in terms of her life that I think it was OK.
I remember probably six months after we had separated, I think my son wasn’t five yet, I was bathing him, and he was playing in the bathtub. And he just looked at me and said, “Hey, dad. You know we’re divorced.” And I said, “What?” He said, “We’re divorced.” I said, “Yeah, that’s true, Antonio. What does that mean?” And he said, “Well, it just means that I live at mom’s house sometimes and I live at dad’s house sometimes.” I think he probably remembered at some point that we lived together, but it didn’t really impact him perhaps as much as it would if they had been much older.
I do remember asking my daughter probably a year after we got divorced. We were talking and she was able to articulate that she recognized things are different. We don’t fight. We used to fight all the time and it was not easy for them. It was much easier afterwards, and I think that they’re much happier.
The Divorce Coach Says
This segment of Antonio’s story hits on a critical step in helping your children through this transition. When you do tell your children about the end of your marriage, take the extra time to ask your child what they know about divorce, what divorce means to them.
Your child’s reaction will depend on how you’re handling the situation – they will take their cues from you but they will also be heavily influenced by what they’ve seen from friends, peers and movies. They are quite likely to make assumptions based on these impressions. So for example, if their friend only sees their other parent twice a month, your child may assume that this is what is going to happen to them. By asking them what they know you are opening the door to a deeper conversation. You are creating the opportunity to learn their fears and their concerns and you will have the chance to discuss these, and to point out the differences and similarities in situations.
It’s helpful to recognize that you most likely won’t be prepared with all the answers but don’t allow yourself to feel pressured into making commitments you can’t keep or that are beyond your control. There’s a world of difference between, “I promise you we’re going to stay right here in this town” and “Your dad and I agree that it’s important for all of us to staying living in this town and we are committed to doing everything we can to make that happen.”
It’s OK to admit that you don’t have the answer – “That’s a great question. I don’t have an answer to that right now. How about I talk with mom and then we’ll talk again?”
It’s OK to admit that you’re hurt and sad – “I can tell this is making you sad and it’s scary. I’m sad too.”
It’s not OK to lie and it’s not OK to share details that are not age appropriate or that should be private between you and your STBX.
There’s much preparation and planning that goes with telling your children about the end of your marriage but it’s not a single conversation. That hard conversation is the start of a dialogue that may continue for months, even years.
P.S. Some parents avoid using the word ‘divorce’ in that hard conversation with their kids, saying instead something like, “Mom and Dad have decided that we can no longer live together and we’re going to live in separate homes.”
Dr. Antonio Borello is a psychologist and relationship therapist. He and his ex are collaborating on a book about relationships. You can follow his tweets at@eDatingDr and follow him on Facebook at Relationships 2.0.
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