By Tanya Ruckstuhl-Valenti LICSW, MSW
(I know, I know I promised to share a new chapter of my book for social anxiety disorder every two weeks which I haven’t done and am STILL not doing as I have 1) been out of the country and 2) managed to lose the whole darn book somewhere inside my poorly organized computer’s Word Document Files. Unlike the basement I can’t go ripping through the computer with a flashlight and a bad attitude. So, instead I offer you this: article on parenting and divorce….)
Divorce and Parenting: How Do We Tell the Children?
The decision to divorce is not and should not be easy. It is all the more difficult when there are children involved. As a responsible parent you may worry about the emotional impact of the divorce itself as well as the right way to tell the children about it. Questions of how and when and where to tell deserve careful consideration in order to minimize your child’s emotional distress in the aftermath of finding out. This article will serve as a roadmap for navigating the tricky terrain of parenting and divorce.
First things first: Safety. Statistics prove that the most physically dangerous time for an abused woman is when she leaves or attempts to leave her abuser. If you are in a relationship in which you have been physically threatened or injured DO NOT make or discuss any plans until you have consulted with a domestic violence advocate. You can use a search engine to find locate free, confidential safety planning by typing in the name of your city and the words “domestic violence services.” For maximum safety go to the library and use the computer there to run this search.
Second: How to tell. Depending on the age of your child, getting a few developmentally appropriate books on divorce will provide a way to cover some of their questions and concerns as well as to relieve you of the need to come up with intelligent answers in the face of your own and/or your child’s distress. It is fine to get books aimed at a younger population (i.e.—picture books even for kids up to age ten) because in the face of upsetting news we all regress intellectually.
Pick a time when you and your soon-to-be-ex will be home over the weekend to provide information, comfort and solace to your children. Friday after school is often a good choice because they can hear the news, get upset, ask you to reconsider, get comforted, go to sleep, wake up, ask questions, get upset, and repeat this cycle for two days before having to go back to school. This will be a hard weekend for you, but resist the urge to flee the house. Your child needs you both around to process their feelings and fears with.
If you have more than one child, tell them together so that no one feels left out of the loop or less important than anyone else.
Tell teachers, coaches and other providers immediately after telling the children so that any problematic behavior that they may display as a result of being upset will not result in further punishment. Their parents are divorcing and that is difficult enough.
Create a Children’s Bill of Rights for your children. In your own handwriting and in your own words, let them know that:
- This is not your fault
- This is not your choice either
- You have the right to have two happy parents
- You have the right to be loved and taken care of by both of us
- You have the right to have feelings such as feeling sad, mad, scared about the divorce
- You have the right to talk about your feelings with us, your friends, teachers, other adults and anyone you want to talk about them with.
- You have the right to tell who you want to about the divorce, whenever you are ready to talk about it.
- You have the right to ask questions and if we don’t know the answers we will tell you as soon as we figure it out.
- Things are changing but our love for you is permanent: it will never change.
- You have the right to be taken care of and it is our job to do that.
Children blame themselves, even when they are told the divorce is not their fault. Therefore, they need to be told this repeatedly. Putting your child to bed with the words, “I love you. I will take care of you. The divorce is not your fault.” Is a great way to counteract their top three fears which are:
- Love is revocable (after all, mom and dad stopped loving each other)
- I will be left alone (after all, mom and dad are leaving each other)
- The divorce is somehow my fault (after all, children believe themselves to be the center of the world).
What to say: a simple explanation such as “we have both been trying hard but we just can’t get along and have decided to get a divorce.”
Also say: “We are still committed to loving and taking care of you. That will never change.”
Then show the children their bill of rights and read them together. This is also a good time to read a children’s book about divorce together.
Ask, “Do you have any questions?” and answer whatever they ask as honestly as possible.
What not to say: Your children need to love and respect both of you. Betrayal/infidelity is an adult topic which needs to be kept private among adults. Divorce brings up big feelings of anger, disappointment and grief. By the time you have decided to get a divorce, you could probably write a full dissertation on the character defects and problematic behaviors of your soon-to-be ex. Nevertheless, resist the urge to put him or her down within earshot of your kids because the wellbeing of your children requires their feeling supported by both parents to love and be loved by both parents. Save your ex-bashing for times with friends, family and therapists in which your children are absent.
Get mental health help for the kids if your child shows any one of the following symptoms: trouble with eating (too much or too little), sleeping (too much or too little), nightmares or night terrors, loss of concentration/grade slippage in school beyond the first two months after finding out, isolating from friends or physical aggression. These are all signs of an adjustment disorder and can be corrected with supportive therapy.
Get mental health help for yourself if you find yourself experiencing the same symptoms listed above (substitute work performance for school) beyond two months.
Remember that half of all kids go through divorce, so while the experience is uncomfortable, it is also normal—as common as braces! Rest assured that, unless you live inside of a religious cult (in which case: divorce them too!), your children will not be branded as misfits or snubbed. In fact, they may find themselves making new friends with children who are going through a similar situation.
To help them get through this difficult time the best things you can possibly do is to provide a stable, consistent home environment and to focus on expressing your love for them.