Saying that divorce is stressful is an understatement. Children in particular are impacted by divorce in ways that are completely unexpected. They don’t understand what’s happening. No matter what you tell them, they will inevitably feel responsible. They wish they could fix it. At the same time, their need for support has been amped up by the crisis. Ideally, both parents will continue to love and show up for their children and show a unified front. Sadly what actually happens often falls short of this.
What’s best is for parents to show a united front. To continue to exhibit the same values, rules, and standards across the board. What’s common is for the parent’s disagreement with one another to fall into the area of child-rearing. Unconsciously parents often want to make allies of their children in the war against the other parent. Of course, this is the worst possible thing they can do for their children.
This problem is enhanced by the fact that there is a major breakdown of communication that leads to the divorce. The first goal of parents and divorce always needs to be repairing lines of communication and thus talking to your kids about divorce is necessary. This will inevitably involve releasing hurt, blame and anger. Sounds simple but it’s not so easy.
What To Share
The children will need to understand what’s going on. Regardless of age, it’s probably perfectly adequate to say ” mommy and daddy just aren’t getting along and will be happier apart than we are together”. Your children don’t need to know more than that. What they need to know is that you will do a better job being parents living separately than you are together.
You can skip telling them all the gory details. Skip telling them who’s right and who’s wrong. You can skip telling them anything about why you feel what you feel. These are your children not your confidants.
Even if your children are adults, you don’t want to make them allies, confidants, or consultants in your divorce. Treat your adult children as if they’re 6 years old when it comes to talking about why you’re getting divorced. Just start talking to your kids about divorce and let them know it’s not their problem.
The single most important communication with your children is that it is not their fault. That they have done nothing wrong. That there is nothing they can do to save your marriage. Unconsciously, all children feel responsible when their parents don’t get along. There’s no fixing that, it’s just how it is.
Unconsciously, children often hope their parents are going to get back together even after the divorce. The better job that you do of talking to your kids about divorce, that you’re happier apart than together, the more they will buy into the divorce, and release their own unconscious guilt.
Keep talking with them about how they’re feeling. Keep asking them what their experience is. Children need to air out their feelings, and by asking them what’s going on and how they’re feeling you give them that opportunity.
Even if they tell you that everything’s fine and that everything’s normal, keep talking with them. The best times to do this are when you’re driving somewhere together. Or maybe if you’re cooking together or doing some kind of activity together. When children are engaged in an activity or traveling, their defenses tend to be down.
Preparing For the Talk
Assuming that you’ve done some of the heavy lifting, and are taking responsibility for your divorce, The next step is for the two of you to come up with a game plan for child-rearing. This is not the same as a parenting plan in which you divvy up days. This is how you will both raise the children, showing them a unified front. Presumably, the ground rules that you had when you were living together will be the same when you’re living apart. There may be some changes you need to make for these new circumstances. Remember that consistency is super important for children!
You’re going to want to set up a system of ongoing communication. It might be a shared calendar. It might be texting one another about what’s going on with the kids when you have them. You will both want to know how the kids are adjusting and changing in both households. This needs to be honest communication not driven by competitiveness. It is imperative that you both understand what’s going on in both households.
Anytime that your children have a problem, regardless of where they are it is both of your responsibilities. Coaching, therapy, spiritual leaders, are all useful resources in this process. The more alignment you have, the better the talk is going to go.
What If the Other Parent Won’t Work With You?
If you just can’t get on the same page you are in a tough spot. Remember that it only takes one parent showing their willingness to be loving and honest with the children to make a difference in a child’s life.
If the other parent refuses to cooperate with you, just won’t get on the same page with you, then it’s up to you to take the high ground. No matter what they say about you, no matter what kind of stories they make up about you, you still have a responsibility to speak about them as best possible.
The fact is that every time one parent denigrates another, in some way they denigrate their children. Your children are not only a genetic compilation of you both but their emotional state is made up of internal concepts of you both. Every time one parent denigrates the other, this goes in the child’s emotional internal scorecard. They start to internalize your conflict. This is the time that you should start talking to your kids about divorce.
This is exactly why no matter what the other parent says or does you’re going to want to take the high ground. When your children grow up, they will thank you for this! Not only that but you will think better of yourself for it. On the way to that time, you’re going to experience many challenges and frustrations. You will never regret taking the high ground, you will always regret not taking the high ground.