As difficult as divorce is for the separating partners, it can seem totally devastating to their children. Children crave security and stability, and a divorce unsettles their sense of safety. With proper preparation, however, divorcing parents can smooth the transition for their children.
Here are 7 keys to helping children prepare for divorce and understand that while there will be changes, there will ultimately be new structure, new stability, and new security:
#1. AGREE IN ADVANCE
Before breaking the news to your children, come to an agreement with your partner on what exactly to tell them.
It’s understandable (and common) for divorcing partners to argue over the reasons for the separation, but it’s important that children get one consistent message from both parents. You and your partner must come to a mutual agreement—for the sake of your children—and present a united front. Competing narratives will only create more uncertainty and anxiety.
#2. TALK IN A SAFE SPACE
Sit down and talk to your children in a familiar, comfortable environment, with no distractions or pressures on your time.
Even if it’s difficult for you and your partner to be in the same room, it’s important for your children to receive the news from both of their parents—together. Pick a time and place that allows your children maximum freedom to process and react. That means don’t try to squeeze in a family meeting before work or school; don’t deliver the news at a restaurant or public place; etc.
#3. REINFORCE YOUR LOVE
Regardless of how your children appear to be handling the news, continue to tell them that you love them and that everything is going to be okay.
Divorce can be so confusing and unsettling to children—no matter the age. Their entire worlds are thrown upside-down, and they need calming, reassuring voices. They need both of their parents to tell them that the divorce is not their fault and that they love them. Many children mask their true emotion or need time to fully process the information, so don’t wait or try to read the room. Tell them that you love them again and again and again.
#4. LISTEN—JUST LISTEN
All children react to divorce in their own time and own way—often surprisingly—so don’t just deliver your news to them; listen to their response.
Many children haven’t experienced anything in their lives as traumatic as divorce, so it’s near impossible to know how yours will react. Common reactions are anger and sadness, but some children become quiet; some get embarrassed; others react with full-blown denial. The important thing is to be open and ready for any response. If you have a family therapist or mediator, consider asking them to be available. Some children may feel more comfortable expressing how they feel to someone else.
#5. DISCUSS THE FUTURE
Let your children know what life will look like going forward, so they’ll understand that both of their parents will still be there for them.
Many children react to divorce in seemingly selfish ways, asking questions centered solely on their lives. That’s to be expected. In their eyes, the only world they’ve ever known is being destroyed, so they don’t understand who will feed them, where they will sleep, and other basic survival questions. The best way to quell this uncertainty is to paint a picture of the new future, providing your children with the stability and security they need.
#6. AVOID NEGATIVITY
As challenging as it may be, remain positive and resist fighting with your partner in front of your children.
For many divorcing partners, their children become proxy wars for their own fights and disagreements. Some parents attack the other in front of their children; others blame their partner for the divorce. While any of these emotions might be justified, it’s important not to display them in front of your children. Children need to know that their parents are unified in a future that involves and protects them.
#7. CONTINUE TALKING
After delivering the news to your children, keep the channel of communication open and let them know you are always available to talk more.
You may feel exhausted (or relieved) after having “the Big Talk” with your children, but it’s critical to remember that they are only beginning to process information that you and your partner have been coming to terms with for months or years. It’s going to take them time. Make sure they know that you’re always available to talk; or even better, plan more family talks. Talking through it as a family can be therapeutic for your children—and for you.
Unfortunately there is no easy way for children to navigate divorce. But parents can have a powerful impact on how their children understand, process, and cope with the changes. Simple actions like talking and listening go a long way toward calming young fears. By staying positive, maintaining a united front, and reminding children that they are loved, divorcing parents can help their children see the new safety and stability on the horizon.
To learn how mediation can reduce the inevitable stress that comes with divorce and support a smooth transition for all involved, contact South Bay Mediation.