As always, your aim is to protect your children while being as open and honest as you can, given the circumstances and their ages and development. So, don't go into all the gory details. However, children who are told nothing about the reasons for their parents' divorce are unnecessarily frustrated and have a more difficult time working things through.
Some children, especially older ones, might not be particularly surprised by the news. Alicia, a 13-year-old, recently had this to say: “My parents had been cold to each other for a long time. Sometimes, they would scream at each other, and all I wanted to do was run away. It came as no surprise when they sat me down and told me they were getting a divorce.”
For children who have not been exposed to fighting, an explanation will go a long way toward helping them digest the news. Be as forthcoming as possible about why the marriage is ending, while staying appropriate. When speaking to your children in a group, use language that even the youngest can understand.
Telling the children that you are going to divorce and why is the toughest part of the family meeting. But it is only the beginning. Because children are centered in their own world, they need to have precise and concrete information about how their lives will change. By the end of the discussion with your kids, they should know …
- As much as appropriately possible—given their ages and maturity—about the reasons for the divorce.
- When the separation will take place.
- Where the parent who is leaving will live.
- With which parent they will live.
- When and under what circumstances they will see their other parent.
- Whether they will be moving into a new house or apartment.
- They will have open telephone communication with the parent who is leaving.
Each parent should cover one or two points and then give the other a turn. To see how it works, here is one possible scenario. (Of course, you should modify the specifics depending on the age of your children and your own situation.)
Not all children will be surprised that their parents are divorcing. In some cases, when there have been nightly battles, children are actually happier knowing that they'll never have to hear the shouting and name-calling again.
Dad: As you may know, your Mom and I have not been getting along for a while now. Although we were once happy together, we've grown apart. We tried to work things out and have been seeing a marriage counselor for quite a while, but, unfortunately, it hasn't worked.
We are not getting along, and neither one of us is happy. This makes it uncomfortable for our living together. So we've decided to live separately and then get a divorce. You have done nothing to cause us to divorce. It is not your fault. This is between your mother and me.
Mom: I'm sure you know that we both love you very much. Just because your Dad and I have decided not to live with each other anymore doesn't mean that we don't want to be with you. Parents can divorce each other, but they do not ever divorce their kids. We will be your Mom and Dad forever. We will always be there for you just as before. You will always be taken care of. You will always have a home. Each of us will be with you, just usually not at the same time.
Dad: I have rented an apartment a few blocks away, and I'll be moving there next Saturday. You'll be living with your Mom and coming over to live with me every other weekend. We'll also get together once a week for dinner and homework help. We'll be sharing each holiday. I'll call you every night after school, and you can call me anytime. You'll have your own room at my apartment, and you can decorate it any way you want. (If the living arrangement is not yet settled, you can say, “The details haven't been worked out yet, but we'll let you know as soon as they are.”)
Mom: Your family will always be your family, even though Dad and I aren't going to be in the same house. Your grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins will still be your family—those relationships won't change.
If you have any questions, you can ask them now,or you can talk to Dad or me later at any time. Remember, we'll always be there for you, and we love you very much.
If you and your spouse are in a heated battle, or if your spouse has left suddenly, a family meeting with both parents will probably be out of the question. Even though you might not know all the details of the living arrangements, you should tell your children whatever information you have, to give them a handle on the changes in their lives—but do not tackle this until you've calmed down.
When talking to your children, set aside your anger. Blaming one parent will only cause confusion. Because your children are emotionally attached to the other parent, they will feel conflicting loyalty. Not only will your child feel torn between his parents, but also, eventually, he might react against you to defend his relationship with the other parent.
Don't bad-mouth your ex! Your children's relationship with their other parent is separate from yours. Respect their relationship. Trying to be objective about the reasons for your divorce is especially hard if you've been left or if you are battling it out with your spouse. For the children's sake, you must rise to the occasion. Even though it might seem to you that there is an obvious good guy and bad guy—as in the case of the infidelity of one parent—the reality is almost never that clear-cut.
When 12-year-old Michelle was told by her mother that her Dad had moved out after a final blow-up the night before, Michelle was devastated. Her mother was so angry at her Dad that she blamed him for all the ills of their marriage: She had to do all the housework, even though she worked; he would come home late at night; they never went out because he was too “cheap”; and other complaints.
At first, Michelle was sympathetic to her mother and understood her unhappiness. She felt angry at her Dad for not being more considerate of her mother's feelings. But after a week had passed, Michelle started to feel guilty for having bad thoughts about her father. She missed him. She began to wonder whether her mother had told her the whole truth and even started developing feelings of resentment toward her mother; had her mother, she wondered, been instrumental in driving her father out of the house? The more her mother spoke against her father, the more difficult it was for Michelle to sustain a warm relationship with her.