Two of the most frequent questions asked by parents who decide to divorce is, “What should we tell the children?” and “How should we tell them?” Most parents feel anxious before telling their children about the pending divorce. The task can generate feelings of guilt, sadness, anger and shame. Parents want to protect their children from the pain of divorce, and especially from seeing themselves as the reason their parents divorced.
Some parents do not tell the children they are divorcing after the final decision is made. Some children are not told the truth until weeks after one of the parents moves out. But delaying the truth leaves children feeling betrayed and deceived by their parents. It also does not prepare them for the new reality. Deceiving children or withholding the truth does not protect them. Children always do better when parents tell them the truth about things that will impact them. Parents should tell the truth accurately , and help their children deal with the confusion and bad feelings that result.
What to Tell the Children: The Mutual Story of the Divorce
One of the most important steps parents can take to prepare children for the changes ahead is to develop jointly a “mutual story of the divorce,” and tell it to their children together as a family. If each parent tells the children separately why they are getting a divorce, the children frequently will hear two different stories., Because marital relationships are complex, these two stories are often opposite, individualized versions of the couple’s truth.
Children in this situation are confused, often saying something like : “Mom told me why they’re getting divorced, then Dad told me the opposite. That leaves me confused. One of them must be lying, but I’m not sure which one. Now, I don’t trust either parent.”
When spouses divorce, each has his or her version of the reasons for the breakup. Each one typically attributes the cause of the divorce to the other. Because marital separations are very complex, both parents may be telling the truth as they see it. However, children believe there can be only one truth about something. The idea that there may be multiple truths is beyond most children, since it requires a level of abstract thinking most children are not capable of yet. It is better for children to hear only one mutual and consistent story of their parents’ divorce.
The idea of telling your children the story of your divorce is rooted in the time-honored ritual of storytelling–a tradition that goes back thousands of years. Children love stories. They typically love to hear the story of your courtship and marriage, as well as the stories of their own birth and development. Most children ask to hear these stories over and over. Storytelling is a very powerful method of sharing information that bonds families and communities alike.
While using a bonding tradition during divorce may seem odd, it makes sense. From a child’s point of view, the best outcome of divorce is not the breakup of a family, but the reorganization of the family across two households. Further, children process the divorce better when they are encouraged to bond with both parents within the reorganized family unit.
Children do not like hearing that one parent is the cause of the divorce and is responsible for everyone’s pain. Children don’t like having a “bad” parent; they prefer to have two good parents. When the divorce is blamed on one of the parents, the children are being asked to stop loving that parent. They feel confused and guilty about loving their “bad” parent and displeasing their “good” parent. If parents mutually take responsibility for the breakup, then their children aren’t in the middle of a loyalty conflict.
Initially, many parents are unable to create a mutual story of the dIvorce. When we feel rejected by a person we love or once loved, we protect our self-esteem by blaming our spouse for our failures. However, when each parent resists this temptation for the sake of the children, the children have a chance for a better outcome.
Arriving at a mutual story depends largely on how the events are viewed, or how the story is told. This is called framing. Some examples follow:
Divorce Scenario #1:
Mother and Father had been emotionally drifting apart for several years. Father met an attractive woman at work and had an affair. Mother found out about it, reacted with rage, kicked him out, and filed for divorce.
Mother might tell the children that Mom and Dad are getting divorced because their father cheated on her. She might add that he spent all of his time at work, rather than with his family, and that she is tired of shouldering all the family responsibilities by herself.
Father might explain to the children that Mother has not shown any affection for him in two years, that she obviously doesn’t love him, and he is tired of trying to get her to love him. So, he finally has decided to leave the marriage. He adds that he feels angry at her for forcing the breakup and making the children lose their father.
These certainly are two accurate ways to describe this divorce, as they each represent the respective emotional truths of each spouse. However, if the children were told these two different stories, they would almost certainly be confused and distrustful.
A “mutual story” of this divorce might be something like: “We have been married for 13 years, and we both love you children very much. We used to love each other a lot, and we still care about each other. But, over the years, we both realized that we don’t love each other like married couples should. We have been unhappy with each other for a long time. We’ve tried to make it better. We even went to counseling, but it didn’t help. We’ve tried really hard to love each other again, but it just hasn’t worked. We each feel that we will be happier living apart, and that we will be better parents to you if we live apart and are happier. We will both still be with you regularly and continue to take care of you, but at different houses.”
Divorce Scenario #2:
Mother feels that Father has been very controlling and very angry, intensely dislikes her friends, shows no affection for her, and rarely spends time with the family. There has been frequent conflict for many years, and the children have witnessed fighting often. Mother feels isolated and lonely. She has developed her own separate social life, and she finally files for divorce.
Typically, Mother might separately tell the children: “Your father has been trying to control me for too long, and he has hurt me terribly. He won’t let me do anything I want. He always tries to tell me what to do. He starts fights with me all the time. You kids and I are leaving him so we don’t have to take this any longer.”
Father might tell the children: “Your mother doesn’t want to be a mother anymore. She just wants to be with her friends, go out drinking, and not take care of you. She wants to divorce me because she just doesn’t want to be a responsible adult. I’ve tried to get her to be reasonable. I wish she didn’t want to abandon you kids. Then we could be a real family!”
A mutual story of this divorce might be: “We have not been happy with each other for years . We have grown apart and don’t have anything in common. We don’t make each other happy living together; we just fight when we are around each other. We know you kids really hate that. We have decided we will be better off living apart. The fighting will stop, and we will be happier. But we both still love you and you have permission from each of us to keep loving both of us, even though we don’t love each other enough to live together anymore.”
In summary, parents should give their children a basic statement about the reasons for the separation, while sparing them the adult details about the broken relationship. Even in the most difficult and painful cases, if the parents really want to spare their children the pain of a loyalty conflict, they will develop a mutual story of the divorce. This story should be one in which neither parent is a “bad guy,” and each parent can continue to develop a separate and loving relationship with the children. Use your own words to express these ideas, keeping the mutuality of the decision as your main focus.
After telling the mutual story of divorce, explain to the children , in detail, how their daily routines will proceed and how they will be sharing time between their parents. If you aren’t sure of the final schedule for time-sharing of the children, reassure them that you two will work out these details and will let them know just as soon as they are set in place.
How to Tell the Children:
- Tell your children about the separation and divorce in advance.
- Both parents together should tell the children. If there is more than one child, tell them together. This optimizes the support they will feel from each other and from the family. The discussion should take place at a time that is distraction-free and at a place that is familiar and comfortable.
- Use words that are addressed to each child’s level of understanding. Talk to young children more slowly, with simple words and simple phrases. Talk to older children and adolescents in more adult ways.
- Set aside enough time to answer any questions about what is going to happen after the separation. Do not tell them right before you must do something else. Allow several hours of unplanned time after this discussion.
If parents can work together in their divorce, even if they weren’t able to work together in their marriage, the children will benefit. Remember that even if the first wish of children of divorce (that Mom and Dad will get back together) can’t come true, their second wish (that Mom and Dad will cooperate and not fight) can come true. That is up to you. The cooperation begins with developing a mutual story of your divorce.