How to Talk To Kids About Divorce
Common Questions Kids Ask and How to Respond
One of the hardest parts of getting divorced is how it affects the children. Parents are often asking how to help their children through the process. Here are some commonly asked questions and ways to respond honestly without placing the children in the middle.
Why are you getting divorced? - Kids only want to know vague reasons so keep it simple and focused on their fears or concerns. "When we got married we thought we would want to always be together, and one of the best things about being married was that we had you. We are so happy we have you! But now your mom/dad and I have decided that we are not happy living together and should live apart. We both love you very much and are doing everything we can to keep things as normal as possible for you. Are there any changes in particular you are concerned about?"
Don't make the mistake of thinking teenagers need much more information than that. Parents sometimes get drawn in by teens' questions and talk to them as if they were adults, telling them many more details than they would a pre-teen child. But developmentally, teens still have minimal understanding of intimate relationships, and no understanding of the complexities of a long term marriage. Empathize with their curiosity but keep the boundary of your adult marital relationship private. You can also ask why they want to know, and then address their concern, for example, a teen might wonder if fights over his/her acting out caused the divorce, or how they will know as an adult if their marriage will last.
Who wanted/asked for the divorce? - When there is one parent who does not want the divorce, this can be a difficult question for that parent to feel comfortable answering because they want to let their child know they did not make a choice to end the marriage, and they don't want to lie and say it was a joint decision when it wasn't. There are some important things to keep in mind as you navigate this question.
First, it is not good for children to like one parent and dislike the other. You may think you are the "good guy" in this scenario, but that can be short-lived. If you throw the other parent under the bus as the one who broke up the family, that parent will only be able to tolerate that for so long before they start to defend their decision and say, "Well, your mom/dad did x-y-z horrible things that drove me to ask for a divorce." This results in the child's emotions yo-yoing between being angry at each parent. Happy, healthy, well-adjusted children feel close to both parents and have a good relationship with both parents. A better option is to say, "We don't think it is good for you to get caught up in the details of our problems. There is no good guy or bad guy here. We love you."
Second, if it is important to you to let your child know that you did not end the marriage because you want to convey certain values you hold, consider doing it at a more developmentally appropriate time when the child is older, such as in college. Likewise if it is important to you to convey that one does not need to stay in an unhappy marriage and can start over. Whenever you do it, do not demonize the other parent. Say, "Your mom/dad and I had a difference of opinion as to whether we should divorce. My belief was we should continue to work on the marriage, and that marriage is forever. Your mom/dad's belief was that there can come a point in marriage when if things aren't working it's better to divorce than remain in an unhappy relationship." In presenting these as two opposing points of view you are able to express your values without demonizing the other parent.
Will I get to decide where I live? - or - Will I have to choose where I stay? - or - Who will I spend the holidays with? "We definitely want to hear your thoughts and feelings as we make this decision. Ultimately it is mom and dad who make this decision, but we want to hear from you before we do. Are there any specific concerns you have, or ideas you have?" Realize this is a difficult topic for many children to discuss, and they may be inclined to hide their real thoughts or concerns from their parents as they don't want to be seen as taking sides. It may be helpful to have the children visit a child psychologist who acts as a child specialist in divorce and is experienced in interviewing children and eliciting their true thoughts and feelings.
Why is my mom/dad so stupid, or such a jerk? - Think about what you would say to your kid if they came home and said that about another kid at school. "What happened that makes you say that?" Listen and then follow up with validation of their frustration as well as "Remember that it's not nice to call people names. You can say what you think or feel but you are not allowed to name call."
Why didn't dad/mom show up? -This is not your chance to get into their irresponsibility, etc. Reflect their pain and confusion and have a back-up plan for something fun if this is a pattern. "I'm not sure what happened but I know this makes you feel sad/angry/and/or disappointed. Would you like to go do ......?"
Why are we living in an apartment, eating beans and rice, taking the bus? Do not tell your child that the other parent is not paying child support. "Well, money is tight right now so we have to make some changes for a while."
Why are we meeting in McDonalds, at school, at Target instead of one of our homes? Again, this is not an opportunity to talk about the conflict between parents. If the following is true, say, "It's easier and faster for me and mom/dad if we meet here. Does it bother you?" If the answer is yes, what bothers them about it and can that be worked with? If that is clearly a lie and it is not faster or convenient, say, "Mom/Dad and I have decided meeting at this location helps exchanges go smoothly. Did you know lots of divorced families do the same thing?" And check in to see if it bothers the child.
Why don't I get to see mom/dad? - This can vary based on the situation. Is there a mental health or substance abuse problem? If so, "Mom/Dad is having some problems right now so they need time to deal with that before they see you again." Only say this if it's true. Do not make promises that they are going to see someone again, if they are not. Telling them their parent is sick can be very scary and younger kids might assume they will die or worry that they (child) will become sick, too. If there has been abuse, then address it. "Mom/dad isn't allowed to spend time with you because they hurt you/me and this is meant to keep us safe. I know you probably miss mom/dad so would you like to talk about that?"
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