Friday | 05 June | 2020
By Melodie Veldhuizen
Perhaps your marriage has been shaky for a long time, but you decided to try again, even if it was only for the sake of the children. But owing to the lockdown where families have been obliged for more than two months to spend 24 hours a day in each other’s company, you were once again confronted by frustrations, irritations and irreconcilable differences. Apart from that, Covid-19 brought along additional challenges such as salary cuts or total loss of income. You make a final decision to divorce and the time has come for one of the most difficult talks ever with your children. Experts give advice on how to convey this news to them in a sensitive way.
- Do it as soon as possible and talk to all the children simultaneously
Talk to them as soon as you have decided. It is important that all the children should get the news at the same time from both parents. You can talk to each child individually afterwards, especially if there is a big age gap between them. Each child can be told this in an age-relevant way during individual talks. Try to prevent the situation from developing so far that a mediator has to help to convey the news.
- Decide in advance on exactly what you are going to say and how you are going to do it
For the sake of the children move your own emotions and grievances aside. This is not about your own emotional welfare but about your children’s. This is why accusations and bitterness are now out of place. As far as possible use the term “we” instead of “I”, “your father” or “your mother” so that the children can see that in spite of your differences you as parents still have their best interests at heart. Guard against blaming and reproaching each other in the presence of the children and expecting them to take sides. If you are at ease and calm and treat each other with mutal respect, the children will also feel safe and secure. Do not expect them to take sides. Assure them that both of you still love each of them. Take turns to talk without interrupting each other. Share only the information that they need to have at that stage.
- Be honest without giving too much detail
Withhold sensitive information and unnecessary details about the reason for your decision. It is not necessary to bombard them with the precise reason for your decision, especially if, for instance, it is an extramarital relationship. Older children may insist on reasons by asking questions like “Why do you have to divorce?” A neutral answer in which nobody blames anybody, such as: “There are many things on which we don’t agree and therefore we decided that it would be better to get divorced” or “We don’t love each other like we used to” will satisfy them for the moment. At all times be aware of what you say to each other when you think the children are out of earshot.
- If possible, say what changes they may expect
The biggest change, of course, will be that the two parents will no longer be living in one house with them. They will spend most of their time with one parent, preferably in the house where they are living at the time. This will mean that they will still attend the same school and their friends, extramural activities and everything they are used to will remain the same. Should you perhaps have to move house, prepare them for that in good time.
- Give details about the parent who is going to leave the house
It is a given that one parent is going to leave the house. The children must know where Mom or Dad will be living. They must also have the assurance that they will see him or her regularly and will still have a quality relationship with that parent.
- Assure them that both of you love them unconditionally
Children of divorced parents sometimes struggle all their lives with the idea that they were perhaps the cause of the divorce. Assure them from the beginning that they were not the cause of your decision and that there is nothing that they can do to prevent it. Prove this all the time as parents and also individually by showing your love through words and deeds and assure them that it will always be like that. Avoid long-term promises about a rosy future for every one but assure them that everybody will eventually adapt to the changes and that the pain will get better.
- Be sensitive to their reactions
Children will react differently to the news. Age, personality and gender as well as their relationship with one or both parents will play a role. Toddlers and preschool children will probably not grasp the far-reaching consequences. Older children will possibly react very emotionally, cry and throw tantrums or withdraw themselves from the rest of the family and isolate themselves in their room for hours. Be on the lookout for signs of depression, anxiety and even denial. Even if you share the news without accusing each other, a child could perhaps blame one of the parents (probably the one with whom he did not have such a good relationship). As parents you ought to know your children well enough to know whether he or she needs time and space to process the news or perhaps just a hug.
- Encourage them to talk and listen to them
Do not regard the matter as settled after the initial announcement. It could take a while to put their emotions in words and formulate questions. Be ready with answers to questions such as: “What is going to become of me?”, “Why is it happening to our family?”, “Why can’t we still live in one house?”, “Are we going to have enough money?”, “Will you always love me?”, “Will I still have my own room with my own toys?”. And to the parent who stays: “Are Mom also going away?” Answer their questions as honestly as possible. Be sensitive to what they are not saying and help them to talk about their emotions by, for instance, saying: “I can see you’re sad/angry/worried. Do you want to talk about it?”
- Be patient
Do not expect them to accept the news immediately – it is going to take for them to process and accept the news. While both parents are still in the house they could even hope for a reconciliation. Do not give them false hope. When the process is progressing to a next phase, when one of the parents is finally packing his bags, the mourning process can start all over again. Be patient and as far as possible in the circumstances assure them of stability, security and, especially, love. In the difficult circumstances in which we currently find ourselves and the disruptions to which the children have already been exposed for months, acceptance and processing could even take longer.
Collaborative Divorce. https://collaborativedivorcemarinsonoma.org/how-to-tell-your-kids-about-your-upcoming-divorce-or-separation/
Divorce Magazine. https://www.divorcemag.com/articles/telling-your-kids-about-your-divorce
* All information was correct at the time of publication.