10 Tips for Talking to Kids About Divorce.
Regardless of the circumstances of your divorce, telling your children about it is one of the most anxiety inducing tasks for parents.
Here are a few quick tips from our colleague, Meg Merrill, MSW, Family Mediator, and Coach to consider for your initial conversation.
1. Tell Them Together.
Your kids still need to see you as a parenting team. This is an important time to set aside your differences and hard feelings and stay focused on something you have in common – the best interests of your children. If you cannot tell them together due to safety or conflict, seek help coming up with an alternative plan.
2. Keep It Short.
Your initial message should take less than 45 seconds to deliver. Provide a general, non-blaming explanation such as “We want to stop arguing.” Avoid sharing details of the divorce, including who decided to leave and why, or your big feelings about it – these are grown-up issues. Let them know you both love them, you will always take care of them and it is not their fault.
3. Plan Ahead for Questions.
Children need to know they can ask questions openly, even if you don’t have answers for all of them. It’s helpful to brainstorm what questions they might ask and how you agree to answer them. It’s also okay if they don’t want to ask questions. Give them time to process their feelings.
4. Explain Changes.
Children want to know how their daily lives will be impacted. “The guinea pig will live at Dad’s new house.” “You will have two homes now. Mommy is moving to an apartment. Mama will stay here…” Create a special calendar with them once you know your parenting schedule.
Writing down what you want to say and practicing how you want to say it can help you send clear messages to your kids in a tone that decreases anxiety. There are lots of ways to assure them “We’ve got this. We will figure out what’s best for our family and you get to keep being a kid.” While choosing your words wisely is important, what matters most is creating an open conversation and connection with your kids.
6. Maintain Structure.
Maintaining family routines, such as meals and bedtime, minimizes anxiety for children. Give your kids plenty of extra snuggles and opportunities for connection, while keeping your routines and expectations as consistent as possible.
7. Prepare Yourself Emotionally.
Take care of yourself so you can take care of your children. Do your own emotional work with a therapist, if need be, to avoid burdening your children with your big emotions. While it’s okay for your children to know you are sad, you don’t want them to feel the need to take care of you. You can model how to manage emotions appropriately. “We feel sad, too… and we have lots of grown ups we can talk to. We will get through this.”
Keep the focus on your children and their experiences. Listen to their concerns and hold space for them to feel their big feels. Let them know they can talk to you both openly. You don’t need to rescue them; instead be present and help them maneuver this difficult time in the healthiest way possible.
9. Minimize Conflict.
Conflict between parents is the number one indicator of negative outcomes for children with divorced parents. Commit to minimizing conflict so it does not come out in front of or within earshot of your kids.
10. Be Kind.
Imagine your child as half you and half your co-parent; when you criticize your co-parent, you are criticizing half of your child. Negative comments may also hurt your relationship with a child when they get older and reflect on those comments. You don’t have to be best friends but your children will be healthier and happier if they know you support their relationship with your co-parent.
A family divorce professional can help you create an initial message that is customized to your children’s unique needs, decide how and when to share it, brainstorm how to answer questions, and lay the groundwork for future conversations. These early interactions are chapter one of the story your children will tell about the time their parents got divorced. How do you want that story to go? MegMerrillMediation.com
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