Divorce rates around the world have grown significantly over the past several decades. “Til death do us part” (from the standard western version of wedding vows) has been replaced with “Til we fall out of love and call it quits.” Or at least it seems that way, especially in countries with higher rates of economic prosperity and education.
A study published in December 2018 in the journal Social Forces called “Coming Out of the Penumbras: World Culture and Cross-National Variation in Divorce Rates” shows the global divorce rate doubled between the 1970s to the late 2000s.
Like tattoos, the stigma of getting divorced is slowly fading in Asia, as people are more willing to end their marriages than stay in an untenable situation. (Unfortunately, the stigma of being single, especially for women, still remains quite strongly, but that may change with time.) With that increased willingness to get a divorce to end a bad marriage comes difficult conversations with children, who are often caught in the middle of a situation they don’t understand.
It’s important to talk with them so they can process what is going on without blaming themselves for the situation, which can sometimes happen.
According to Dr. Lisa Herrick, as many as 75% of divorcing couples only talk to their children about their divorce for 10 minutes or less. Needless to say, that is not nearly enough time to help them cope with this situation.
Instead of being one of those parents who barely spends any time with their children talking about this life-changing scenario, take the time to prepare your kids for what is about to happen with this guide to talking with children about divorce.
Note that this guide is meant for parents who are not involved in an abusive relationship. If you are in an abusive relationship where your life or your kids’ lives are in danger, you should take the necessary steps to leave that relationship as quickly and safely as possible.
1. Tell them early.
If possible, tell children two to three weeks prior to the physical separation and have at least a basic plan for talking with them.
Talk to them as a couple and work as a team to convey unified caring and concern for them and avoid the conversation turning into a fight between the two of you.
Pick a quiet space and a time when you don’t have to do anything afterwards so children can process the information and come to you for further discussion if necessary. The start of a quiet weekend is ideal.
You may consider also telling the children’s teachers so they are not caught off guard by any sudden change in behaviour from the kids. (But ask them not to bring it up with your kids, as they will still be processing the information at this sensitive time.)
2. Have your messages prepared.
For heavy conversations like divorce, it’s best not to wing it. You don’t need to have notes prepared, but you should sit down and give some thought to what you want to say.
There are some key messages that you should have prepared that you repeat over and over during the initial conversation and in the following months.
- This is something that the two of you have decided after trying to make things work better for a long time.
- This decision has nothing to do with anything the children have said or done and they cannot reverse the decision by being extra good.
- Nobody is blaming anyone else and the children can continue to love each parent without feeling like they are betraying the other one.
- All feelings are normal and you, as parents, are open to discussing any feelings the children may have.
- You are still a family and nobody is abandoning anyone. If a parent is moving a significant distance away, reassure the children that they will still see that parent regularly and explain how that will happen.
3. Tell them the plan.
Let them know who is staying, who is moving out and where they are moving to. Take them to see any new houses or apartments. Let them know when they will be seeing each parent and when they can reasonably expect the entire family to spend time together. (But, don’t promise anything that cannot be delivered.)
4. Have follow up conversations.
A conversation about something like divorce is not “one and done.” It’s an ongoing conversation that will likely last months as adjustments are made. You may need to have more than one sit down conversation, especially as more details emerge about how things are going to work.
Don’t just let them know about what will be changing, though. Let them know about what will be staying the same, too. This will be reassuring to them at this turbulent time. Also, ask for input from them about the changes and what they see as working and not working. It’s their lives, too.
5. Be prepared for a variety of reactions.
Reactions can range from tantrums to basically nothing. Some children will pepper you with questions while others will withdraw and ask none. Answer any questions that are posed to you and over the coming weeks, try to coax the quiet children into talking about their feelings, but don’t hound them to do it. A few questions every day or two about how they’re feeling about the changes in the family will suffice. Let them know they can also share their feelings with others like friends, teachers or school counsellors.
6. Keep the conversation going.
As mentioned previously, talking about divorce with kids isn’t really a single conversation kind of topic. It will be an ongoing conversation about how they’re feeling, what they know about divorce (maybe they have friends whose parents are divorced), what they like or don’t like about it. (They may find that they enjoy having two birthday celebrations, for example.)
It’s important for parents to also share their own feelings without bashing each other or trying to turn children against the other parent. Reassure children that you will all get through this and that nobody is to blame for the divorce.
Divorce is never an easy situation for the people involved, especially children who are caught in the middle and can feel powerless about the situation. But with patience, understanding and communication, they can process the divorce in a healthy way.