No one likes this topic, but it's the most asked question I get on all social media platforms, "How do I talk to my kids about divorce?" I get it, it's a sensitive topic. You're going through an emotional rollercoaster ride yourself. You're dealing with the end of a relationship that was significant enough that you had a child with that person. It's a big loss, no matter how you slice it. I've been there, I get it. I'm so thankful for family and friends (and hell yes a trained professional therapist) who helped me through my divorce!
Now, as a divorce attorney, I get to help people through divorces all day. It's a privilege to help people through very difficult times of their lives. If you are going through a divorce, or if you have a loved one who is, be patient with yourselves and them as they go through this time of their lives. Paramount during this time is to make sure your kids are okay. I remember peeking in on my kids sleeping in their bed one night after their mom and I separated and just hoping that they were going to be okay during this divorce and after. It was, when everything else was stripped down, all that mattered.
As such, I've dedicated a great deal of time figuring out some tips for talking to your kids about the divorce. It can feel overwhelming. But remember, your kids are watching you more than ever during a divorce. They need stability and direction that only you can give as their parent. While every situation is different and every family dynamic is unique, here are some tips for talking to your kids about divorce- and believe me, you need to be prepared because they WILL ask.
1. Assure Them They Are LOVED.
Kids have incredible imaginations. They really do. It's what makes them so incredibly inquisitive and allows them to transform a cardboard box into a spaceship or submarine. These little active imaginations can also wreak havoc during a divorce. They can wonder if it's their fault, or if they could do something to bring you and your ex back together, or if they can fix everything or anything if they just tried a little bit harder. This is why before, during, and after a divorce you make sure your kids know they are loved... and here's the hard part- you gotta help them know they are loved by BOTH of their parents. I get it, you may hate your ex, he or she could be Satan incarnate. But the kid doesn't view them like that, and fostering that perception will ONLY hurt your kid. So make sure they know they are loved by both of their parents- no matter what. They didn't do ANYTHING wrong here. So let them know that. Often!
2. DO NOT SPEAK POORLY ABOUT YOUR EX.
This dovetails with something I have said across the table from so many men and women getting divorced: DO NOT- I REPEAT- DO NOT TALK POORLY ABOUT YOUR EX. Not to the kids. Not when the kids are in the house. Not even if the kids are outside or down the street. There is absolutely NO excuse. There is a time and a place for you to vent to family and friends (and I suggest you utilize these in an intelligent way), but mark my words- if your kid hears you speak poorly about their mom or dad, it will cause so much heartache for them. They will wonder if they can trust their inherent feelings of affection for someone you are speaking so negatively about. It will make them feel like they have to pick sides. It will make them feel very unsafe when they are with both of you. DO NOT DO IT. Ever. And yes, you will have to do the opposite! Help them cultivate a relationship with both parents.
3. Give Them Permission to be a Kid.
No kids are perfect, and no kids react perfectly to divorce. In fact, it's a major trauma for the kids. Think about it- two different homes, stressed out parents, split friends and toys and clothes and friends and families. It's a lot. I remember sitting in a parenting class for divorced parents when the instructor said, "If you think your kid is not affected by the divorce- you're just plain stupid. If they are acting perfect and doing everything right, THAT is their cry for help." This was years ago and I still think about it today. We have to let our kids be kids- which means they are going to act out, they are going to be sad at times, they are going to be mad on occasion. Please please please don't say things to your kids like, "Well you gotta step up cause you're the man of the house now." They can't be the man of the house! They are a CHILD! Sure, there may be some added chores here and there, but they have to be TOLD they have PERMISSION to still be a kid! And to worry about kid things! They don't need to worry about if dad is going to find someone else or how mom is going to pay rent. They need to worry about kid things- so give them that permission!
4. LISTEN TO YOUR KID.
Whenever I get asked to talk about some parenting aspect, I invariably start with- listen to your kid. This topic is no different. Ask them questions. Ask them how they're feeling. If they don't feel comfortable to talk to you get them to a counsellor- hell get them to a counsellor even if they are talking to you. Be open to hear what your kid has to say about things. If they are spending time with your ex, ask them about it! Not because you're chronicling their diet and bedtime, but because you want them to know that you want them to be happy in both places and you are interested in EVERYTHING they are doing, including if it doesn't involve you. It's great practice for your kids to tell you about friends and love interests and teachers down the road. Don't forget to listen to what your kids are going through, and be sensitive to not jump in and defend yourself if they are expressing feelings of disappointment about the divorce. They get to be sad. So let them have a place to talk to you about it.
5. Future Partners = More LOVE.
This one is hard. When you or your ex finds someone new, and hopefully you will (if you want to), help assure your kids that it's just one more person in their life who will love them and they get to love. This is easy when it's our new partner, and super tricky when it's our ex's. I get that this isn't easy. There are complicated emotions attached to your feelings about your ex's new partner. BUT remember, how you speak to the kids about him or her is important. Encourage that relationship, reassuring that you will always be your kid's dad or mom. I was asked on a podcast recently if I could go back and tell my younger dad-self one thing, what would I tell him. I said I would go back and tell me that no one, and I mean NO ONE, can replace my role as my kids' father. That would give me a bit more ownership in my role as their dad, and also would help me not feel threatened by a new father-figure coming into my kids' lives. I've not been great at this, but it's something I'm actively working on and it takes time.
So listen, this is a tough subject. But I hope that you will take time to really think about how you're speaking to your kids about the divorce or a failed relationship with their mom or dad. Figuring out how to protect our kiddos during this time should be of the upmost importance. I'm grateful for the chance I have to help people through divorces. If you're in Utah feel free to contact our offices for more information about your particular situation. I'm happy to chat with you! www.walklawgroup.com.