Often my clients ask me in the beginning of their divorce case, "How do I tell my children we're divorcing?" "What's the best approach?" Well, this blog posting will give you some good advice with the help of Carolyn Singer, LMSW, a social worker therapist in private practice in Syosset, New York, focusing on adult (individuals and couples), family and adolescent therapy. Ms. Singer is an adjunct professor at Adelphi University School of Social Work, teaching graduate students how to practice with families and couples; children and adolescents. She often works with couples going through divorce, and helping them achieve a united front when dealing with their children, as well as individuals at various stages of separation and divorce, helping them adapt to the stresses and changes throughout that process.
Once the decision to end a marriage has been made, both parents should focus on their children, and how to help them adapt to the profound change that will be forced upon them. "Forced" is the key word here. This change in the family structure affects them most deeply and profoundly, yet they have absolutely no say in the matter. "It's not fair!" will be commonly and frequently heard. And for the children, it's not. It's an incredibly frustrating, and grave injustice, and they have absolutely no say in this. Since there is no way for it to be made fair, the adults must now do all that they can to hold the children's emotional needs as a priority, and have a shared sense of purpose.
How can a divorcing couple work peacefully and collaboratively when they hold such negative feelings towards the other? How do you act cooperatively with someone when you feel anger, sadness, resentment, mistrust, etc. towards them? You must separate your personal feelings for your spouse as an individual, from the fact that they are your child's parent. Ultimately, and from the beginning, it is best for a child to have both parents peacefully in their lives– loving them, supporting them, and involved with them. That is best accomplished by both parents treating each other with respect when they are in each other's presence, and when speaking about the other to the children when they are not. Seeing a therapist during this time of transition can help both parents to learn not to contaminate their children with their negative feelings towards the other parent.
From the first day that the parents inform their children of the separation, the parents must provide a sense that that they, the parents, are in control of the situation, and have a united front. This can best be accomplished by first meeting with a therapist in preparation of telling the children, and to agree on how and when to tell the children about the impending divorce, and to come up with an initial schedule for sharing the responsibilities of child-rearing and visitation. Knowing that most or all of their (initial) questions will be answered immediately (perhaps even before they are asked), will give the children a significant sense of comfort and security at a most unsettling time.
Inform the children of what was worked out regarding a schedule of time with both parents, and any change in living arrangements. Next, you should describe what will be the same (i.e. school, friends, teams, after school activities, visiting grandparents, etc.) and what will be different (Dad won't sleep in the house, holidays will be alternated, meals won't be with everyone at the table, etc.) The most basic emotional reassurances should also be part of this conversation; that is, although mom and dad feel differently towards each other and feel they cannot live together anymore, parents never stop loving their children. Mom and dad are separating from each other, not from their children. Your love for your children can never be changed.
Do not intellectualize your explanations of why you are divorcing to your children as a result of your discomfort at your child's reaction. It is common and understandable to want to continue to offer explanations in response to your child's lament of "It's not fair!" or "Why? Why?!' However, the most basic reassurances of enduring parental love, and reminders as to what remains the same and what changes, are enough. Repeatedly responding with an empathetic "I know, I understand" to your child's laments can seem inadequate, but validating their feelings of confusion and anger is the best you can do for them.
Remember, it can seem impossible at times to always hold your negative emotions towards your estranged spouse in check. You may not respect them, but you must, for the children's sake, treat them with respect, simply for the fact that they are your child's parent. A good mantra to remind yourself of is…"don't look at your children and see your spouse, look at your spouse, and see your children."
Recommended reading for you and your children include:
Helping Your Kids Cope with Divorce the Sandcastles Way by M.G. NewmanMom's House, Dad's House for Kids by I. Ricci, Ph.D.
Carolyn Singer L.M.S.W
Family, Adult, Child Therapy Services (F.A.C.T.S)
485 Underhill Blvd. ste. 107
Syosset, N.Y. 11791