By Tracy McConaghie, LCSW
In Part 1 of this series, we shared some tips on how to handle the initial conversation about divorce with children, emphasizing the importance of telling the truth and telling children at the right time. Once that conversation has taken place, you will need to continue to reassure your children and share information with them about what will happen over the coming weeks and months.
Allow Feelings and Questions
It is helpful to directly tell children that it is OK to be sad, angry or experience any other feelings they are having. Sharing that you are feeling sad can also be helpful as long as there is not a dramatic display of emotion. This is an opportunity to model healthy expression of feelings by sharing them and showing you are OK.
Reassure Without Sugar Coating
In addition to sharing feelings honestly, it is important to provide reassurance that everything will be OK. One of the positive predictors for a good outcome for children post-divorce is that they know their parents are doing well. Here are some examples of reassuring statements:
- “I am sad too, but I know everything is going to be OK.”
- “I know we have enough love in our family to get through this.”
- “Mom/Dad and I are going to work together to make sure you have everything you need.”
In addition, emphasize that a lot is going to change, but some things will not change at all: the children will still see both of you and you will still be taking care of and loving them. If you and your spouse are still in a friendly relationship, say so. For example “even though we know it is not best for us to be married, we still care about and respect each other as friends and are going to work together as a team to take care of you.”
Although it is comforting to provide reassurance, it is not helpful to try so hard to make children feel better that you present a false positive. Examples of this include “This will be great, you get two Christmases/Hanukahs!” or “Now you get to decorate two rooms!” or “There is nothing to be sad about.” Statements like this tell children their naturally sad feelings are silly or wrong.
Provide the Information You Have About the Future
Ideally, you will have at least some general information about how life is going to be after the divorce. This can be as general as “you are going to have lots of time with each of us” to a very specific residential schedule. You may also know if one parent is going to move out, who that will be, and about how far away their new home is going to be.
Whether or not the children will change schools is also a critical piece of information for children. Share the details you have. This provides awareness that there is a plan and, even better, that you have worked together to create one you both feel good about.
It is likely you will not have all the details worked out at the time you talk with your children. Share with them that some things are still going to be decided, and the two of you are going to work together to make those decisions and you will tell them as soon as you know. Invite their input and concerns, but do not imply they will get to make the decisions themselves – that places too much pressure on them and children are not capable of making those important decisions themselves.
The Value of “I Don’t Know”
You might be concerned that your children will ask you a question you do not know the answer to, or do know the answer to but are not sure how to explain it appropriately. It’s fine to simply say “I do not know the answer to that yet, but I will work on it and talk with you about it later” or “I will need to think about that a little so I can make sure to explain it to you in the best way later.” Consult with your therapist or coach for assistance if needed.
Ideally, this conversation will happen with both parents present. If one parent has already talked with the children, call a family meeting with both present to talk further so that the children can experience a healthy message from both parents.
In addition, both parents should play an equal role in the conversation. Sometimes one parent is much more talkative or more comfortable with emotional topics, and in those situations that parent can dominate the conversation. This inadvertently sends the message that the other parent is not involved or is not handling the change as well. Many parents find it helpful to plan in advance, making a general “script” of which parents will share which pieces of information.
One conversation is not enough. A few days after your first family meeting, check in with the children individually. Share with them that you know they must have a lot of thoughts, feelings and questions about the divorce and you are ready to talk about them with them.
Even if they do not want to talk about it, they are learning that you are capable of helping them and not afraid of their feelings or this change. Continue these follow up opportunities every week or two for at least a couple of months. They can happen with both parents or with just one at a time.
Tracy McConaghie and her husband Andrew McConaghie own McConaghie Counseling in Alpharetta. She specializes in helping children and families with divorce, parenting, anxiety and behavior problems. Andrew specializes in couples counseling, including divorce counseling. Both Andrew and Tracy help divorcing couples create successful parenting plans for their divorce. They are available for therapy or consultation in their office or via phone or video conferencing. You can also visit McConaghie Counseling online at www.mcconaghiecounseling.com.