14 Jan Talking to Your Kids About Divorce
The way that your children handle the divorce process has a lot to do with the way in which you handle it.
Imagine this –
You are on an airplane and encounter a rough, turbulent patch – the plane is bouncing up and down and perhaps the lights start to flicker. This goes on for longer than you are comfortable with and you start to look around the plane.
You see the flight attendants running toward the back of the plane, locking cabinets, and buckling their seatbelts. Maybe the pilot comes on the overhead speaker and tells everyone to remain seated and to brace for rough skies. This causes you to panic.
Now imagine, when you look around, you see the flight attendants are walking around passing out snacks, picking up empty cups and other passengers are still watching TV. This causes you to calm down.
In a divorce, the parents are the flight attendants, and the children are the passengers.
Every family is different and every child is different – so there’s no ‘one size fits all’ solution to helping your children through this difficult time. That said, here are some general rules that all parents should follow to make the process just a little bit easier:
- Talk to your children about the divorce and answer their questions in an honest but age-appropriate way.
- Keep your children removed from the divorce process.
- Keep your children at the forefront of your decision-making.
- Do your best to maintain your children’s routines and plan in advance for changes – so they have time to adjust.
- Remain positive about the future when talking to your children.
- Take time to process the divorce for yourself, away from your children.
- Engage in fun activities with your children.
- Seek professional help when necessary.
- Explore all of your process options and select the one best suited to your family’s needs.
Rule 1: Talk to your kids about the divorce process and answer their questions in an honest but age-appropriate way.
The decision of when to tell your family about your separation or divorce is a personal one. You will want to tell your children about the divorce before they hear about it from someone else. If possible, arrange a time to tell them when both you and your spouse will be there. With both parents present, you will be able to present a unified front. It’s important to answer their questions, but to do so in an age-appropriate way. Depending on their age, your children may not need to know the details of why and how the separation will happen, only the information that will directly impact their day to day lives. Plan the conversation so that everyone has downtime afterward so that there is time to digest the news. After giving them time, be sure that you are available to answer questions and offer support.
Rule 2: Keep your children removed from the divorce process.
Children, especially older ones, are observant and easily pick up on what’s happening in the household. Despite the fact that they know about the divorce, they do not need to know the details. It’s your job to assure them that they are loved, safe, supported and that you are doing what is best for them. Do not provide detailed information about the court, attorneys, negotiations or offer negative remarks about the other parent. Perhaps most importantly, do not ask them for their opinion on issues being addressed in your divorce. When children ask specific questions about the divorce, provide appropriate answers and then redirect their attention to the fact that this process is an adult one and that their job is to focus on age-appropriate things, like soccer, school and friends.
Even adult children will be impacted by the separation or divorce. The same rules apply, only share information on issues that will directly impact their lives. Oversharing, so that they become involved or feel stuck in the middle of the parents, will only make this more difficult for everyone involved.
Rule 3: Keep your children at the forefront of your decision-making.
Even in the best of circumstances, divorce is not easy. With emotions running high, it is easy to lose sight of what’s really important – particularly when the back and forth of settlement negotiations go on for an extended period of time. One way to protect yourself from falling into this cycle is to identify broad goals for yourself and your family at the beginning of the divorce. Filter each step that you take through the broad goals that you set at the outset – to ensure that your actions during the divorce further your goals.
Rule 4: Do your best to maintain your children’s routines and plan in advance for changes – so that they have time to adjust.
When there is so much uncertainty in their world, its important to do your best to maintain children’s routines as much as possible. Setting aside your differences, you and your spouse should continue to attend special events and activities. Do your best to keep your home life consistent, with routines as stable as possible. Disruptions to the way in which your children live their lives are inevitable as you progress through the process. Its best to inform them of changes in advance so that they have time to ask questions, weigh-in (when appropriate) and adjust to the new normal.
Rule 5: Remain positive about the future when talking to them.
Early on, perhaps even before you proceed with starting the divorce, ensure that you have a support system of friends and family to lean on when times get tough. Doing so will allow you to provide your children with the support that they need from you. While its ok to allow them to see that you are upset and processing the separation, leaning on your adult support system will allow you to present a positive outlook for the future when you are with your children. This will help them throughout this period but will also provide a healthy model for dealing with difficult times in the future.
Rule 6: Take time to process the divorce, away from your children.
Processing these changes together is important but its also important to take time away from your children to talk about what’s happening. Many people report that talking about their divorce with a trusted friend is helpful in the decision-making process. Be sure that you lean on your support system in private settings so that you don’t risk your children overhearing your conversation.
Rule 7: Engage in fun activities with your children.
It’s easy to get wrapped up in the stress of this time, forgetting to make time for family bonding. Taking time away to do things that you and your children enjoy will help them relax in the moment and feel secure as the family dynamic changes.
Rule 8: Seek professional help when necessary.
Going through a divorce is a major lifetime event, if the support of friends and family is not enough, seek professional support. There are professionals who are trained to help you navigate these trying times and they can offer a wealth of specialized knowledge and advice. In addition to individual therapy, family therapy for parents and children can be incredibly helpful in responding to questions and tackling issues as they arise.
Rule 9: Explore all process options and select the one best suited for your family’s needs.
There are many different ways to divorce – for some families its as simple as a conversation at the kitchen table, for others the addition of a mediator is essential and for others collaborative law or litigation are more appropriate. While there are many situations that require the intervention of a judge, most families are best served by divorcing amicably. Two of the most common amicable paths to divorce are mediation and collaborative law.
In a mediation, you and your spouse will take the lead in all aspects of settlement negotiation. You must be able to communicate effectively and need to trust one another. You will exchange information as necessary and will relay settlement ideas directly. The mediator’s role is to ensure that both parties understand each other, are continuing to progress through the necessary parts of the conversation and to make sure that you are thinking of all of the issues that need to be addressed – as well as thinking through the consequences of the decisions that you make as part of the mediation.
In a collaborative divorce, you and your spouse, along with each of your attorneys, will work out the terms of your divorce as a team. The process is similar to mediation in that you and your spouse will openly exchange information and work together to come up with solutions, but with your own attorney – this process is substantially more supportive.
Success in the divorce process is largely dependent on selecting not only the right professional to usher you through but also on choosing the right path. Be sure to take the time you need to interview several professionals and explore all of the process options.
No one is the best version of themselves when going through a divorce. By focusing on getting your children through this transition, so that they come out on the other side feeling confident in their relationship with you and their other parent, you can ensure that your priorities during the divorce remain true to your overall family values.
Amber Peshkin is a partner with Wesley, Clark and Peshkin, one of New York State’s most experienced family and matrimonial law firms – exclusively focusing on divorce litigation, collaborative law and mediation.