How honest should you be with children about divorce?
As if divorce itself is not hard enough, parents also have to worry about the impact it is going to have on their children’s lives. It’s impossible not to feel guilty about inflicting this huge upheaval on your little ones. But how much do they really need to know about what is actually happening?
When my husband and I decided to divorce, we sat down with the children and told them the news, which was the worst single moment of the whole process. Before we spoke, they belonged to a family of four. Afterwards, they were the shell-shocked children of parents who were officially no longer together.
We decided to be honest with them about the process of divorce, but to draw a veil over its causes. Coming clean over the reasons for your split depends on the ages of your children, but ‘Mummy ran off with someone else’ or ‘Daddy doesn’t love Mummy any more’ is not appropriate for children to hear at any age, from two to 22. Marriages are complicated – even those inside them may not understand what is going on – and the intricacies of the parents’ relationship are not a child’s business.
What you will need to tell the children, loud and clear, is that the divorce is not their fault. They could not have prevented it by behaving better or finishing their broccoli. Stress that they are not to blame and that both parents love them. Your children should already know this, but this is the moment to stress it.
You should also tell your children honestly that things will change. The children will now have two homes instead of one. There will be to-ing and fro-ing at weekends, and there will be the odd tussle over parents’ evenings or school concerts. Everyone is going to have to be patient and kind to each other, including the separating spouses, until things settle down. Establish some new routines, make sure they are clear, and try to help the family get used to the new situation quickly.
Of course, it is nigh on impossible to go through a divorce without a cross word or a terse conversation. After all, the reason you are getting divorced is that you don’t get on. But bickering should be kept away from the children. Above all, resist the temptation to bad-mouth your spouse, whatever the provocation. Your children will work out who’s behaved well and who hasn’t and, if you ask them to join in a rant against your ex, you are asking them to divide their loyalties. They are your former partner’s children too, and of course love that parent too. They will also share characteristics with your ex so, if he/she is criticized, your child may feel under attack.
You and your ex may have decided to split up, but you have a commitment to your children for better or for worse. With forethought and plain speaking, you can demystify divorce and tell the children everything they need to know.