Navigating the conversation about divorce with the kids


Dear Adele,

My husband and I have finally come to a decision to separate and divorce. We both love our children dearly but need advice on the best way to tell them about the split. In the end, we think it will be better for them as it will be better for us, but we both absolutely dread having this conversation. What ideas do you have, Adele?

Dreading the Conversation


Dear Dreading the Conversation,

There will be few conversations with your children that will be more difficult than the one that awaits you about a divorce between their parents. You will be destroying their dreams of the intact family for life, and a fantasy of a mom and dad who are lovingly devoted to each other, for all time. The conversation you and your husband design to tell the children about the marital breakup will be forever imprinted in their memories, so it is salient that you do it as well as possible. There is no perfect way. It will be painful, no matter how it is presented, but experience has shown that some ways are better than others.

I was privileged to work for the Ontario Office of the Official Guardian for a number of years and was involved in preparing reports around custody and access issues for children with divorcing parents. I also took Divorce Mediation Training at Toronto University. I spoke to many children and many parents about the complexities of remaining a family but living apart. I will share with you some of the things I learned about dealing with the children, which I hope will be of assistance to you.

You are probably aware that Statistics Canada in 2011 reported that five million Canadians had separated or divorced in the previous 20 years. Approximately 38 per cent of marriages in Canada had ended in divorce. The divorce rate has been steadily climbing since 2000 with annual increments in the last five years. Canadians have the 29th highest divorce rate in the world out of 87 countries. The top reasons in Canada for marital breakdown include infidelity, money, falling out of love, lack of compatibility, domestic abuse and substance abuse. The average age at the time of divorce is 30 years and the average length of marriage is 14 years.

It is extremely important that you and your husband be the first to tell the children about the pending separation as it would be more difficult for the children to learn about it from friends, relatives or neighbours. I recommend that you use the team approach and plan out what you’re going to say, when and how. Should you and your husband be unable to work together to develop this conversation plan, I strongly recommend you use a marital mediator or counsellor, as having a calm, rational and organized plan for the family meeting where the split will be announced is best for the youngsters.

Consider telling your progeny altogether, 2 to 3 weeks before the separation, allowing the children time to talk and to hear about the pending divorce. Be sure to choose a time when family members are not rushed or have other commitments. Best not to choose a holiday or specific time where the memories will be revisited annually on that date. A weekend Saturday morning might work or Sunday after an activity. You and your husband should try to reassure the children of your love and commitment to them and that you both will continue to provide them with affection and protection. Let them see that you will be respectful and kind towards each other.

People often ask what they should say. Most experienced counsellors suggest you keep it simple and civil. Keep the adult details to your selves as the children do not need to know about adult problems. At the same time try to be truthful. Some people have found it positive to say something like “We are not happy together anymore.” or ‘We have tried to solve our differences but cannot.” or “We like each other but no longer love each other.” Another idea is “We can’t fix our relationship and it is not what we hoped for in our lives.” Any of these statements can be followed with “We have decided to live separately.” Make sure that the children understand that the divorce is not their fault and that no one is blaming anyone. The children should hear that they are free to love both parents and that they can talk to their parents and that the adults will listen. Let them know that the whole family will feel lots of emotions and that this is normal.

Once you have told the children about the pending separation, it is wise to inform them how it is going to affect them. it should not be left to the children to take charge of the arrangements. Take turns to explain to the children what will stay in their lives and what will change regarding living arrangements, school, extra-curricular activities and seeing assorted people. Explain which parent will relocate and where. Be clear about visiting schedules. Tell them there will be new rules at each home and that you will be agreeing upon them as much as possible. Keep the children out of financial and legal problems as those are up to the adults to settle.

 Let the kids know it will be hard at first but that everyone will be fine in the end. Explain that you are still a family but living separately. Do not make any uncertain promises which you cannot guarantee will happen. Most of all be honest, empathetic, simple and genuine.

Reactions from your children may vary. The children might be very surprised that mom and dad are separating as they may not have been aware of the unhappiness of the parties. On the other hand, if arguing and fighting has been constant in the home, the children might actually be relieved that the parents have decided to separate and live peacefully.

As a couple, provide the youngsters with reassurance and be emotionally available. Remember the children may not know how to express their feelings, may be very overwhelmed by the news or may even shut right down and say nothing. All of these reactions may take some time to express, but be encouraging. Also allow your children to ask any questions, remembering it is alright to respond with “I don’t know yet. We are going to work that out as soon as we can.”

Try to stay calm, united and positive. Keep control of your own emotions and do not allow the children to be parentified having to support you. Seek professional support for yourself if needed. Try to model for the children a healthy recovery from this major change in your family.

Psychologist, coach and attorney Suzanne Gelb suggests “to use common sense, choose your words thoughtfully, give plenty of love and reassurance throughout the divorce process and ultimately let your actions (hugs, presence, attention, quality time, being kind, keeping promises) speak even louder than your words.”

You have a big challenge ahead of you Dreading the Conversation. No one looks forward to this task, I can assure you. I wish you and your family the very best.

Two articles worth a read on this subject are ‘Guide to Telling the Children about the Divorce’ by Dr. Lisa Herrick and Psychology Today’s article How to tell your kids you’re getting a separation or divorce’ by Ann Gold Buscho. Excellent free and sliding fee scale counselling can be obtained at our Ottawa Family Service Centres such as the Jewish Family Services of Ottawa, the Somerset West Community Health Centre and the Pinecrest-Queensway Community Health Centre. Your family Health Care Professional should also be able to refer you to private professionals within your area, who do this kind of work with couples and families.

 I will finish with a few inspiring quotations about divorce:

You cannot go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are, and change the ending.— Kara Rajchel

The children of divorce are handed a really big job!— Marriage Missions International

Sometimes divorce is the best thing that can happen to marriage.” — Bangambiki Mabyarimana

Sincerely, Adele

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