SALT LAKE CITY — Talking to your children about divorce — it's one of the first things that parents think about when they know the unthinkable has become inevitable. Parents fear that it may be a painful experience for the kids as well as themselves, and they sometimes have tremendous anxiety not just about "what" to say but "how" and "when" to say it.
Honesty is still the best policy
Tip number one is the simplest and should be the most obvious: Do not lie to the children about the separation and divorce. No matter how much you think you may be protecting them, you are not. You are making a difficult situation worse because they will eventually find out you two are separating and they may resent you did not tell them the truth from the beginning.
If you start off the process by lying to them, they are going to be less likely to believe you about what you tell them concerning the separation, their living arrangements and life, and your intentions and those of the other parent.
Do not lie to the children about the separation and divorce. No matter how much you think you may be protecting them, you are not.
The children's feelings matter too
It's not only about you or your spouse. No matter how young the children are, they are human beings and they are going to have an emotional and anxious reaction to the news that their parents are splitting up.
Depending on the ages of the children, they will fret about issues such as their home, friends, school and future. Communication with them should cover all of these things. Tell them what you and your spouse have in mind regarding the living arrangements and listen to their input. That doesn't mean you have to do what they want, but at least lend the ear so you can hear what the children are telling you. At a minimum, it will give you and your spouse perspective on what concerns them and help you and your spouse (assuming you two are co-parenting and not in a high-conflict divorce) make decisions with their concerns in mind as well.
Change is frightening
Children generally do not like change. Change means that the children will not enjoy the stability and continuity that they have become accustomed to up to that point. Your job is to come up with a plan that causes as little change as possible and, when it does, for the change to be a short-term issue and not a mid- to long-term problem.
Once you have the plan together, hopefully with your spouse's cooperation, present it to them in a loving but businesslike manner. They will appreciate that there has been thought put into the plan and that their interests have been considered. Before you get excited, I am not saying that they will express their appreciation to you right then and there. They are going through just as a difficult time as you are. However, once things stabilize and hopefully you and your spouse are able to work together, your children will be able to look back at the experience and realize you did everything reasonable to make the process easy on them.
Do not disparage the other parent
The reason is simple. Children who have a poor relationship with one parent suffer in their own lives and especially in their own relationships. Every negative word you speak about the other parent may resonate in the children's minds and either cause the children to believe you and hold a negative opinion of the other parent as a result or may cause the children anxiety and stress about the words you speak concerning someone that they love.
Neither one of those responses should be any right-thinking parent’s goal.
Boost the children's confidence in themselves
It's easier to be a victim than a hero. Encourage the children to be heroes. Instill self confidence in the children and help them know that they will be able to adapt to this new situation and even thrive under it.
As we sometimes hit the ground and have difficulty standing up, children often bounce. They haven't seen what we have seen or experienced what we have experienced and their ability to adjust and adapt is generally greater than our own if we just provide them with the foundation (security and stability) to allow it.
Tell your children about your faith in them and assure them that their parents will do everything possible to make this process easier on them.
Share with them specific example of how their lives will not change that much and how the love they have received will only grow even more as they grow and become adults.
How you speak with them about such things does depend on their ages. Certainly, a 6-year-old is not going to understand such concepts as well as a 16-year-old. However, since nobody knows your children better than you do, trust that the tone and the words you use will be appropriate for their hearts and minds.
There is no such thing as enough love
Tell them you love them when you speak with them but, even more important, show it in everything that you do. When you speak with your children about divorce, ensure they understand that this is not their fault nor will it change any aspect of your feelings for them.
Parents sometimes mistakenly think that talking to their children about divorce is a one-time occurrence. ... Depending on the complexities of your situation, there should be constant love and reassurance in communications with them.
Assure them that no matter what happens going forward, the one thing they can always count on is your love and, hopefully, you can tell them honestly that love includes the love of the other parent.
Do not limit your communication with them about such things. Parents sometimes mistakenly think that talking to their children about divorce is a one-time occurrence. It's not even a 10-time occurrence. Depending on the complexities of your situation, there should be constant love and reassurance in communications with them whether that communication is a sit-down and regroup about the status of things presently and going forward or a two-minute conversation as you kiss them good night before they go to bed.
It's all about the love you express and the love you show, and if you remember nothing else from this article, remember that if the children believe that their parents love them and will do the right thing for them, they can withstand any situation, including your separation and divorce.
But when? When do we talk to the children about divorce?
Timing is everything, or so the expression goes. When communicating with your children about divorce, the timing should be when you and your spouse have decided that the divorce is really going to happen and you have some consensus about plans going forward.
That does not mean you should wait until one of you actually files for divorce. Depending on the ages of your children, that may come as a shock. On the other hand, speaking with them too early and before you and your spouse have decided that the separation is really going to happen and one of you is really filing for divorce could cause them unnecessary anxiety if you and your spouse then delay the decision or you reconcile.
It's not a perfect process and there is no perfect time. But once you and your spouse both know that you are ready to move on with your life and you have a good enough plan in place for how the adjustments will take place, your children should be engaged in communication.
B. Robert Farzad is a divorce and family law attorney in Orange County, Calif. He loves helping spouses and parents through difficult chapters of their lives. Find out more at farzadlaw.com