The most difficult conversation you will ever have with your children
I think it is a natural human reaction to, once the decision has been made to separate, want to immediately take some action toward that plan, such as moving out, or talking to your children about plans for divorce. As understanding as that feeling is, I routinely encourage my clients to slow down, be deliberate, and make smart choices when it comes to these major decisions.
Talking to your children about plans for separation and divorce is probably one of the most difficult conversations you and your partner will have with your children. What follows is advice I routinely share with my clients as they prepare for this step.
1. Strategize with your partner on what the conversation looks like well prior to having the conversation.
Just like you would prepare for a presentation at work where you will be fielding questions from the audience, you and your partner need to prepare for this discussion with your children. You will want to be on the same page about how much detail, if any, regarding the reason for separation you will share (see information under #3 below for more information on this) and have a cohesive story-line to follow. Children will perceive if you and your partner are not on the same page and that will cause insecurity.
2. Don’t even think about starting this conversation until you and your partner have a clear game plan that you both see eye-to-eye on.
Naturally, your children are going to have questions about how your plans for separation will impact their daily lives and so it is essential that you have clear answers for those questions before having this conversation. You and your partner need to come across to your children as a unified force with a clear plan so that there is nothing for your child to worry about because you and your partner have it covered. Questions that you can probably expect from your children:
i. Why are you separating?
ii. Whose fault is it you are separating?
iii. Where will I live after separation?
iv. How often will I get to see you/the other parent?
No doubt, these are challenging questions, and if your answer for all or most of them is, “I don’t know” or “We will figure it out,” that is going to cause your children to feel uncomfortable with the lack of a clear path forward.
3. Seek professional advice from a therapist with experience working with families going through divorce for guidance on how to answer the difficult questions that will inevitably come your way. Trained child specialists are an excellent resource in this regard. A few pointers based on my experience:
It is never okay to place blame on your partner for causing or prompting the separation in this conversation. Step back and think about it – blaming your partner for causing the separation is about you and your feelings in your relationship with your partner, not about your children and reassuring them that everything will be okay through this major life transition. It is completely natural if you are not the one prompting the separation to want to point the finger at the other parent and place blame, to assure your children you are not the one wanting to break up the family unit. But doing so makes it apparent to your children that you and your partner are not, in fact, a unified force and instead, are at odds with one another. This may cause them to feel insecure and fearful about what the future holds for them, or worse, to feel that they must choose between the two of you.
My clients sometimes tell me that they are not comfortable “lying” to their children about various things, such as the reason for the separation, or who wants the separation and who does not. Please allow me to dissuade you of this notion of so-called truthfulness with your children. While the term lying is harsh, the reality is we lie to our children everyday because we want to protect them from realities which they are not able to understand and process due to their age. For example, when your 4 year old asks you how babies are made and where they come from, you don’t explain the details of reproduction in all its glory; rather, you provide what you consider to be an age-appropriate answer to the question. Your children do not need to know the innermost details of the relationship (or rather, the destruction of the relationship) between you and your partner; this is not information they are entitled to as children, that is an adult topic that does not concern them. What does concern them is how your separation will impact their daily lives, how much and how frequently will they be seeing each parent, where the family pet will be living, things of that nature. When asked why you and your partner are separating (whether asked this question when your partner is present or absent), respond with a vague, age-appropriate response, such as, “We decided that things for all of us would be better if we no longer live in the same house together” or, “We do not feel the way about one another that we did years ago and so we are going to be friends rather than spouses.” Notice both of these examples begin with the word “we” – this goes back to the point above about you and your partner coming across as a unified force. If you tell your child that the other parent decided… then it is apparent who (in your mind) is the victim and who is the perpetrator – leading your child to conclude that he or she should align themselves with you, the victim in this situation.
Once the decision is made to separate, you have the opportunity to take time to work on a plan for how to accomplish separation without negatively disrupting your children’s lives, to make smart financial decisions which minimize the cost of the process, and to preserve the relationship between you and your partner so that you can effectively work together on the other end of the process. Slow down, make smart choices, and consult an attorney who has the well-being of your whole family in mind.