Every couple of months, I get a phone call from an anguished parent who wants to book a session with me – the “how to tell the kids we’re getting divorced” session. I can always hear the fear in their voices as they anticipate one of the most painful discussions they’ll ever have with their kids. They will want to know the specifics, of course, such as when is a good time to tell, who should do the telling, and what should be said. But beneath those practical inquiries lies the real reason for the session – will my child be okay?
As a family therapist, I also have met with countless kids who were on the receiving end of that revelation. I’ve heard horror stories about parents who made a mess of it, as well as inspiring tales of others who got it right. In this arena, there is a right and wrong way to go about it. Doing it right doesn’t guarantee that no harm will be done but it does make it more likely.
I started to research this topic and found that there is no one book solely about how to tell kids that their parents were getting divorced so I decided to write one. It's called Divorce: How to Tell the Kids. I interviewed over 100 kids and adults who were kids when their parents divorced and learned what it really feels like to hear the news. Finally, I was able to say with authority exactly what a parent needs to know to cushion the blow.
One of the biggest surprises in my research was evidence that for some children, news of their parents’ upcoming separation constitutes an actual physical trauma. Time slows down, the world feels unreal and their bodies go into shock. This is important because we know how to prevent and treat shock, so armed with that knowledge, parents can recognize the signs and react quickly.
Too often, parents flood the child with information. They don’t recognize that this is not a news flash – “We’re getting divorced and you’re going to live with each of us 50/50. Now go to your room and finish your homework.” Rather, it’s necessary to bring the child along very gradually to an integration of the fact that things are going to change.
The key is what I call attunement. Parents can learn how to be attuned to their child’s emotional state and respond appropriately. What creates trauma is a sense of isolation. What counters it is a feeling of being connected.
The Seven Steps for Breaking the News without Breaking Their Hearts:
1. Learn to manage your own emotions so you will be in the best shape possible when you talk to your children.
2. Understand the meaning of the divorce for your particular kids.
3. If you can, schedule a planning meeting with your spouse to work out when, where and who should do the telling. Carefully craft what to say to explain why you are getting separated.
4. If you cannot work productively with your spouse, decide these things yourself.
5. Tell your kids the news that you are getting separated.
6. Using the art of being tuned in to your children's emotions - Listening carefully, Acknowledging and Accepting their feelings-respond appropriately thereby reducing the risk of trauma.
7. Follow through using strategies that will permit you to remain in touch with your kids in the days and weeks following the telling.
If you’re a parent facing this life transition, I wish you calm and courage. If you'd like me to guide you step-by-step through this process, get a copy of Divorce: How to Tell the Kids.
I’m a psychotherapist, family therapist and the author of three books: Divorce - How to Tell the Kids: A Parent’s Guide to Breaking the News without Breaking Their Hearts; Runaway Husbands: The Abandoned Wife's Guide to Recovery and Renewal and My Sister, My Self: The Surprising Ways that Being an Older, Middle, Younger or Twin Shaped Your Life. I can be found online at www.vikkistark.com.