Science tells us little about how to best tell children that parents will divorce. Some studies focus on how parents tell children, but few address the children's reactions. If you are contemplating divorce, you might think about how to tell the children.
Heather Westberg and her colleagues in Utah published the results of in-depth interviews of children of divorce. Their insights provide valuable considerations for parents who face this perplexing problem. From that study, several findings can provide parents guidance about how to tell their children the marriage is over.
Freeze Frame—The Memory of Being Told
The memory of being told appears to stay fresh regardless of how long ago a child was told. The finding illustrates the depth of children's shock (and possible trauma) when learning of the divorce. Parents sometimes believe that children will forget the pain of divorce and grow to accept the marriage's end. However, Westberg's study shows that the memory of finding out sticks with children, potentially bringing back the pain when recalled. Unfortunately, many children do not forget that day.
Tip 1: Give thought to the setting and circumstances when you break the news. Do not underestimate how long your children will remember that moment.
A House Divided—Which Children to Tell
Parents sometimes tell the oldest child first and shelter the youngest child. The strategy seems unwise because older children then bear the burden of keeping secrets. And, the youngest child hears a "you can't handle problems" message. Adult offspring of divorce report that dissatisfaction with different treatments.
Tip 2: Gather the whole family and tell everyone. Make no child responsible for the divorce news (or for keeping secrets).
Relativity of Feelings—How Children Feel About the Divorce
If you wonder how your children will feel if you divorce, it depends. Some children react positively, thankful that the hostility will end. Some children react sadly, wishing things could stay the same. Yet other children react with both positive and negative feelings, recognizing the relief while feeling, at the same time, loss of one of the parents.
Tip 3: Don't assume how children will react, and let them feel all their feelings, even when those feelings are confusing to you.
Are We There Yet—The Never-Ending Divorce
Financial and parenting difficulties take on a life of their own during divorce. Some divorces take years to settle, and often more because one or both parents feel the need to win. For children, the never-ending divorce feels like a 12-hour drive to Disney World done in one day: Uncomfortable and interminable. In the Utah study, one child said: "Get on with it."
Tip 4: When you decide to end the marriage, end it swiftly. No one will win either way.
Leave a Message at the Tone—Not Answering Children's Questions
Many of us try to avoid discomfort, especially if we see pain in our children. When we believe we've caused their pain, we can shrink from dealing with the hurt by trying "to make it better" with statements like: "It'll be OK." But nothing makes divorce better for children. Westburg and her colleagues found that children need parents to address their confusion and pain. They need to know the details and to receive answers to questions. Parents do best when they reduce confusion by being truthful.
Tip 5: Be supportive of painful reactions and answer difficult questions honestly.
Don't Blame Me—Forgetting to Be Adults When Telling Children
One thing in the study that seemed clear: Children need their parents to be mature when delivering such painful news. But, parents find accepting responsibility hard to do so, particularly early in the divorce process. Parents feel their hopes lost and dreams gone, and they often avoid reminding themselves of such sorrow. But, when parents bring all the family together, the children benefit from a united message delivered by both parents; and children feel less disturbed when parents exhibit this kind of maturity. The research tells us that children prefer a message that avoids blame; instead, they hope both parents will take ownership of the marriage ending. Doing so can protect children from feeling that they caused the divorce or that they must align with one parent and reject the other.
Tip 6: Take responsibility for the divorce and be unified in your message to the children.
A Final Word
When one parent decides to end a marriage, the other parent often feels deep pain (see my earlier post how-tell-the-other-parent-the-marriage-is-over). The ensuing drama easily takes on a life of its own. Parents may protect their children when they deliver the message together, to all the children at the same time. And the children benefit when mom and dad stay in their parental roles while giving children the bad news.
Most of us fear what we will do to our children when a divorce happens. Parents desire to shield their children from pain, let alone want to cause their babies to suffer. But, suffering happens. Divorcing parents have an opportunity to teach their children how to handle pain effectively. In every dire circumstance exists the chance to learn and grow; parents who use divorce as one such chance can help their children learn this fundamental truth.
Westberg, H., Nelson, T.S., & Piercy, K.W. (2002). Disclosure of divorce plans to children: What the children have to say. Contemporary Family Therapy, 24, 525-542.
http://pedsinreview.aappublications.org/cgi/content/extract/26/5/163 (this article might require that you ask the American Academy of Pediatrics for the full text)