How Should You Tell Your Children You and Your Spouse Are Divorcing?
At Pingel Family Law, we not only care about our clients and helping them through their legal issues, but in every situation involving children, we care deeply about the children’s best interests and their needs in your family law case. Mandee Pingel serves the court as an appointed guardian ad litem, a lawyer who represents the children in a divorce case. Typically, guardian ad litems are appointed in situations of abuse or neglect, but they can also be appointed to help the court manage high conflict parents, in situations where children have unique or special needs or if the court determines it would be helpful to your family.
A question we are often asked is how should children be told about a parents’ planned divorce. Generally, it is best to tell the children a few weeks before separation, when possible. This helps them adjust and process a change that will be coming rather than simply telling them right when a change is occurring. Tell children approximately 2-3 weeks prior to separation or even longer if possible.
Most child development research indicates that while your children may be sad or surprised for a period of time after their parents’ marriage ends, children tend to heal better in the long run than children from situations where parents stay together in a stressful household with constant fighting for years to come. The single most damaging thing to your children during a divorce process or situation is exposing them to parental conflict, asking them to pick a side or making them feel guilty for loving a parent. Give your children the gift of supporting their emotional needs at this difficult time. If you are struggling to understand or support your children’s emotional needs because of your hurt, anger or other emotions, get therapy to help you parent your children through your divorce process in a child-focused way.
What Should You Tell Your Children about the Divorce Plans?
The best advice we at Pingel Family Law can give you is to have a plan. Know what you’re going to say, share and discuss, at least generally, before initiating any conversation.
If possible, you and your spouse talking to the children and sharing the information jointly will help the conversation. Even if there has been fighting or other discord in your home leading up to this point, showing the children that you two can provide a unified front and continue to be a team for the sake of the children immediately helps calm fears and worries for your children.
It is important, if you and your spouse are going to have this discussion jointly that you agree to the information that will be stated or shared. If one of you shares information that was not expected or approved by the other spouse, you risk an angry situation between the two of you in front of your children or even, one of you losing your temper with the other. This will forever ingrain a traumatic situation in the brains of your children. I’m certain you and your spouse can agree that you do not want this for your children.
Find a quiet, safe and if need be, neutral/comfortable space to speak with your children. Make sure that you have plenty of time as sometimes these conversations can take much longer than anticipated. Do not plan to speak with your children 30 minutes before you have to be out the door for an important family event. Often, the start of a weekend or a time more towards the beginning of a weekend is best as it allows the child some peaceful, calm processing time without being upset or distracted at school. If it is during the school year, share the information with your child’s teacher a day or so in advance. Ask them to be discreet and not bring it up to the child. However, giving them this information will allow them to keep an extra close eye on your child, support them and be understanding of any emotions or out of character behavior that your child may display.
When having the conversation with your children there are a few foundational conversation points that need to be clearly and repeatedly communicated to your children. These key points include the following:
- That mom and dad have jointly decided to seek a divorce. One parent taking the blame or a parent pointing blame at the other point will only serve to hurt your children. More than ever, they need a strong and positive relationship with both parents to get through this difficult time and if one parent is undermining the relationship of the child with the other parent, this will hurt your child the most.
- The decision to divorce is an adult decision and has nothing to do with anything your child did or said. Also help the child understand that he or she cannot fix or change the decision by behaving or being extra nice.
- Give your children the gift of knowing that nobody is blaming anyone else. You may have complete blame for your spouse over the conclusion of your marriage, but this behavior or misconduct can be discussed in court. Advocating your legal position with your children is misguided is misplaced. Tell your children you want them to continue to love each parent fully. This is not going to betray either of you. Your children are part you and your spouse and rejecting the other parent sends your child a message that you are rejecting a part of him or her.
- Reassure your children that many different emotions and feelings are normal. Help them understand and process their feelings through family books, discussions and if needed, get some professional help or therapy in place. Your children are likely to feel sad, angry, worried and even curious about their future. Reassure your child that you will always be available to listen and process his or her feelings.
- Tell all of your children together in a joint meeting (or separate them and tell them one right after the other without the children seeing one another in between). The worst thing for your children would be for one of your children to break this news to another child before the adults get to share the information.
- Reassure your child that they still have a family. Even though the living arrangements are changing, the child will still have both parents as their family.
- It will decrease your child’s stress to help him or her understand any plans that you can share. You don’t need to give every detail, but if you can share some of the larger things such as telling them that they will remain living in the family home for now, for example, that will help reassure your child that their life will remain stable and consistent. If a parent is looking for new houses or apartments, your child may feel reassured by attending with the parent and looking at possible homes. Other children may not be ready to participate in this step. Allow your child to dictate their emotional capacity to deal with the issues.
Often, after having an initial conversation, it is helpful to children to reconvene a couple of days later. This allows children to process and develop any questions. The second conversation will help to reassure the child and will help him or her understand additional details such as when the child will see each parent, how the child will get to school, where the child will go after school and any other changes the child will experience. Tell your child that you, the other parent and your child can all reevaluate what is working well for the new arrangements, what is not workings so well and talk about and decide on any changes that need to occur together.
It is important that you understand and consider the unique needs of your child. Some children need regular, maybe even almost daily conversations and questions answered. Other children will not want to bring up the issue or discuss it further. Make sure you ask your children open-ended questions that allow them to guide the conversation and talk about topics that are important to them. Asking your children to share their “highs” and “lows” from the day is often helpful, as well as asking them to say the thing they are most excited about and the thing they are most fearful about. If your children are fearful about their future, they can express that, on the other hand, they might tell you that their biggest worry is a test tomorrow or what they will eat for dinner.
Do your best to treat the other parent well and with respect over the following weeks. This will further help to reassure your children. If they can see you and the other parent being kind and respectful, it will help your children feel a sense of normalcy. If possible, if you and your spouse can do some activities together, whether it is attending extracurricular or school events, having dinner together or other similar things, it will help your children have confidence that their family unit will remain intact to support him or her when needed.
If you believe that a divorce is eminent for your family, allow our attorneys at Pingel Family Law to give you needed and valuable guidance about supporting and protecting your family during this difficult time. You will find compassionate, knowledgeable and caring attorneys to help you with your divorce in Missouri or Kansas. Call today for your consultation at (816) 208-8130.
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