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The Dreaded "D" Word: A Therapist's Thoughts on Talking to Your Children About Divorce
Miriam and Bob were a couple that had come to me from Robert, a Family Law attorney colleague of mine that I had worked with for some time.
I called him up to get some details on the referral. Robert told me he was having some trouble keeping the couple on track. They had hired him to help them with their divorce. “But whenever we meet to discuss settlement issues”, he said, “they get off track and want to talk about issues regarding the divorce and their children.” In working with his clients, Robert found it more preferable to handle the “business” aspect of the divorce and call me in to handle the “emotional” piece of it. He found that keeping the 2 separate made the process much better for all involved.
This is not an uncommon scenario. Couples also often seek me out on their own when going through a divorce because they want to learn more about the emotional impact of these family changes on the kids. They prefer to seek out the help of a therapist specializing in these issues.
When Miriam and Bob walked into my office, I could tell they were both anxious about the conversation and eager to figure out the best way to tell their 2 children, ages 6 and 11, about the divorce. Miriam also admitted they were struggling to find age appropriate answers to the questions that the kids might ask.
Here’s how it went:
Bob: I can’t begin to imagine how in the world we even START the conversation with the kids?? Maybe the best way is just to tell them “Your mom and I are getting divorced”, and wait for the questions to come?
Me: I never encourage using the word “divorce” in this type of conversation, until the kids actually bring up the word. They don’t know what it means. And chances are if they have heard it before from friends or at school (because as we know, not all divorces are amicable), it may have not been in a very positive light.
Mariam: Well then what do we open with?
Me: You tell them that the family is getting a 2nd home. Mom will live in one, Dad will live in another, and you will live in both. I discourage the use of the terms “Dad’s house” and “Mom’s house.” That implies neither are both the kids’ homes. It is better to refer to them as “Lake Street” and Warwick Avenue“for example. Again, emphasizing that you are still a family, but now have 2 homes. This prevents the children from feeling “divided” between Mom and Dad’s house and creates a more cohesive feeling. It is important to emphasize that your family is still a family. It’s just going to look different.
Bob: But we want to tell them soon. Mariam is staying in the house but I may not know where I’m going to be living by the time we have the conversation.
Me: That’s ok, that’s the situation for most couples. They don’t have all the details worked out before they tell the kids. You just tell them that you don’t know where the other house is going to be yet, but as soon as you do you will tell them and they can go see it. It’s hard for adults to understand how kids process information, but the most predominant thought in their head is “What’s going to happen to me?” Even if you don’t have all of the details to present to them, you can tell them things that you DO know will stay the same: like that they will still be attending the same school if that is the case. Questions going through their mind may be “Will I still play on my soccer team? Will I be able to keep my same friends? Will we still go on vacations?” Again, all centered around the thought of “What’s going to happen to me?”
Bob: But that doesn’t make any sense? The whole point of the conversation is to let them know that we are getting divorced.
Me: The point of the conversation is to let them know there’s going to be a change in the family. If you were explaining what was happening to an adult-yes, you would use the word divorce. An adult understands all the changes the word entails. But we are talking about kids here, who don’t have all the world experiences that we do.
Miriam: Oh, I guess that makes sense.
Bob: Well at some point, they are going to associate the changes in our family with the word “divorce.” Then what do we say once they say the word?
Me: You ask them what they think the word “divorce” means. You let them describe it. Chances are, it’s either not how it’s going to work in your family or they only have a partial definition of the word. You tell them “Yes, that is what is happening to our family, your mom and I are getting divorced and here’s what that means to us: “Family is getting a second home, Mom will live in one, Dad will live in the other, you will live in both, etc.”
Miriam: Shouldn’t we tell them it isn’t their fault and that no matter what, we will always love them?
Me: Only if they bring it up. Those thoughts might not have been in their heads to begin with. You don’t want to put them in there if they’re not thinking it already.
As I near the end of my work with a family in transition, the question that inevitably comes up is “Will the kids be OK?” My answer is this: If you can have the type of conversations that we’ve worked through in our sessions, they will be OK. Things will be different, but they will be OK. It’s a change they didn’t anticipate but it’s one that if handled well, will help prepare them for all the other changes in life that will come their way.
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I'm busy working on my blog posts. Watch this space!