How can I ease the pain for my kids?
April 2, 2009 6:29 AM   Subscribe

So, I'm getting divorced. I have 2 daughters, who I'm kinda terrified to tell. I'm hoping Ask.Me might be able to provide some tips.

My wife and I are splitting up. It's not what I wanted, but it's what I've got. For various reasons, I'm actually coming to terms with the grown-up part of this quite nicely. The thing is, we've got two great kids, and I am really dreading telling them. They've not been privy to months of yelling, or really anything. They *may* have some small idea that something isn't quite "good". Oh, also, I am a child of divorce myself and sort of...well I am still wrestling with the feeling that I've *failed* case that adds anything to the story.

More details...the girls are 5, and almost 8 years old. They are happy, smart, well-adjusted, polite, just great kids. I feel that telling them this news is akin to telling a kid that Santa doesn't exist (assuming you've always told them he DOES) and all I really can come up with is this: it is up to their mom and I to convey the message that while things will be changing detail-wise, that OUR relationship to THEM won't be changing. That we will still, and always be THEIR mom and dad.

Also, we've been holding off on telling them anything as we have just begun a mediation process, and details like custody are still being worked out. My wife has said that she'd like to keep the house, and so far, I've not argued with that. It's been civil and continues to be so.

I guess what I'm looking for advice. Not on how to navigate the waters of a divorce, but advice on what to tell the kids. What messages should I make sure I impart? I'm concerned that I may not be able to get through the conversation without seeming emotional myself, and I think that I have to. I'd be interested to know if you agree with that belief as well.

I'd had intended to ask this anonymously, however, as I type this up...I'm concerned that I've left out pertinent details. So...I'll ask it as me.
posted by Richat to Human Relations (27 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I agree you should avoid being emotional (I know, really hard in this situation). But your children need to see both parents as confident and in control of the situation. Enough children of divorced/ing parents get thrown into the role of parenting their parents and you don't want to head down that way. They need to feel secure in expressing how they feel without visibly upsetting you. Can you work with a therapist and the mother of your children in role-playing the conversation repeatedly? I wouldn't say anything until living arrangement and custody have been agreed to so there is as little uncertainly for the children as possible. I'm sorry, this is a hard situation to be in, and I hope it turns out positive for everyone.
posted by saucysault at 6:44 AM on April 2, 2009

I was older when my parents got divorced (16), but the most important thing for me to hear was that my dad wasn't going to disappear from my life. Not just that he'd always be my dad, but that he was still going to be active in my day to day goings on.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 6:46 AM on April 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: We are in the process of going through mediation, and just today I've pitched a different custody suggestion...I'm was leaning toward NOT saying anything until we had more nailed down, but my (soon-to-be-ex) wife is sort of feeling like we should tell them sooner rather than later. I don't know if I'm going to be in agreement on that. I do think we should have concrete stuff, not vague ideas.

roleplaying it...that's an interesting idea.
posted by Richat at 6:52 AM on April 2, 2009

I was 12 and my sister was 9 when my parents got divorce and my parents did not have a very civil relationship at the end, though they were VERY civil when it came to dealing with us.

One thing I really appreciated was that they kept us in the loop as how things would pan out and asked my opinion (who we wanted to live with, etc.). With younger kids it may not be as critical to ask their opinions on custody, but I agree with saucysault about the security issue. They need to know that you guys are still in control of the situation and are confident in going forward.

Stability, consistency in my parents' actions and knowing what was coming was most important to me at the time.
posted by chiefthe at 6:56 AM on April 2, 2009

My parents were divorced. I actually had a discussion about this exact topic last night with my friend (whose parents are also divorced).

Make sure that your children know it is NOT THEIR FAULT, and that the divorce has absolutely nothing to do with anything that your two daughters did. I think younger children have a tendency to attempt to shoulder the blame for this type of situation, to think that perhaps it was they who did something wrong.

You need to make clear to them that they are in no way responsible for the divorce, and that you still love them just as much as before. I think its important not only to tell them this during "the talk", but to also reguarly re-iterate this idea throughout the ensuing years.

posted by HabeasCorpus at 6:57 AM on April 2, 2009

You and your wife need to tell the girls together. You've presented a united front so far and need to do so when you tell them this news. Waiting until the majority of the decisions are made is a good thing in this case because when they begin to ask questions, you and your wife will have answers. The more "I don't knows" you give them, the more anxious they will feel over the pending changes.

When you tell them that you're divorcing, explain to them where Mom will live, where daughters will live and where Dad will live. Tell them how frequently they'll see Mom and Dad. Tell them they can call every day if they want. Show them that they are still the most important people in your life.

I'm also the child of divorced parents. I was 5 and the youngest when they divorced. Like your daughters, we were unaware of the conflict which led to the divorce. To this day, I remember them telling us and the emotions that caused. My father moved out the next day while we were away from the house. Ultimately, I remember being OK with the divorce itself. What had MUCH bigger impact and left DEEP scars is that my father didn't honor his side of the equation. We saw him twice after the divorce and then he disappeared. It was 17 years before I tracked him down. I, as a child, had truly believed he loved us kids and couldn't understand why he didn't call or visit for any reason. As an adult, I see things differently.

So, you will need
1. a united front
2. a decided upon plan so you can answer their questions
3. gentle honesty when saying "Mom and Dad have decided to not live together anymore but we are still a family"
4. follow through to prove it out to the girls. This will ease their fears over time.

Good luck!
posted by onhazier at 6:59 AM on April 2, 2009 [9 favorites]

Oh Richat, I'm so sorry to hear this. However, as the parent of two kids from two divorces who have turned out just fine, I'm here to tell you that it can be done with grace and dignity and the kids will be okay. It sounds like you're already making a great start. Your third paragraph says pretty much what you need to say to your children: that you love them, will always love them, will never stop loving them and that you will still always both be there for them.

Logistically, the main thing you can do is ensure all the continuity, stability and routine that you can. To do that, have all your ducks in a row before you tell them that you're splitting up. Then you can say: I will be living at this address - pictures are good - and yes, there is a room for you and this is what it looks like. You will be staying with Mom on such and such days and with me on such and such days. Actual tangible realities are better than just talking any day. What you want is to stress the stuff that is not going to change over the great big thing that is going to change. Yes, you will have your toys there. Yes, your bear can come too. Yes, we will continue to have a pet; you will go to the same school; etc.

As far as emotionality is concerned, it's going to be rough but you need to find some middle ground between being really upset, which will upset them and being weirdly clinical, which will also upset them. Of course there's going to be some emotion involved but the main thing is to present a united front with your soon to be ex: We think that this is best; we have decided. Do not (I don't think you would, but just to spell it out) ever, ever get into one of those "Your mother made this decision and it's her fault." You have, now, to be as united as ever you have been on your best days of coparenting.

I think you have a close enough relationship with your girls where that won't be as difficult as you think it will. Be prepared for some weird questions out of left field, be prepared to give a lot of extra reassurance and remember that as with all things, time passes and kids grow and y'all will all come through this.
posted by mygothlaundry at 7:06 AM on April 2, 2009 [4 favorites]

I too am a child of divorce, and honestly, due to your childrens' ages, you are at something of an advantage. They're both very young, and with youth comes emotional resiliency. They'll be sad about it, sure, but they'll bounce back. And since I'm sure a large numer of their school chums are the product of divorced families, they'll find support in their peer group as well.

I was 9 when my parents got divorced. I cried and barricaded myself in my room when they told me, but now I can't imagine life any other way. I barely remember them when they were married. Your children love you enough that, likely when they get older, they'll recognize that this was the only decision that you and their mother could have made at the time.

The most important thing in my opinion is to remain civil with your soon-to-be-ex-wife, both in front of and behind the scenes, and avoid slagging their mother in direct or roundabout ways in front of the kids. Like it or not, when parents fight, especially divorced parents, it bleeds into your relationships with your kids. By my recollection, the most scarring part of my parents' divorce was not the divorce itself, my mom moving out, going to different houses for days or weekends, even attending a different school. The worst part was a vitriolic answering machine message my mom left my dad that I had the misfortune of stumbling upon before anyone else.

As far as what messages you should make sure you impart, you can go with the standards; this has nothing to do with either of you, it doesn't mean that we love either of you any less, you don't have to worry about losing either of us. The best thing to do, though, is to continue to treat them with the same love and support that you always have. As is the case for you, there will be a period of adjustment and sadness, and life will go on.

Good luck.

(on preview - onhazier's 4-point plan complements my thoughts nicely. Good on ya, onhazier
posted by orville sash at 7:08 AM on April 2, 2009

I think the key at this age is actually the aftermath of the "telling". They won't really understand or fully grasp just what "divorce" or even "moving out" means after one telling, so it will be the actions of you and your wife over the next few weeks that will stay with them and will really sink in. Make sure both you and your wife have some fun things planned for them (but still make sure they have to do the boring stuff that is part of life -- chores, homework, etc.), and make whatever visitation/custody schedule you have is as consistent and regular as possible for the near future.

Just as an anecdote, I was a child of an amicable (if sometimes strained) divorce, and I stil say it was one of the best things that happened in my life. Even though my parents didn't argue, I knew something was wrong, and they were both much happier apart. In time, they both found wonderful partners who I love just as much as my "birth parents".
posted by Rock Steady at 7:10 AM on April 2, 2009

As with most things in life, Mr. Rogers has good advice.
posted by MrMoonPie at 7:22 AM on April 2, 2009

I was 10 and my sisters 8 and 2 when our parents broke the news to us.

They did it together, a consistent message of 'while we don't love each other any more; we will always love you'.

Their actions over the following months proved they meant it and I was always glad they'd told us sooner rather than later (I was old enough to be aware that something wasn't quite right).

Always be honest and don't ever get into petty behaviours with your ex-wife. I'm sure you want things between the two of you to remain civil but if it doesn't - leave the kids out of it.

As others have mentioned kids are resiliant (or may not fully understand) so show them the respect I'm sure you feel for them by having the conversation now and supporting them through the comprehension/acceptance later.
posted by She Kisses Wyverns at 7:52 AM on April 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

I was five when my parents divorced. I actually only have about two really vague memories of them ever being married. (I am 36 now.) My brother was nine at the time and has more memories of them being married and of the separation/divorce period.

We (my brother and myself) didn't witness any fighting or anything nasty. My mom and dad handled it much like you want to handle it - that they were still our parents and that the living arrangement was changing.

The arrangement we ended up with was that we got to go out with Dad one evening a week for dinner and we spent every other weekend with him. When I was about nine we moved in with my dad for a few years until my brother went to that point I moved back in with my mom because my dad just had no idea what to do a teenage girl and both parents felt like I would be better off with mom not realizing that I was just going to be a pain in the ass regardless of who I was living with at that time.

The best thing my parents did was that they made sure they were always available to us and they didn't play mind games. We could always talk to the other parent and it was never an issue.
posted by fluffy battle kitten at 7:58 AM on April 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

I have no expertise, so this is just speculation, but . . .

In addition to explaining to the kids that it isn't their fault, might it also be important to stress that this result is also totally out of their control, and a done deal? I am imagining, probably based on the Parent Trap, that kids might suppose that they can bring the parents back together -- regardless of whether they were the cause in the first place.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 8:04 AM on April 2, 2009

My parents went through a horrible divorce when I was 5. The one thing they did right is that I never doubted for a minute that both of them loved me and my sister. They did just about everything else wrong.

- Any fights between parents need to remain out of sight of the kids, even if they're about the kids. Be civil.

- Don't ask anything of the kids that you don't want Mom to know. Keeping secrets is stressful for kids, supremely unfair, and it teaches them that lying is OK.

- Schedule time during the week (evenings) to spend with the kids. Especially as they get older, their weekends fill up with social stuff. Understand that "a weekend at Dad's" will eventually drop on the list of priorities below "going to the mall with friends," and don't blame Mom for teen-aged flakiness.

- No matter what she does (to you, or otherwise), she is still their mother. You don't talk badly about someone's mother, and especially not about your children's mother. This is one that (22 years later) my parents (mostly my mom, really) still don't fully grasp. It doesn't matter if she sacrifices a goat at every New Moon, and kills puppies to relieve stress, you'll need to keep your opinions and anecdotes to yourself around them.

Now the good things:

- There's no such thing as telling them you love them. Make sure they always know, and hear, that you love them.

- Dote on them, but do not spoil them. A mistake a lot of divorced dads do is making up for missed time with presents. A spoiled kid is bad enough, but they'll look back and realize they missed having you around. Time spent with the kids (especially one-on-one, make time for each of them as individuals!) is worth so much more than presents.

- Do your best to work with Mom to keep the discipline levels and expectations equal. Falling into a good-cop/bad-cop routine is bad, but consistency is good for kids, and they'll grow up to be better people having had rules to follow.

- Kids are smarter than we give them credit for. They know what's up, they've seen it coming. Explain to them that you and Mom simply don't work together very well, but you and she both love them, and they'll get it. Don't tell them "it's not their fault" unless they've insinuated that they worry about it. They might not have even thought of the possibility, so why mention it?

I wish you the best of luck, and I'm sorry for how this has turned out. It's really good to see though that you care a lot about your kids and want to make sure things go right. Good for you, you're a good parent.
posted by explosion at 8:28 AM on April 2, 2009 [3 favorites]

I'm concerned that I may not be able to get through the conversation without seeming emotional myself, and I think that I have to.

I think it's OK to be somewhat emotional. Kids won't crumble if they see that grown-ups get sad too. I think it's perfectly acceptable to acknowledge that everyone will be feeling a bit sad through this, and a million times reiterate that you can all keep talking about it and expressing your feelings about it. Sadness is a feeling, and the brilliant news is that feelings fade.

Also, I'm very sorry you are in this position. It's heartwrenching.
posted by agentwills at 8:37 AM on April 2, 2009 [2 favorites]

I disagree with chiefthe about asking the kids who they want to live with. My parents separated when I was 8, and I remember being torn terribly when asked who I wanted to live with. It sounded to me like, "Who do you love more?" You don't want to get into that with your kids.

I'm glad you and your wife have remained civil to each other, and I hope that can continue throughout and after the divorce process. My parents tried to be, but often I and my sister, who was 2 at the time, had to deal with one parent bad mouthing the other. Try to refrain from doing that. You sound like the well-being of your children is on the forefront of your mind, rather than who gets to "win" the divorce. Good for you.

I would agree on holding off telling the kids until you know more. You should definitely be together when you tell them, and do it as gently as possible, and answer their questions as fully as possible. I think the two are close enough in age that there shouldn't be many problems with regard to understanding what you're trying to say.

It's important for you to be involved in their life, as I'm sure you understand. You sound like you're doing well here.
posted by Night_owl at 8:39 AM on April 2, 2009

On review:
- Any fights between parents need to remain out of sight of the kids, even especially if they're about the kids. Be civil.
posted by Night_owl at 8:43 AM on April 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

Do your best never to complain about or deride your ex in front of your daughters, and don't let them overhear you doing it on the phone to anyone else, either. I know you won't -- just be true to that. It's easy to say that now; when she has a new guy in the picture that you think is a jerk, that vow gets a lot harder to keep.

Stop others from doing it either; other family members may feel like venting and your daughters cannot be exposed to "mommy/daddy is bad" type feelings without being emotionally affected by it. I certainly was.

Other than that, just be willing to discuss things with them every step of the way if they have questions and don't be afraid to communicate with your ex about parenting issues, especially ones you feel strongly about. It might help to have some family counseling, as a group or at least with your daughters. I had therapy during my parents' divorce and it did help me because I felt very much like I had to take over responsibilities for the household once it was a single-parent situation and I think I had to grow up terribly fast (processing feelings of abandonment at 12 -- during Christmas -- was hard).

My little sisters lost their dad to divorce when they were the exact same age your daughters are now, and they seemed less affected by it than I was when I was older. When they came into my family/home about two years later, they had a healthy balance between my dad (stepdad) and their bio-father (in another state), so take hope that you and your daughters can move on emotionally, whether it's with a new love interest for you or as a single dad who knows he's made the right decision by not prolonging a failed relationship out of some societal sense of duty.

Don't get so caught up in this that you don't let yourself grieve; if you need to cry, scream, break down -- do it. Divorce is cataclysmically stressful, as I well know. Take time for yourself and don't focus EVERYTHING on your daughters; you need to process this as much as they do. I'm very sorry for your situation and hope that you get through this okay. Hugs to you and your daughters.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 8:44 AM on April 2, 2009

I think you need to let them know that it's okay to grieve if they need to. It may feel as if something is being removed for them that is a fundamental aspect of their security that isn't related to the scheduling of it all after the fact, or the integrity of both parties. A game plan for how it's all going to work doesn't necessarily make the pain go away, because where it hurts isn't about pragmatics. What is hard for kids isn't simply wondering if mom and dad still love them and when they'll see them, but that the parents being together provided an aspect of security for them that is probably more than the sum of the parts. If they need to get angry or upset, let them know that it's okay, because it might just hurt like hell regardless of the game plan, and it's not healthy to bottle the feelings up without a venue for discussing them.
posted by SpacemanStix at 8:48 AM on April 2, 2009 [2 favorites]

I was 11 when my parents separated and more like 26 when they finally divorced. My Dad told us on Thanksgiving morning and moved out on New Years Day. Don't do that. For me, him moving out was great because my parents had been yelling at each other as long as I could remember so it was an opportunity for some peace. On the other hand, I reminded my Mom of my Dad and so she was not only mad about the divorce but also mad at me for being "just like your father" I lived with her until I was old enough to drive and then moved in with my Dad. My sister who was eight has a much different relationship with my Dad than I do and I think this is because he was not a great divorced-dad sort of guy and so we maintained the relationships we had with him before he left. He moved to the next town over so we could see him fairly often. My advice

- agreed that you should both tell them, have some time to answer questions and then GO DO SOMETHING ELSE. Once you tell them, don't do fakey "we're all a family" stuff together. That last family Xmas we had goes down in my memory as one of the worst days of my entire life.
- make sure they know they will have a real room in both of your houses and make that a priority when you find a new place if that's how things are going to happen
- good messages include: you can always call me, I will still go to your school/sports/whatever events even if I don't live in your house, your mother and I can't be together but we both love you very much, we will try to make this go as smoothly as we can but it may be bumpy, tell us if you're feeling scared/confused/whatever
- you and your wife still need to be on message about parenting issues, so figure out a way to have those conversations
- if either of you are seeing someone else, or start to, try to be as decent about this as possible with your kids. My Dad had a girlfriend who I liked but was completely non-optional every time I saw him so I got no private time with him, that sucked
- money issues should be between you and your wife, period. Do not talk to your girls about the custody arrangement or the financial arrangement except that they will be okay. My Mom became a very TMI person because she was mad at my Dad and it was an unpleasant place to be in as an 11 year old.
- if there is another family friend or relative that they both trust you may want to have someone else in the family be available to your girls to answer questions or just be a special friend. There will be times that you guys are not at your best and having them have someone looking after them who is NOT involved in the whole divorce would be good.

Otherwise I'm of the "show don't tell" philosophy with the love stuff. Saying "I love you" is important, but even more important is showing that you love and care about them in every action that you do. I hope that you and your wife can keep this amicable, but if for some reason things get prickly, try to radiate love to your girls even more than you think possible because they're sort of leaves in the river of all of this and you want them to not be frightened or feel alone.
posted by jessamyn at 10:18 AM on April 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

N'thing the need to show a united front and triple reinforce the message that it's not their fault and that they are currently and always will be loved by both parents equally.

I was 7 and my sister was 6 when my mom sat us down and told us that she and our father were getting a divorce. I remember understanding the logic of her words, but not having any emotional frame of reference for what it meant though. I do have a crystal clear picture of the book cover I fixed my eyes on during the whole talk and now I realize that the memory of that image is surrounded with all the emotions I didn't have the ability to process at the time. My point here is that yes, kids are resilient (sometimes beyond all expectations), but I think it bears repeating what you seem to already know - that this very well could be the most emotionally intense experience of their lives up to this point.

The best news is that it sounds like you and your wife's number one priority is the welfare of your girls. As long as this remains your combined goal then I think things bode well for this transition. I think working with a counselor is a great idea as well as being especially plugged into with your children's teachers/day-time care providers since sometimes things can manifest away from the home that can be hard to spot otherwise.

Best of luck.
posted by Smarson at 10:45 AM on April 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Again, thanks everyone. There is tons of great advice up there. I'm processing it all, and reading. I'll be coming back to this thread a lot in the next little while I think. Please continue to add thoughts if you have them.

I had to look up FTFY so, I've also learned something new today that is UNRELATED to my current crisis. So, I've got that going for me. Which is nice.
posted by Richat at 11:02 AM on April 2, 2009

I've witnessed the results of a very amicable divorce (2 kids, now 6 and 8 -- a few years younger when the divorce happened).

I would echo how important it is, if at all possible, for you and your (ex)wife to present a united front when dealing with issues concerning the kids. Do your very best to do this -- I won't go into details, but I think it creates a great deal of stability. it requires a lot of communication, but it seems key, from what I've witnessed.

This couple of course made sure that the kids knew/know how much they are loved by both parents and that the divorce was not the kids' fault, but they kept explanations about why they were divorcing to a minimum. They let the kids drive the process -- when the kids (or one of the kids) want to know and are/is ready to know something, they'll ask or bring it up. It seems to work well.
posted by nnk at 12:44 PM on April 2, 2009

I was around the same age as your oldest daughter when my parents got divorced. One of the things that upset me most during that time was seeing how miserable they were, especially my mother. If you can, do your best to show your girls that this is a positive change for you and your soon to be ex-wife and that you are both happy. Even if that is not the case immediately, it is important to make it seem that way so your kids don't feel like they have to worry about you on top of worrying about their family breaking up and their lives changing suddenly.
posted by GComes at 1:18 PM on April 2, 2009

This may also be something you don't need to hear, but being the parent who takes the high road is generally a good position to be in. I'm sure there are differences of opinion, I'm sure your feelings are hurt and you have probably hurt some feelings. However, when you're talking to your daughters, remain at least somewhat objective and, most of all, refrain from getting into details about your relationship and.or your soon-to-be-ex wife with your kids.

After my parents separation, one parent played the "oh my god (other parent) treated me so badly! I don't know how you can get along with them!" while the other parent mostly said "hey, (other parent) is having a hard time, I know you're having a hard time getting along with them, but you should try." and refrained from any negative talk and/or digs at the other parent's expense. Your children should NOT be your confidantes about your relationship with your wife and if they are anything like me, they will appreciate your not slagging on your ex. It's good practice for being divorced parents in the long run to really try to keep it clean and simple and respectful in the most-difficult short run while you sort these things out.
posted by jessamyn at 2:52 PM on April 2, 2009

I can't give you advice about your current situation, as I was 3 years old when my parents divorced, but as for what to do after the split:

DO NOT, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES, USE YOUR CHILDREN AS GO-BETWEENS. This is so so important. If your wife does it, do your absolute best to convince her to tell you things directly.

Trust me on this one; involving the kids in this way is the surest way to make them resent and distrust you both.
posted by lolichka at 4:45 PM on April 2, 2009

Another child of divorce with one sib, ages close to your kids but younger. Now 40s. Didn't really get it at the time.

No matter what, don't put them in a position of having to choose anything. If what you agree to isn't working out, you'll find out about it.

Don't try to not be emotional. You should be emotional, we are emotional creatures and this is a shitty situation, even if it works out best for all. Being honest and real trumps being bulletproof.

100% agree that you can't tell them you love them too much. Also that you should never speak evil of her...though you should expect to be spoken evil of, often. That is the way it goes, in my observation. Kids aren't dumb however and they will eventually recognize this and respect you as a man of character if you don't badmouth their Mom.

When stepfathers come, and they will, do not allow the assholes to be called Daddy or anything resembling Daddy. A child feels wanted when you stake your claim, and if anyone tries to change their name, raise holy hell about it. Maintain communication with the kids and see them as often as you can. Love them to smithereens. They will not confuse another person for Daddy -- even if he is a truly good guy and you are broke or drunk or not on your best behavior.

I'm very very sorry. I hope I don't wind up in the same situation some day.
posted by rahnefan at 10:38 AM on July 17, 2009

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