Perhaps from creative laziness, many television and movie scripts these days call for bumbling, fumbling dads ill-equipped to talk to their own children. Where once dads were the stoic, well-groomed pillar of the family, a lot of media stereotypes today revolve around the dad as buffoon. These fictional fathers find themselves flummoxed by everyday events, like talking about puberty or curfews. Two topics, though, for which even real-life dads find themselves struggling to find the right words are separation and divorce. These eight tips can help get the conversation started.
1. Thou Shalt Say “I Love You”
No child can ever hear this enough, so when the topics of separation and divorce begin to take over daily conversation, make certain your children know you love them, and that love will not change as the relationships adjust. Gina Kemp, M.A., Melinda Smith, M.A., and Jeanne Segal, Ph.D—the experts at Helpguide—remind us that the care you promised while together has to extend to care when separated. Express that love and caring as often as possible.
2. Thou Shalt Be United One Last Time
Both parents must present the same information to all children at the same time. Licensed Social Worker Liana Lowenstein explains that parents married together and divorce together, so they have a responsibility to their children to talk to them as a united front:
“Mommy and Daddy have something important to talk to you all about. We both love you very much. Mommy and Daddy are not happy together and cannot live together anymore. We have decided to live in separate homes.”
3. Thou Shalt Stick to Simple Truths
You may yearn to disgorge all sorts of reasons for a separation or divorce, but your kids have short attention spans. Keep the honest truth with them brief and simple. Explain in the most direct way possible why you and your spouse have to split, picking age-appropriate phrases:
- For young kids: “Mommy will be living in another house, and you will visit her there.”
- For school-age kids: “Mom and Dad cannot get along with each other, but we both still love you.”
- For teens: “While your Mom and I are getting a divorce, we both still care about you; you do not need to test that love and caring because we will both be here for you.”
Today’s Parent suggests each parent watch for warning signs that a child is struggling to cope with the upheaval. Depending on age, some children will test their parents.
4. Thou Shalt Be Selfless
Expect to absorb a lot from your children when talking about separation and divorce. What you and your spouse have worked through and struggled over is new to them. Children will bargain, negotiate, and blame. Avoid the temptation to get into arguments with your kids; sometimes your enduring silence is just the right thing to “say.”
5. Thou Shalt Listen to Your Kids
For every minute you talk, give your children a chance to ask questions, express emotions, and absorb your news. Pause frequently, says Lowenstein, to listen and encourage questions, even if you do not have answers:
“Do you have questions? You can ask or say anything and I won’t be mad at you.”
Be prepared to get an earful, too. If you forgot to steel yourself, think back to #4, above.
6. Thou Shalt Practice and Plan
Plan what you and your spouse will say. If your spouse is cooperative (for the sake of your children), role-play possible responses and decide how to handle them. Helpguide suggests showing complete restraint, so neither parent is cast in a negative light. You may no longer love your spouse, but your children still do. Respect your spouse and your kids and plan your words carefully.
7. Thou Shalt Place No Fault
Dr. Gail Beck, Director of Youth Outpatient and Outreach Psychiatry at The Royal in Ottawa, Canada, reminds us that children will blame themselves for their parents’ separation or divorce. Remind your kids nothing they did is the reason behind the estrangement. They may confuse a momentary conflict, like an argument over the television remote, with the real reasons underlying the separation or divorce. Their misunderstanding also means nothing they can do will magically undo the separation, so constantly reassure them they are not responsible for the adults’ issues.
8. Thou Shalt Practice Kind Words
Since the process of a divorce can take months—during which both parents generally share custody under two different roofs—a temptation develops to use your own children as sounding boards, trying to justify your decision to separate or divorce by sharing harshly negative views of your spouse. Do not do it. Avoid off-the-cuff, angry remarks. Your children are not bait, they are not therapists, and they are not spies. They deserve to love both parents and be loved by both of you.
Let The Firm For Men Help You Navigate Your Divorce
Talking to your children about separation and divorce is never easy. Finding the right time and the right words can be excruciating. It takes courage and you may need support. The understanding lawyers at The Firm for Men can provide you with more guidance on talking to your children. Contact our office online today or call us at 757-383-9184 to schedule a consultation with a helpful, experienced family law attorney ready to work to protect you.