Why Did You Have to Get a Divorce? And When Can I Get a Hamster?
Breaking the News
THEIR FIRST REACTION
I used to live with my family in a house that traveled through the air. And I never was afraid, because my house was big and strong. But today I heard a big crack and suddenly the house broke in two. Looking down over the edge, there was just empty space and I was very scared.
Children's first reaction to the news of their parents' divorce will most often be simple and straightforward.
What's going to happen? Am I going to be okay? I'm scared. I don't want them to get a divorce. I hate this. Maybe if I close my eyes this will all turn out to be a dream and go away.
The bottom has dropped out of their world. What they have always known and what they have always taken for grantedthe basic structure of their liveswhat they have always felt would magically make everything okay and protect them from all the terrors of the worldsuddenly, all this is no more.
WHO SHOULD TELL THEM
When experiencing a major shock like this, children want to be with the person who makes them feel the safest. If one parent clearly has been in the main parenting role, that parent should break the news. Otherwise, which parent tells them might matter to the parents, but it means nothing to the children. The news itself is so huge that it bowls over everything else, including the messenger. Therefore, however you and your soon to be ex-spouse tell your kids, whatever you are both most comfortable with is fine.
WHEN TO TELL THEM
Several "whens" need to be considered in breaking the news. The first is that you should tell your children about the pending separation or divorce only after that particular decision is final. From your children's perspective, either you are splitting up or you are not. If you're unsure, do not "prepare them" for the possibility.
"Your father and I are thinking about getting a divorce."
Your advance warning only increases their worrying with no real benefit. It becomes a form of torture.
"Have you decided yet? Is it going to happen? When? Please don't. No. Please don't."
Well, yes, actually it is going to happen. Only I'm not telling you yet. Instead I'm drawing it out to make it easier for you.
No, thank you.
The second "when" is the actual time that you select to tell them. The news will be a big shock. They will need time to let it sink in. Although there never is a good time, you need at least to make sure that the moment you select is one when you will be together for a while, preferably on a nonschool day. When they are suddenly feeling very unsafe and very alone, they will need you to be there for them, so they can feel as safe as possible and not so alone. When you or they are about to go off somewhereto school, to work, to soccer practiceis not a good time to break the news. Just before bedtime is another bad choice. They probably wouldn't get to sleep for a long time after that bedtime story.
WHAT TO TELL THEM
"Your father and I have decided to get a divorce."
Use the word "divorce" if you have decided that you are getting a divorce. It's the word that the world uses, and you don't want to avoid it. If your children are very young and may not understand what divorce means, use the word, but also explain it.
"Which means that your father and I won't be married anymore. We won't be living in the same house anymore."
If you have decided to separate, but don't yet know about divorce, tell them that.
"Your father and I have decided that he is going to move out of the house for a whilehe will be staying with Grandpa and Gramma."
"Why? Why's Daddy going?"
"We've decided that for now it's better this way."
"Are you going to get divorced?"
"We don't know. But for now Dad will be staying with Grandpa and Gramma."
Speculation about what may happen down the road can only pull children into additional worrying. Stick with what you do know and admit to that which you don't.
"Are you getting a divorce? You have to tell me. I have to know."
"For now, we just don't know."
After you've broken the initial news, tell your children what is going to happen to them. Keep whatever you say short and to the point. They are totally overwhelmed by the news they've just heard, so don't provide more details than they can handle. The basics are more than enough.
"You and Tricia will still live here with me. Your dad is moving out. He's going to live with Uncle Phil for a while. You will still get to spend time with him. We're not exactly sure yet how that will work out, but whatever happens, you will always have a home and you will always get to see both of us."
TELLING THEM WHY
I don't care why they're getting a divorce. I hate all of this. This is a nightmare. I just want it to go away. I don't want them to get a divorce. I want it to go back to like it was before. I want to hide under a blanket and maybe when I come out they'll tell me it was all just a joke.
Initially, the news of the split-up floods out everything else. Children aren't interested in the reasons. Parents are mainly the ones who care about "why."
The kids need to know it wasn't my fault. I don't want them to blame me. I don't want them to be mad at me when it wasn't my choice at all. I wasn't the one who started having the affair and then decided to end the marriage. It's not fair to have them be mad at me for something that wasn't my fault at all. They need to know that.
No, they don't, not when they're first getting the news. They just want it all to go away. They may ask "Why?" but this "Why?" is not actually looking for reasons for the divorce.
"Why? Why are you getting a divorce? I don't want you to get a divorce. Why do you have to?"
This "Why?" really means "Why is this happening to me? I don't want it to happen. Tell me it's not going to happen." This "Why?" is asking if there is some way the situation can be undone. It is a plea for something that will instantly make the news of the divorcesomehow more understandable and manageable. But at this moment nothing canexcept time.
Unfortunately, at this time, explanations don't really help.
"I know this is hard for you to understand, but sometimes adults who were once in love find they don't love each other anymore. You know how your dad and I fought and argued a lot. Well, we just didn't love each other anymore. All the good feelings we had for each other were gone. We both felt that it would be best if we got a divorce."
Actually, this speech is not a bad one; at least it doesn't blame anybody. The problem is that when children first hear the news of the divorce, they simply aren't interested. However, if you feel you need to provide a reason, make it simple and not too informative, even if the actual reasons are complex or one-sidedas they often are.
"Your father and I were not getting along, so we have decided it would be best to get a divorce."
This tells them very little, but at this point that's all they need to know about the reasons. If you provide a simple statement, also make clear that there is nothing that they can do to change the situation. For example, note the "we have decided." It's very important to present a united stand. Mentioning that only one parent wants the divorce while the other doesn't opens up a huge can of worms. Since your kids don't want the divorce, they will latch on to this division immediately and see great hope in trying to convince the initiator of the action to change his or her mind.
"Please, Mommy, please. Give Daddy another chance. Daddy says he and you can work things out. You'll see. You have to give him at least one more chancefor us."
Don't give them this opportunity. They need to know the bottom line: it's happening and nothing is going to change this fact.
AFTER YOU TELL THEM
"No, please, I don't want you to get a divorce. No, please. No."
They sob. Or perhaps they just sit there and say nothing. Whatever their reaction, once you tell them, be there. Be there to answer questionsif they have them. Be there to comfort them. Just be there. At this point, simply being with them is more important than anything else.
You may have some answers for their questions. You might want to offer some words of reassurance:
"You'll see. It won't be so bad. You'll get to see both of us. Lots of kids' parents get divorced. You know Jamie and Trish. Their parents are divorced and they're doing fine."
Such reassurances are nice if you want to give them, but in reality they're not going to make your kids feel much better. They're not ready to look on the bright side of anything yet. They're in shock. What they need most is your presence. And time.
For those children who react with stunned silence, you don't want to try too hard to draw out their feelings.
"You're not saying anything, William. You can tell me. How do you feel about it?"
How does he feel about it? He's very upset. That's how he feels about it. He probably doesn't feel like talking about it because he would burst into tears, which he apparently doesn't want to do, and his parents must respect this. Parents should let their kids react however they want and need to react.
WHAT ELSE TO TELL THEM
As the news starts to sink in, even the quietest children probably will have questions. But they still can't take in a lot of informationat one time, so your answers should always be short, honest, and as specific as possible.
"How much will I get to see Daddy?"
"We're not sure. But for now, we think it will be a couple of times a week."
"Will me and Tricia still live together?"
"I think so. For now you definitely will."
"Mommy, are you sad about the divorce?"
"Yes, the divorce makes me sad."
If you really don't know the answer to a question, it's always best to say that. Don't try to come up with an answer that in the end might be inaccurate.
"How much will I get to see Daddy?"
"I don't know. You will get to see him. But how much right now I don't know."
"But will it be enough?"
"I hope so."
"It will be a lot. Won't it?"
"I don't know."
Don't make promises that might not be kept. "I don't know" is almost always the right answer if you truly don't know. Kids may not like it, but answers for the sake of answers or just to put an end to the conversation always end up backfiring anyway.
"But you said ..."
Well, actually I did. But I didn't mean it. I only said that so you would quit asking me.
Copyright © 1998 by Anthony E. Wolf, Ph.D.