As part of our campaign “Helping Kids Cope with Divorce”, Cordell & Cordell interviewed three prominent parenting experts about their advice for divorcing parents. We asked:
- What is the best way to break the news to your children?
- What can you do to proactively reduce your kids’ worries about your separation
- How can you protect them from suffering lasting psychological damage?
How to Tell the Kids About Your Divorce
Talking to kids about divorce is always a challenge, so how do you deliver the news in a way that doesn’t make them think their world is about to collapse?
Noël Janis-Norton, from Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting, sometimes gets asked to be present when parents tell their kids that they are separating. She recommends that parents sit together when it happens. It’s worth telling each child separately to adapt the message to their levels of understanding.
“Tell them: ‘We’ve got some sad news for you. We’ve been arguing a lot, and our home has not been a happy place – there are too many differences between Mummy and Daddy. We have decided to live in different homes to see if then we can be happier. You can still live with both of us.’ Keep reminding them that it is not their fault.”.
“You can expect children to be upset, even if they do not show upset in the first place. Just acknowledge how scared or anxious they might be.” Noël recommends that parents stay very polite and friendly with each other, even if there is underlying conflict. This will help the child feel more comfortable in these times of uncertainty and change.
How to Help Children with Your Divorce
Parenting journalist and author, Liat Hughes Joshi, points out that parents can be surprised by the concerns that their children might have about their divorce. Young children might worry about seemingly small things, such as whether they will have toys at both parents’ houses, as well as larger things, including how much they’ll see both parents and other family members. Teens might be wondering whether they’ll still be able to stay at the same school, whether they need to move house and whether there will be financial problems.
“Fundamentally, children don’t like uncertainty, and particularly at the beginning of the separation process there can be a lot of that. You might not know the answers to some of their concerns, such as whether you’ll need to move house, because you don’t know how the financial settlement is going to work out yet.”
Her advice? “Provide reassurance where you can but avoid false promises, as these could undermine their trust in you later on. Let them know you will do all you can to provide stability and contact with both parents. For the immediate, focus on the things that won’t change – particularly that both you and your ex love them.”
Constructive and Destructive Behaviours
According to Noël Janis-Norton, adverse outcomes of divorce come from high-conflict divorces, not from divorce in general. “As long as both parents and children learn how to resolve disagreement without conflict, children can come out of your divorce unscathed.”
It is very important for parents to realise which practices are constructive, and which are destructive to the child’s wellbeing. For example, saying negative things about your soon-to-be ex-spouse in front of the children is likely to make them feel bad about both of you in the long term, as well as about themselves. “Think of yourselves as a team in front of the children”, advises Noël. “Be positive about the other person. Praise the other person. Children must feel like they can love both parents – if not, they are likely to become depressed and distressed.”
Both parenting authors agree that parents need to mind their language – and body language – in front of the children. “Try whenever possible to have difficult discussions and arguments with your ex out of earshot. Stick with communicating by email if you really have no other way of avoiding things turning into a slanging match”, recommends Hughes Joshi. Janis-Norton adds: “Another important thing is to not let your children overhear you while you’re talking to another adult – such as a friend or family member – about anything that implies conflict, like child support payments for example. Children are very sensitive to those things, but they don’t necessarily understand them yet, so they often jump to the wrong conclusions.”
Managing Life After Divorce
Once parents have physically separated, a child’s life can start to feel quite disrupted. It is important to recreate a sense of familiarity. “New traditions and routines can build a comfortable framework during this transition period, and spending quality time with the children is essential,” says Christine Lewandowski from Single with Kids.
“If you have decided on dual custody, children need to feel like both their parents’ places are their homes. Avoid language like ‘when you visit or see daddy’, as this implies that one home is more important than the other”, says Noël Janis-Norton.
Janis-Norton remarks that parents often want to be the favourite parent, and find it hard when their kids are having a good time at their ex’s house. “It’s tempting to roll your eyes when your child tells you that Mummy let them stay up until 10pm to watch TV. Instead of showing disapproval of the other parent, acknowledge that Mummy and Daddy disagree on that.” When children are complaining, Janis-Norton recommends acknowledging their feelings, rather than trying to fix them. “Reflect back to them: ‘It sounds like that makes you angry, or worried.’ Stay with the conclusion that Mummy and Daddy prefer to do some things differently.”
Dealing with Being ‘Different’
As children of divorced parents are often an exception at school, it can really hurt when all of their friends and classmates have a mummy and daddy at home. Society tells us that the nuclear family is the ‘right way to live’, which can make kids of divorced parents wish that their parents would live in the same house again.
“Meeting up with families who are in a similar situation, however, suddenly makes it all seem more normal. It helps the kids accept that they’re still a family, just a different shaped one”, says Lewandowski. “We actually found that the kids formed their own ‘exclusive’ groups and came to see the meet-ups as something special that their ‘normal-familied’ friends couldn’t enjoy.” Meeting up with other children of divorced parents can cater to a need for community belonging.
Moving On After Divorce
Getting a divorce with kids can take a lot out of you as a person, even without kids it can cause a huge amount of stress. For a period of time, it will take over your life completely. All the while, you have to stay strong for the kids, and day-to-day responsibilities cannot be put on hold either. But once the transition process is coming to a close and you and the kids can start to settle into a normal routine again, it’s very important to invest in yourself and to find your happiness again as a single parent. “Kids are like emotional sponges; they soak up the emotions of the parent. If one parent is desperately unhappy, the child is hurt”, says Christine Lewandowski. As a parent, remember that your wellbeing is important too, and directly impacts the wellbeing of your child.
Noël Janis-Norton is a learning and behaviour specialist, parenting author, speaker, coach, and the Director of Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting, working with families and schools. She’s currently working on two new books about divorce and blended family structures: Calmer, Easier, Happier Separation and Divorce and Calmer, Easier, Happier Blended Families.
Liat Hughes Joshi is a parenting journalist and author of five books, including 5-Minute Parenting Fixes and Raising Children: The Primary Years.
Christine (Chrissie) Lewandowski is the Director of Single with Kids, an organisation that offers holidays for single parents, abroad and in the UK.