I love watching a good game of “tug of war”. There is a hilarity that ensues when you consider what it means to win and lose, and how the winners and losers are acknowledged. Competitors pull, thrust, dig into the sand or dirt with their feet, flex their muscles, and boisterously yell at one another for the ultimate reward of pulling the other team across the dividing line – which may or may not lie over a large mud puddle or small pond. We fight for ownership of that flag that hangs in the middle of the rope that connects us. We win once that flag has been forced over to “our side” and the other team loses when that flag has been snatched away from “their side”. The losers have lost the prize and are standing in mud, with some most certainly laying face first in it. On the other hand, hooray to the winning team! As “the winners” you just succeeded in pulling and thrusting so vehemently on that rope that all have likely fallen backwards landing straight on your backsides in the most awkward of positions, in a manner that no one would say befits a champion. Did the winner – the victor of the battle - really come out of that exchange looking better than the opposition?
This issue hits a soft spot for me. I wish my parents could have read this newsletter before they began their own tug of war – a tug of war of words and emotions that existed before, during, and after they told their 5-year-old daughter that they were divorcing. I remember that day as if it was yesterday, and I remember the arguments that occurred before and the bad-mouthing that occurred after. I recognize, as an adult, that my parents needed to divorce because we would have been one miserable family otherwise. But as a 5-year-old child I was confused and scared. Not scared about my parents not being together anymore, but scared that they were going to be mad at me because I didn’t know how to answer the question they kept asking: “you’ve been hugging your (mom/dad) for a while now honey, do you want to come over here and hug me now?” I bear resentment about how they acted that day, for as an adult, I know that at that time, they weren’t thinking about me – they were thinking about themselves.
We cannot play tug of war with our children. It is not our children’s fault that we could not make our marriages work.
This issue opens with How to tell kids about divorce: An age-by-age guide, followed by Kids, Your Dad Wants a Divorce - Should parents present a united front when telling the kids about divorce and concludes with 10 Phrases to Use When Talking to Your Kids About Divorce.
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How to tell kids about divorce: An age-by-age guide
The news that Mom and Dad are separating hits a two-year-old and a 10-year-old differently. Here's how to help children handle it at any age.
BY JOHN HOFFMAN
UPDATED OCT 17, 2022
Two thoughtful parents once sat their preschooler down to tell him about their upcoming divorce. Carefully and gently, they told him that Mommy and Daddy were going to stop living together and would now live in different houses, but he would still see both of them regularly. They finished with the most important point of all, that Mom and Dad both still loved him, and asked if he had any questions.
The four-year-old was silent. Then he said, "Who's going to look after me?"
This little story, related by California psychologist, mediator and author Joan B. Kelly, provides a window into the differences between adult and child experiences of divorce. These parents had done all the right things. They'd sought professional advice and tried to give their son the essential information without overwhelming him. Yet they failed to get across this key point, which may have seemed obvious to them, but wasn't to him.
Adults see divorce for the complex, multi-faceted situation it is. Young children tend to view it in concrete and self-centred terms. Big-picture reassurances will mean little to a child who is wondering, "Where will the cat live?" Understanding where kids are at, developmentally, can help you help them adjust to the reality of divorce.
How to talk to 0 to 5 year old kids about divorce: Key developmental issues
Babies and toddlers • dependence on parents or caregivers
• no ability to understand complex events, anticipate future situations or understand their feelings
Preschoolers • beginning to develop independence, but still highly dependent
• limited ability to understand cause and effect; still unable to think ahead to the future
• understanding of the world revolves around themselves
• line between fantasy and reality is sometimes fuzzy
• some ability to think about feelings, but limited ability to talk about them
When Nicholas Benson* and his wife, Lisa, separated last fall, their two children, Andrew, six, and Caitlyn, four, were already accustomed to being with Dad most of the time, since Mom's job kept her out of town all but a few days a month. So when Lisa moved out of their home in Milton, Ont., it took a while for Caitlyn to understand the change. When the kids got home from their first weekend visit with their mother, Caitlyn said, "Mommy home?" even though they had just left her. It will take Caitlyn time and lots of simple explanations before she can understand.
What to watch for: Signs of distress in preschoolers include fear, anger or emotional instability, which may be expressed indirectly through clinginess, anxiety, whininess or general irritability. Preschoolers may also lose ground in their development. Tots who were sleeping through the night might start waking up more often, for example.
With their limited cognitive ability, three- and four-year-olds can develop inaccurate ideas about the causes and effect of divorce, says Rhonda Freeman, manager of Families in Transition, a program of Toronto's Family Services Association. "If Dad's the one who leaves the home, they might think, ‘Dad left me,' rather than ‘Dad left Mom,'" she says. "Children need to understand that the decision to live apart is an adult decision. It's difficult for preschoolers to understand that."
Parental priorities: Consistent care and nurturing give children a sense of stability and reassurance. So as much as possible, tots' lives need to be anchored by their normal routines (meals, play, bath, bed) in the presence of a parent who is "there for them." This, of course, is important to all children, but especially after divorce. As Joan Kelly notes, "If things aren't going well at home, preteens and teenagers can escape by going to hang out with friends. Babies, toddlers and preschoolers can't."
Preschoolers need simple, concrete explanations. Stick to the basics: which parent will be moving out, where the child will live, who will look after him and how often he'll see the other parent. Be prepared for questions; provide short answers, then wait to see if there are more. Don't expect one conversation to do the job; plan on several short talks.
How to talk to 6 to 11 year old kids about divorce: Key developmental issues
6- to 8-year-olds • a little more ability to think and talk about feelings
• broader, less egocentric view of what's going on around them, butn still limited understanding of complex circumstances such as divorce
• developing more relationships outside the home (friends and school)
9- to 11-year-olds • more developed ability to understand, think and talk about feelings and circumstances related to divorce
• relationships outside the family (friends, teachers, coaches) are more developed and become a greater factor in planning the child's time
• tend to see things in black and white; may assign blame for split
Erica Hallman* of Toronto recalls her daughter Jessica, then in kindergarten, trying to understand the conflicts behind her parents' separation. "One time she asked me, ‘Why are you fighting? Is it because he deleted something from your computer?'" This misunderstanding was easily remedied. Yes, Dad had deleted something from Mom's computer and they had angry words about it, but, of course, that did not cause the divorce. However, her daughter's question made Hallman realize Jessica's need to make sense of circumstances she couldn't fully understand.
What to watch for: School-aged children may show their distress as fear, anxiety, anger or sadness, and some display more clear-cut signs of missing their absent parent. Some may have fantasies about reconciliation and wonder what they can do to make that happen. Freeman says, "Children who think that they might be able to bring their parents back together, or that they somehow contributed to the divorce, will have trouble getting on with the healing process. So they need to understand that those are adult decisions which they didn't cause and can't influence."
Parental priorities: Stable care and routines are still important. Kids at the upper end of this age range are more able to talk about what they're feeling. However, just because they can doesn't mean they'll want to. Approaching the topic indirectly can help; saying, "Some kids feel sad, afraid or even angry when their parents divorce," is less threatening than asking directly, "Are you feeling sad?" Books about divorce can also help kids focus on their feelings.
How to talk to 12 to 14 year old kids about divorce: Key developmental issues
• greater capacity to understand issues related to divorce
• ability to take part in discussions and ask questions to increase their understanding
• beginnings of desire for more independence; questioning of parental authority
• relationships outside the family increasingly important
Eve Mirowski's* boys were 10 and 12 when she went through a messy divorce from her alcoholic husband. The situation was so bad that, at one point, both parents were ordered by the judge not to discuss the court proceedings. It's impossible to fully shield children from that type of conflict, but Mirowski did what she could. "I just tried to make our home a safe haven…regular mealtimes, regular bedtimes and my husband was never allowed in the house. When I left the boys to go out in the evening, I took my cellphone and told them to call me any time." And call they did, often. Her eldest, Joe, started getting headaches and having trouble sleeping, Mirowski recalls. "I was worried that, given my stress, I couldn't do enough on my own to give him the coping skills, so I got help." Joe started seeing a counsellor who was able to help him enormously.
What to watch for: Irritability and anger are common, at both parents or the one who moved out. It can be hard to gauge how much of a young teen's moodiness is related to the divorce. "Think about what your child was like before the separation and how their behaviour or moods have changed," Freeman says. "That gives a clue as to the cause. However, even if you conclude that the problem is not divorce related, that doesn't mean you don't address it."
Parental priorities: Keeping communication open decreases the chance that emotional problems slip under the radar. Kids in this age group can be harder to reach, and sometimes they act as if they don't want to be reached. But most teens and preteens still need and crave connection with parents. "Lots of kids have told me, over the years, that they were testing their parents to see if they really cared," Freeman says. So keep talking, even though your child may seem to push you away; make at least some of the conversation about what they want to talk about.
*Names changed by request.
Surviving the Split
Research shows that three factors help children of any age adjust after divorce: having a strong relationship with both parents (when possible and when the child wants it); plain good parenting (what experts call maintaining parenting capacity); and minimal exposure to conflict. No real surprises there. The challenge for parents is pulling it off.
Nurturing the bond
Loss of a parent-child relationship after divorce can happen when one parent drifts out of the child's life, or when one parent (or both) undermines the other's relationship with the child. Or it may be the child who pulls back, says Rhonda Freeman, manager of Toronto's Families in Transition. "Some children have a temperament that makes it difficult for them to deal with the ongoing hellos, goodbyes and transitions."
Parents can't control these factors. What you can do, apart from maintaining your own ties with a child, is to respect his relationship with the other parent. "If you denigrate the other parent in front of your children, you are essentially devaluing their relationship," Freeman says.
It's hard to maintain normal good parenting when you are grieving a lost relationship and preoccupied with lawyers and court dates. Do your best to keep the adult issues separate from your interactions with your children, and get outside help like counselling if you need it.
Both Freeman and psychologist Joan B. Kelly of California recommend divorced parent education classes. "Many parents think, ‘I don't need this,'" Kelly says. "But research shows that separated parents who attend divorce education classes are the most confident." To find classes, check with your local family service agency or information centre, your lawyer or mediator, doctor or counsellor.
The ideal approach to post-divorce conflict is to stop it before it starts. Janice Weiss* of Calgary remembers unbearable strife when her own parents split. "I swore my kids wouldn't go through that." She and her ex-husband both agreed to follow the advice in Mom's House, Dad's House by Isolina Ricci. "It became like a bible and it really did help." Here are five ways to lower the temperature when conflict is high:
• Limit conversations when exchanging the children. Stick to the basics like confirming pickup and drop-off times.
• Don't use children to send messages back and forth with your ex.
• Exchange important details in writing. Some parents use email; others use a book that goes back and forth with the children. If things are really tense, have someone else (a counsellor, mediator or friend) screen your email for inflammatory language before you send it.
• Respect the other parent's time with the children. Be on time (or have children ready) for pickups. Make sure anything they need to take with them (homework, clothes, special equipment) is ready as well.
• Respect your ex-partner's privacy. You have a different relationship now; you're aiming for more of a business-type partnership. You don't need to know as much about his or her personal life as you once did.
*Names changed by request.
Kids, Your Dad Wants a Divorce
Should parents present a united front when telling the kids about divorce?
Michele Weiner-Davis, MSW
Posted May 11, 2015
No one, especially not parents, takes the decision to divorce lightly. Most people flounder in their marriages for long periods of time and question themselves endlessly before throwing in the towel. The last thing parents want to do is to hurt their children. That’s why when it comes time to break the news to the kids, people want guidelines to help minimize the pain. That’s when they turn to the experts.
Most advice is sound- don’t talk about divorce unless you’re certain it’s going to happen, remind the kids the divorce isn’t their fault and that they will be taken care of and loved by both parents, outline the ways in which their lives will change and/or remain the same and don’t burden them unnecessarily with details and so on.
However, there is a consensus among professionals about a particular piece of advice with which I vehemently disagree. It goes like this- When breaking the news to the kids, parents should always present a united front. Regardless of the reasons for the divorce, parents are instructed to say that it is a decision made by both of them.
The truth is that most divorces in our country are unilateral decisions- one person wants out and the other desperately wants to keep the marriage and family together. In the rare situation where both partners are equally motivated to end their marriage, a united front makes sense. But when two parents are at odds about the viability of their relationship and tell the children that it is a mutual decision, it is a flat-out lie.
There are several problems with lying to your children.
First, kids are so much smarter than we give them credit for. If they don’t recognize there’s a discrepancy between their parents’ views of divorce at the time the news is announced, eventually, they will. And then they will know that their parents lied, not exactly the world’s best legacy.
Parents generally preach the importance of honesty. Research tells us that the axiom, “Actions speak louder than words,” is an accurate description of the way kids actually learn life’s lessons from their parents. They do as we do, not as we say. Furthermore, when they figure out the truth, which they will, they will feel deceived. No one wants that for our children.
Secondly, it is frequently the case that the parent who desperately wants to save the marriage places the utmost value on not being a quitter in life, of staying the course even when things aren’t easy. When tough situations arise in their children’s lives, these parents have encouraged them to stick things out despite the fact that dropping out might be easier or more fun.
To the parent who prizes stick-to-it-tive-ness, presenting a united front about the dissolution of the marriage defies every bone in his or her body; it’s disingenuous. It just can’t be done.
That said, presenting something less than a united front can be tricky. It can lead to a labyrinth of blame and counter-blame. It can tempt the spouse who wants out to justify the choice by explaining the source of unhappiness with the other partner, which is too much information for children. Plus, things can escalate from there.
Children may be inclined to take sides or feel the need to be emotional caretakers for the parent who seems sad or angry about the marriage ending.
In order to avoid these unfortunate outcomes, how can two people with opposing goals and visions for the future talk to their children about their impending divorce?
The fact is, there is no perfect solution to this dilemma.
But why not consider the following. Parents could tell their children that they have been fighting a lot lately and disagreeing on many things, including what should happen with their marriage. Nonetheless, since it takes two people to want to make a marriage work, they are going to _____(divorce/separate). There is no need to go into detail about why one person wants out and the other doesn’t.
Then, the couple could shift the conversation to emphasize those things about which they do agree- (this is where one inserts what conventional wisdom suggests)- that they love their children, and the children are not to blame for the divorce, and a description of the plan for their future, and so on.
Telling the truth to children is by no means a panacea for the pain they will feel about the disruption in their lives due to their parents’ divorce. But it goes a long way to setting a positive precedent for honest and open parent-child communication. William Shakespeare once wrote, “No legacy is so rich as honesty.”
10 Phrases to Use When Talking to Your Kids About Divorce
“None of this is your fault”
By Anna Barbieri, MD
January 28, 2021
One of the most intense conversations you will ever face is talking to your children about divorce—even when it’s the best option for your family. This is a big conversation so you need to be prepared. Protecting your children from experiencing any pain is impossible, but there are ways to break the news that will help them feel less overwhelmed and anxious throughout this transitional period.
We often take kids’ intuitiveness for granted—they may already have an idea of what’s going on. Still, they must hear it from you. The sooner you tell them, the better. And sometimes practicing with a few pre-planned phrases can help.
Here are 10 phrases to help alleviate your kids’ stress when talking to them about divorce:
1. “We love you very much.”
This conversation will impact your children for years to come, so we advise you to start it out with a loving message. Children often need repetition, so you should sprinkle in reassuring comments as much as you can.
2. “Your dad/mom/parent/etc. and I have been struggling lately.”
Be honest with your children about your current situation, but avoid going into any details. Do not make any negative comments about your former spouse or talk about their faults and flaws. Fostering a good relationship with both of their parents is crucial for healthy, emotional development. So, no matter how angry or sad you are, steer clear of any finger-pointing and attacking.
3. “None of this is your fault.”
Your children must know that they weren’t at fault for your separation. Reassure them that your divorce is only a product of ‘adult problems’ between you and your former spouse. And that nothing they said or did could’ve caused the separation.
4. “Do you have any questions?”
You and your spouse should be open to your children’s questions. Divorce isn’t the easiest concept to understand, so you need to be honest with them. Encourage them to voice any of their worries. If they ask a question you don’t have the answer to, or they act on emotion, validate their feelings. Remember, pain is inevitable, and that’s okay.
5. “It’s okay for you to feel angry or sad.”
Your children, regardless of age, should know that they might feel angry, sad, confused or even happy in the days to come. Check-in with them constantly and encourage them to express their feelings. In some cases, your children might act out, withdraw or even change their eating habits. Prevent these behaviors from escalating by setting clear and consistent boundaries with them, and even provide ways for them to express themselves constructively.
6. “There’s nothing you can do to fix our marriage, and that’s okay.”
Reassure your children that it is not their responsibility to fix your marriage. They should know that your divorce is a private matter between you and your former spouse. If they show any interest or raise any questions such as; “What can I do for you to stay together?“, tell them plain and simple: “Nothing, this was our choice“—followed by extra comfort and loving reassurance.
7. “We’re sure that this is very upsetting for you. We are upset as well.”
Telling your kids how you feel is alright, but you should keep that to a minimum. In this situation, less is more. A simple “I’m angry” or “I’m sad” can go a long way. When you discuss the nitty-gritty with them, they might develop negative feelings towards your former spouse, which is detrimental for their mental well-being. Not only that, but these detailed conversations can also increase any lingering feelings of resentment or anxiety.
8. “We will always be your parents.”
Depending on your children’s ages, they might not exactly understand what your separation entails. Talking to them about how you will always be their parent will ease their anxiety and help clarify their confusion. Still, you and your spouse should back up all of your reassuring comments with corresponding behaviors – this will help your children feel truly reassured.
9. “Some things will change, but a lot of things will remain the same.”
Children benefit from being made aware of the changes to come. This allows them to mentally and emotionally prepare for any drastic shifts in their routines. Explain your new living arrangements to them, including how often they’ll see your former spouse. But let them know that their lives won’t change much besides that. If applicable, tell them they’ll still go to the same school, have the same friends, and be able to see you and your former spouse.
10. “Even though it may not feel like it, you’re going to be okay. We love you so much.”
Your conversation with your children should always end with a reassuring statement. This is a turbulent time in all of your lives, and while it’s completely normal to get caught up in your emotions from time to time, you shouldn’t let them overshadow your children’s feelings. The best option for you is to schedule some ‘me-time’ to cry, vent and express yourself constructively. The more you take care of yourself, the more available you’ll be to better support your children.
Divorce can ultimately be a positive experience for the whole family. Although there will naturally be a long transition period, be patient. Stay in the present, allow your kids to feel sad or hurt—but keep them looking forward. When you set them up for success, you allow them to find the silver lining in this divorce as they grow older.