Once the level of suffering and pain has become intolerable, when dreams have been shattered and hope for the future has been lost, one or both of the parents may decide to divorce. Telling the children is an undertaking of great importance; lives will be changed. After wrestling with this gut-wrenching decision to divorce, most parents desperately dread the idea of making the announcement. Some parents make the mistake of allowing the children to find out when one morning the children awake to a catastrophe - Dad and his belongings have disappeared into thin air. In any case, the children will remember this day for a lifetime and reassess the understanding of it at every stage of their development. Conversation, done fully and well, will ease the pain and comfort them. Conversations done poorly will profoundly add to their confusion, anxiety, and pain. And this devastating conversation takes place at a time when the parents are angry, hurt, and in torment themselves. Here are several suggestions.
1. Both parents and all the children of appropriate age should be present when communicating the decision to divorce. Do not meet with them one parent at a time as they need to see the two of you together and observe your body language and hear the inflection of your voice as each of you contributes to the discussion. Meeting with them alone invites favoritism and promotes confusion and suspicion.
2. Speak slowly and simply. Remember they will hear what you say, how you say it, and what you don’t say.
3. Choose a quiet time when you and they can have a lengthy conference without interruption. Turn off the TV, telephones, and computers. Watch out for the distractions and pressures of pending homework, business telephone calls, arriving guests, and other disturbances.
4. Make sure that you frame the conversation as a final announcement, not a pending decision. They will hope and fantasize that you will change your mind and will continue to do so for some years.
5. Ask them what they understand about divorce and their friends’ experiences with it. As painful as it may be, encourage them to speak up about their fears, anger, and concerns; they may have some misconceptions that you can correct. Some children will be frozen into silence. Even so, their minds will be running at full speed. Expect that they may lie about how they feel to comfort you, especially if you have been crying during the discussion. They may also be concerned about having little or no input into the decision-making process. Not paying enough attention to their wishes often leads to a combination of anger and powerlessness which can undermine their initiative later in life and can result in resentment that carries through deep into adulthood.
6. Assure them that they did not cause the divorce nor can they fix it. Also, that they are still loved by both parents, that they are the best parts of the marriage, and that you will continue to take care of them until they are grown, just as you always would.
7. Schedule a follow-up meeting to discuss future plans after everyone has had a chance to think things over. At that meeting, promise to keep them informed with details of what’s happening currently and events that are coming.
8. Arrange for a time to take them to the new surroundings. Remember to repeat some of the information as young minds can’t assimilate information on one or two hearings.
Knowing that this will be one of the worst days of their lives, will this plan of intelligently going through a family meeting counteract the effect of this massive disappointment for the children? No, it will not. But, it will go far in reducing the fear, suffering, and loneliness of the crisis.
Jerry Cosby is an experienced mediator specializing in divorce who gives emphasis to the healing of the spouses and children. To find out more about his services, please visit www.texasmediationgroup.com.