How Should We Tell the Kids?

From our friends at Gevurtz Menashe

A Parent’s Guide for Helping Kids Navigate the Stress of Divorce

One of the most difficult challenges for parents at the time of separation or divorce is deciding how to divide responsibility for and time with their kids. For nearly all children, the separation of their parents can be a major transition in their lives, but it doesn’t have to be filled with fear and turmoil. While parents can’t completely insulate their kids from the reality of the situation, we parents can do our best to stay positive and set a good example for them. So much of a child’s ability to thrive in a “new normal” depends on their parents’ ability to support them and give them grace.

Furthermore, if we didn’t know it before, we certainly know it now after a year of COVID-19: Kids are incredibly resilient. Our children have adapted to different remote-learning models, degrees of isolation, and—in some cases—shifting family dynamics. With all of these changes, chances are your family has already experienced some new forms of parenting this past year.

As we navigate transitions with the ever-changing post-COVID world, which may include changes to family structure, here are some ways we encourage parents to help their kids manage stress among changing family dynamics and parenting conflicts.

1. Present a United Front

Ideally both parents will be on the same page about any adjustments to the children’s residence, schedule, or parenting plan before it reaches the children. We recommend setting aside time to prepare for telling your kids about your separation. Having a plan for your conversation will help put your kids and their needs and feelings about changes at the center of the conversation. Here are some guidelines to consider as you prepare:

  • Talk to the other parent about how you want to approach it. What are the most important points you want to make? Figure out how you can make it simple, factual but not emotionally harmful to your kids or to the relationship with your kids and your partner.
  • You set the tone for the discussions and kids can be incredibly perceptive. Despite how angry or hurt you feel, the conversation with the children is not the time to air those grievances about the other parent. The conversation should focus on what your kids are experiencing and maintaining that focus will help lighten the mental stress load on your kids. What you decide to share, and how you do it can have a profound emotional impact on your kids, so be thoughtful about how you approach this conversation.
  • Consider your kid’s age and maturity level. While there’s no perfect time to talk to your kids about divorce or the end of a relationship with the other parent, generally speaking the older your kids are (teens and tweens), the more they can benefit from having the information in advance of the split. With younger kids, the timing of the conversation can be just days or a couple of weeks before, but the tenants of the conversation should remain the same. Focus on keeping it a safe and open conversation about your children’s feelings and needs. 
  • Decide whether you want to talk to your kids together or separately. We recommend you do it together, if possible, then follow-up at a separate time with each of your kids to address any lingering questions or anxieties. Chances are, this will be an ongoing dialogue until new routines shake out and life begins to normalize. Expect that even after new routines have been established that your children will have ongoing questions and concerns and will need a parent that is open to listening to them and acknowledging how they feel.

2. What Should We Tell Them?

Be prepared with some of the big questions kids will ask, such as:

  • Where will you live?
  • Where will I live?
  • What will happen to my “stuff?”
  • Will I have to change schools?
  • Will I still be able to see my friends? Or favorite babysitter? Or grandparents?
  • Will I be able to continue my activities?
  • Can I still love both of you the same?
  • Who will take care of me?

3. Keep The “Adult Stuff” to the Adults

Decide what topics should be off limits. Your kids don’t need to know the intimate details of what led to the breakdown in their parents’ relationship. In many ways, it can be healthy for kids to see that their parents are human and get sad sometimes because we can show them it’s normal to experience emotions.

That said, we’ve yet to find any research that suggests a positive outcome for your kids in involving them in the details of your marriage. When you’re in the midst of a separation or divorce (especially during a pandemic), you’re already likely dealing with a heavy load of emotional and financial stresses. If you find yourself needing support, lean on your family and friends or mental health professionals to help you get through it — not your children.


4. Seek Extra Support for Your Kids, If Needed

Even if your child is happy and healthy, a separation or divorce (with or without the added challenges of a pandemic) can be stressful to say the least. Enrolling your child with a psychologist or counselor with a background working with children can be a great way to allow your child to get the support he or she needs. Even if your child only meets with a professional once or twice, it’s important to give them the opportunity to have a safe place to share their feelings. You too may learn some valuable tools, from your child’s psychologist or counselor, to help you better support your child.

Keep in mind, that except in rare circumstances, you should involve your co-parent in the decision to seek support for your child and choose the right provider together. 

5. Take Care of Yourself

Remember to give yourself some grace. It’s important to take the time and space to ensure your own well-being so you can set a stable tone and support system for them, during this transition. It is ok to acknowledge that the changes you are experiencing are challenging, while also assuring your children that you will always be there to support them in whatever way they need. We have the awesome gift and responsibility of shaping our children’s lives.

As parents, we do our best to help shepherd our kids from the uncertainty that accompanies big life transitions, such as a separation or divorce, and even a global pandemic. It is not always possible (or healthy!) to keep them in the dark. Divorce and parenting disputes can be especially trying during this time because emotions are high and we are encountering all kinds of new situations and the fear of the unknown.

We are here to help! Many parents use consultations, mediation, counseling and/or collaborative law to help frame these difficult conversations with their kids. Create a support team of family, friends and professionals and then don’t be afraid to lean on your team—we can help!

Authored by Oregon family law attorney, Katie Goss. Katie is a mom of two and a member of the Oregon State Bar. She focuses her practice exclusively on family law issues such as divorce, parenting and custody issues, child and spousal support and relationships agreements.

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