As professionals, what are the most important steps in the collaborative process? Is it the consults? The first meeting? Collecting financials?
While we think about those important items, we have to accomplish to get the collaborative process off to the right start, we often don’t think about “telling the kids” as one of those major milestones. Yet the first question I am almost always asked by parents who have decided to move forward with a divorce is, “how do we tell the kids?”
Telling the Kids About Divorce: A Big Step
We may not often consider telling the kids as the first big step in any divorce process. It is a huge emotional barrier that weighs heavily on every family. Helping parents navigate this first hurdle in their divorce process is about more than just the kids. It is an anxiety parents feel intensely – they are often working hard to keep up the façade of an intact family during this time.
Parents are afraid of the reaction their children will have when they break the news. They feel guilty for “breaking up the family.” Before telling the kids is completed, it can be difficult for parents to focus on their own collaborative divorce process. Having to break the news to the kids is looming over our clients’ heads. When clients are so intently focused on what this will do to their children, how do we engage our clients in meetings and in tasks?
Guidelines: A Steppingstone into the Collaborative Process
Providing parents with guidelines for this conversation can create a healthy steppingstone into the collaborative process. These guidelines are as important for our clients as they are for their kids. This is their first exercise in acting as unified co-parents, working together to build a new relationship. We should spend time with our clients setting them up for success.
This stage in the divorce process isn’t just about making sure the kids are ok, it’s also about establishing a foundation for our clients to become good co-parents and, we hope, good partners in a collaborative divorce.
1. Plan the conversation. Children may need time to process a big transition. Plan for a day where children will have some family time where they can feel safe to express emotions and ask questions. Don’t tell children before a holiday or just before bedtime or school.
2. Do it together. Presenting a unified front and having the conversation together can minimize anxiety children have about the separation. It lets them know their parents are committed to working together. It tells them their parents have made this decision together, leaving no room for blame.
3. No room for blame. Make sure that children are clear that the divorce was not caused by anything that they did or did not do. It is also as important that we leave children out of the middle of the marital conflict. Children don’t need to know the specifics of why the divorce is happening. It’s more important to offer support by letting children know, “We want different things for our lives.” Or: “We have tried to work through our problems, but it is best for us to be separate.”
4. Be straightforward and firm. It is important for children to understand that the divorce is permanent. Parents often want to shield their children from significant hurt and, as a result, are not direct and firm. Children can interpret parents trying to dance around the word “divorce” as indecisive and irresolute. Children who sense such doubtfulness in their parents may try to take charge and change the outcome themselves.
5. Talk about the future. More than anything, children want to know how the divorce will affect their lives. What will change? What will stay the same? As much as possible, parents should have a plan and be ready to share this with their children. Children will feel more secure having reassurance about things that will remain the same: school, friends, sports. They will also feel more secure if they have clarity on things that will change: the timeshare schedule, which parent is leaving the home.
6. We still love you. “Parents can divorce each other, but they never divorce their kids.” Parents can reassure children by letting them know they will work together to support healthy relationships with both parents, both of whom still love them, even though they will not be living under the same roof.