How to Tell Your Child That You're Getting Divorced?
In her new book, It Doesn't Have to Be That Way, celebrity attorney Laura Wasser describes an alternate path toward divorce - one that keeps your family and your finances intact. In this exclusive excerpt from the book, Laura explains the best way to tell your children about your divorce.
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The right expert or experts—psychologist, family lawyer, therapist—can help you arm yourself with advice about how and when to have this conversation with your children and about the answers you’re going to need to bring to the discussion. The first question your children are likely to ask, for example, is why you’re splitting up, and the truth is that the two of you may have very different views on that. Yet you’ll need an answer that balances honesty with reassurance, that expresses both in terms that are pertinent to your situation and your children, and that in some way demonstrates that you’re still a family. It’s not so easy, and an expert may be able to help.
The right expert can also alert you to the signals to look for when you have the conversation—signals about the concerns your children, depending on their age, may not be able to articulate in words. Make a cheat sheet—bullet points for the emotional and even legal answers to the questions they are bound to ask and the concerns you intuit.
The exact content of those questions and concerns will vary, depending first and foremost on their age—that is, their level of cognitive development and coping skills. Your task may be easiest with preschool kids. Obviously, their cognitive comprehension is limited, and their coping skills are as yet minimal. They are also tiny little egocentrics. The boundaries of their world are parents and self; they need to know this will not change. Kids in the 6-year-old to 8-year-old range are a tougher nut to crack. The change they confront is likely to be their first experience of grief, and they may well feel angry about it. Also, acting out is a real possibility at this age; it’s the kids’ way of venting, and it’s a distress signal. Pay attention to it as best you can, but certainly, with this age group, patience is a virtue.
Older kids and adolescents presumably have better developed coping skills, but grief and anger are also possible reactions from them. They tend to be focused on their own emerging identities and will likely respond to the news of divorce in those terms. I was 16 when my parents told me they were getting divorced, and my head was totally elsewhere. I don’t mean to suggest I didn’t care; of course I did. But their marriage and its dissolution were the past, and I was hell-bent on my future.
But at any age, of course, divorce hurts kids. That is why the core message at any age is reassurance—that both of you will always love them, and that the dissolution of your relationship is not about them or in any way their fault. They are not to blame. Our parents lived in a more narcissistic era; they married younger and often sowed their wild oats in their thirties and forties, post-dissolution. For better or worse, we are of the generation of helicopter parents, hovering over our children and overprotecting their every move. While this doesn’t mean staying together for their benefit, it is essential to handle communication with them during a breakup with grace and compassion.
But at any age, of course, divorce hurts kids. That is why the core message at any age is reassurance—that both of you will always love them, and that the dissolution of your relationship is not about them or in any way their fault.
At any age, kids’ main concern is going to be how your split will affect them. Your split undermines their security—emotional and physical—and what they will be looking for from you is some kind of certainty: that both of you are still in their lives, that you are all still a family unit and will be such a unit forever, only in a different house hold arrangement from the one they’re used to.
The blow to their emotional security often expresses itself in worries about logistics. Where will they sleep? Will there be a bedroom for them at the other house? Who will pick them up from school? What will be the impact on their daily lives?—whether daily life means who their babysitter is or where they will study for their SATs. All their questions deserve calm, clear answers; calmness and clarity alone can go a long way toward reassuring them and providing the certainty they seek. Many kids worry about how they’ll deal with telling their schoolmates what’s happening; you might want to assure them that you will do this with them—even, for very young kids, for them.
The key to addressing their pain and worry reassuringly is to pay attention not just to the words you speak but to how you present yourselves as you speak them. “Careful the things you do,” in the lyrics of the Stephen Sondheim song; “Children will see and learn.” If you can exemplify a united front—the reassurance that the family unit persists—in your behavior both toward the children and with each other, your body language can speak for you just as persuasively as your words. Maybe more so.
Set a time. Pick the right place where everyone can be comfortable. Allow no interruptions. Turn off phones, tablets, computers, televisions—all devices. Keep it simple. Let it go on as long as they need it to. Be expansive in answering their questions about what it will mean for them; show that you’ve thought about all this, that you’re concerned for them. Be honest. No mind games. No tricks. Let them know you will keep the burden off them: You will handle all the particulars; they should go on with their lives.
Don’t break down; maintain control. In every way, you want to model what you are telling them—that you have it all worked out, that you will make sure everything is okay, that you’ve got their backs. As indeed you do. Then, as soon as you have told your kids, tell their teachers and the principal of their school. These are the people who have your children in their care most of the day. Alerted to what is going on, they can keep an antenna raised for any problems and will bring a deeper understanding to bear if problems surface. They are likely to have more experience with the effect of divorce on kids than you have.
When you do inform these school personnel, don’t overinform them. Principals and teachers tend to be very good at being warm and endearing; it’s an attribute of the profession, if not a professional necessity. The principal’s office, with its cozy atmosphere and simmering coffeepot, can seem a perfect environment for letting your hair down and spilling the beans. It’s not advisable. You don’t need to give reasons, and doing so can come back to haunt you. All that’s required is the information that you and your spouse are trying a separation, that it may affect your child’s behavior to some extent, and would the school please be sure to send two sets of everything home in your child’s backpack.
One more point: The thinking in general is that divorce is not great for children. Duh. One question is whether it is worse than living in a home dominated by a dysfunctional relationship. However that debate goes, it is worth noting that dealing with divorce in some ways can teach children some lessons about life’s challenges and the need to confront them. Showing strength and support as a parent is therefore not just a way to help your kids get through the divorce; it may also show them something about assuming the mantle of adult responsibility—a foretaste of what is to come, one way or another.
Laura Wasser was named one of Hollywood Reporter's 100 Power Lawyers in July 2012, one of the California Daily Journal's Top 100 Lawyers in September 2012, and one of Southern California’s Top 50 Women Attorneys for 2012 and 2013. She has been profiled in publications ranging from the Los Angeles Times to Vanity Fair and has represented the likes of Heidi Klum, Ashton Kutcher, Christina Aguilera, and Ryan Reynolds, as well as many pro bono clients from the Harriet Buhai Center for Family Law. Her latest book, It Doesn't Have to Be That Way, is available now.