Figuring out how to talk to your kids about the fact that you’re getting divorced is one of the most nerve-wracking conversations parents have to prepare for. There are so many concerns about what to say, how to say it and to ensure the kids feel safe and protected despite the circumstances.
As the middle child of three siblings, Maci DeCarlo was 17 years-old when her parents decided to get divorced. She was about to go to college and leave her hometown for the first time, and Maci, who is now a licensed school psychologist, has used that experience to help shape her career. Now, Maci shares this experience in an effort to help parents understand what their own children may be thinking and feeling, as well as to offer helpful tips on what parents should and should not do when it comes to navigating this process with their teens.
First off, Maci explains that every child is different – even within their own family. Therefore, his or her reactions to the divorce will vary. Maci shares that the initial conversation with children about divorce is critical, and strongly advises parents to have that initial ‘we’re getting divorced’ talk, together. This is because having a united front is so important to children in the midst of this experience. In Maci’s situation, this was not the case, as her parents held separate conversations with her and her siblings. As a helpful hint to parents, it’s important to understand that “the unity of being together and saying look, this is the decision that we both made for our family, is really strong and powerful.” Maci says that “maybe in the moment it won’t feel that way, but I think when I look back, I wish that my experience was different in that regard.”
Another important aspect of helping kids and teens cope with this time is the power of incorporating professional help to facilitate conversations with children. T.H. explains that with her ex-husband they “went to someone to figure out what exactly to say. Having it rehearsed made us feel a little bit more comfortable in the delivery so that maybe it wasn’t going to be as jarring.” Maci isn’t suggesting that every couple have a script to read from when they sit their kids down, but having a road map and plan of what you’re going to say can help ease nerves, tension and show the children that both parents are on the same page, and want to support each other and the entire family.
Maci shares that it’s perfectly normal and acceptable for parents to get upset, and feel emotional in these conversations. Oftentimes, parents want to be strong for their kids, but it’s okay to label those emotions and clearly express them to your children. Kids need to know how you’re feeling in order to fully understand the situation. This is especially true with younger children, who may not understand what a divorce means. This is where the concept of validating feelings comes in, and it’s an integral part of the process. Maci explains that it’s so important for parents to validate their children’s feelings to normalize this experience. Statements such as, “I see that you’re upset, it’s okay that you’re feeling this way” or “We’re going to get through this together” can make an enormous difference during this conversation.
A lot of parents ask about therapy or counseling for their kids during a divorce. Maci agrees that therapy is a great tool for children and families. However, pushing your child to go to therapy when they aren’t ready, is not always the best approach. Maci recalls when her mother urged her to go to therapy around the time of the divorce, and remembers feeling that being pressured to go therapy meant that something was wrong with her. This is not an uncommon feeling amongst kids, and it’s definitely something for parents to take note of. If your kid is adamantly opposed to going to therapy, you should really reconsider whether or not this is the right time for them to go. You very well may be sending an unspoken message that there’s something wrong with your child instead of helping them understand that therapy will be available to them any time they feel it would be helpful to speak to someone. Maci says that she, herself, needed time to reflect and process what happened within her family. She started therapy later on in life, and it has been very beneficial to her now as a young adult. The caveat, however, is that parents often know their children better than anyone, so if you can truly see that he or she is struggling with the process, then professional help is very likely the best course of action.
Parents should also know that there are many available services within the school, such as:
- Speaking to your child’s teacher about the situation (discreetly). Teachers spend a great deal of time with your child, and may observe different behaviors compared to what you are seeing at home.
- Depending on his or her age, your child’s school may have a licensed social worker or psychologist who can talk with your child individually or in a group setting.
- Guidance counselors are great resources.
If your child has an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) due to a disability, he or she may be entitled to counseling services.
At the end of the day, Maci says, “Your pain is your pain.” Although divorce is common and happens to a lot of couples, “it’s also specific to you, and you’re allowed to be upset and feel that pain.”
Key takeaway points:
- Communication is key. Conversations with your children should be on-going and fluid.
- It takes a village! Allow people around you to help your family through this hard time. Let your family and friends help out as needed, and teachers/school professionals, too.
- Self-care is key. You are a role model to your kids – they are constantly watching you (especially through the divorce). Practicing self-care to manage stress and anxiety will set good habits for your children down the line.