Having the ‘divorce talk’ with your children

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“We are not ready to talk to our child. It’s the end of our relationship and we have not told our child that we are going to get divorced. What do we say?”

It might be one of the most difficult conversations you will have in your life when you and your partner or spouse have to sit with your children and explain that their mom and dad will no longer be living together. For whatever reason/s you have decided to end your relationship and that one of you has to move out of the family home, one of the crucial defining and most difficult moments after that will be to tell your children.

When our clients come through to mediate their parenting plan that will decide their contact with and care of their children, most of them have not yet told their children that they will be living separate lives. We find that many parents are afraid that because there are no right words to say to their child. Whatever they say will scar their children for the rest of their childhood.

“Many parents are afraid that because there are no right words to say to their child. Whatever they say will scar their children for the rest of their childhood.”

Some parents believe their children should only have to deal with the change once all the decisions have been made. Other parents are still battling to come to terms with the separation themselves and hold back on sharing this information with their children in the hope of a breakthrough that will fix the sudden tear in their family and stop the emotional rollercoaster towards heartache.

Approaches to consider when facing this difficult moment:

  • The underlying approach is managing your tone and language used. The conversation has to be child-friendly and conducted in a way that your child understands with both parents present.
  • Each approach will have to be tailored to your specific family, paying close attention to the age, maturity and stage of development of your child. For instance, if you have an introverted child, taking them to a restaurant will not be ideal. The same would be true if your child is rambunctious. Any open area will not keep your child staying still long enough to listen to you.
  • The timing of the conversation is very important. Try to not have the conversation during a celebratory time i.e. close to their birthdays or religious festivities. If your children are older, ensure that they are not dealing with scholastic or extramural commitments during the time of the conversation. For instance, wait for the school holidays to talk to them, so that they can take time to process what they now know.
  • The timing for yourselves is also important. Both parents need to be mentally and emotionally ready to sit with the children to show a united front (as best as you can) in explaining the decision that has been made. That is not to engage in a battle and display the blame game in front of your child(ren). This united front will represent to your children that no matter the outcome, you are both there for them and together as a family you will all work on making this transition as comfortable as possible.

It cannot be stressed enough that your children will need your constant reassurance that you will both work on a plan that allows them to spend time with both of you. Let them know that you are working on a parenting plan that focuses on their best interests and give them some insight into what has been discussed so far. Let them know, if they are able to understand, that even children can also have a say about what they think the parenting plan should look like.

We always inform our clients that the mediated process follows the direction of the Children’s Act, which makes provision for child participation. It is a child’s right to participate in matters that involve them, depending on their age, maturity and stage of development. Child participation, however, does not place the final decision-making in the hands of the child; rather, it takes into consideration the views of the child so that the parents have some influence when making realistic decisions in their parenting plan.

Participation provides a second level of reassurance that the children can at any time let each parent know if there is something that may need to change if their own schedules change. As the years progress, the needs of the children change. They may start attending sleepovers and camps, become more involved in extramural activities, and have to cope with a more demanding academic workload. Parents may need to change the midweek schedule, making the parenting plan an evolving document.

Being armed with a suitable approach and information that will answer your children’s questions will ease the tension and anxiety you will feel when having this conversation. Reassurance is key. Always make sure that they feel loved and protected during this conversation. Allow them to embrace you both during this time. Your children are a product of both of you and you both need to commit to them that you will both work in their best interests throughout this process.

This article is submitted for information only and does not serve as legal advice. For more information on mediating your parenting plan in the best interests of your child please go to www.fairpractice.co.za or contact Fair Practice at info@fairpractice.co.za.

Also read:

You never stop parenting no matter your marital status
You are not alone