“How do I tell the children that their mother and I are getting divorced?” a despondent father asked me recently at our first meeting. In one form or another, I get asked questions similar to this all of the time by fathers getting a divorce in New Jersey.
Let’s face it: Divorce is hard on everybody but it can be especially difficult for children to understand. For many younger kids, their first thought is that their parents are divorcing because they did something wrong. Of course, it’s not true but it is their reality. But even older children and teenagers can have difficulties. Learning that dad and mom are splitting up affects a three-year-old differently than it does a 10-year-old, and teens above about age 14 or 15 react still differently.
Telling children that their parents will be splitting up and living apart can be tricky. If you get it wrong, it can take a long time to repair the emotional damage. But there are some general guidelines fathers can follow when it is time to tell their kids. If at all possible, you and their mother should discuss and agree in advance what you will tell the children. If at all possible, tell them together.
How Fathers Can Tell Young Children About Divorce
If your kids are under age five, their first concern – -whether or not they express it – is who will take care of them. They’ll want to know things like where they and the cat or dog will live. Babies and toddlers are totally dependent on their parents for care, love, affection and food. They lack the ability to understand complex events or situations. So, it is best to not be too specific with them. While kids starting school are beginning to be independent, they still rely entirely on their parents for support and survival.
A vague answer such as “Mom will still be feeding you and taking care of you every day and I will see you every few days. But our jobs take so much time we were not able to keep out marriage strong.” Another possible explanation is, “Your mom and I were fighting all of the time and we did not think it is fair for you kids to have parents fighting so much.” Whatever you say, be sure to add, “But your mother and I still love you with all of our hearts!” so the children know they will be all right.
What Fathers of School-Age Children Can Say About Divorce
Older children of roughly six to 12 have a growing ability to understand more complicated matters but still rely heavily on their parents. Their brains are developed enough for them to want to understand what is happening.
But children in this age cohort still tend to see things in black-and-white. They may not discuss their feelings but may show their distress through outward signs of fear, anger, sadness, and acting out at home and at school. Children also may fantasize about getting their parents back together. Fathers should be sure to alert teachers know what is going on so they can be prepared to deal with the situation and how to help your children.
Kids in grades five and six are better able to talk about their feelings but this doesn’t mean they’ll want to. Saying to them, “Some kids feel sad, afraid or even angry when their parent’s divorce,” will be much less confrontational than directly asking, “Do you feel sad?”
Telling Teens About Your Divorce
Teenagers are difficult enough for parents to understand without adding in a divorce. Sometimes, it’s hard to know whether their moodiness is because of their age or because of your divorce. The important thing is to be honest about the reason for the divorce without going into details that the children do not need to know. Be sure to keep the lines of communication open. Often, teens will test a parent to see if they still care about them. Just keep talking even if they seem to be pushing you away. It’s almost a game of “go away closer.”
One word of caution: Make sure that a good part of each conversation is about things they want to talk about: School, friends, music, dating, and how the divorce affects them.
How New Jersey Fathers Should Explain Infidelity to Their Children
Sometimes infidelity is the cause of a break-up. That’s when I hear, “I found out my wife is having an affair and has been running around on me for as long as we’ve been married. How do I tell the kids their mom is a slut?”
In two words, you don’t. Discussing the intimate reasons for a divorce is holding your children emotional hostages. Plus, it is very destructive to them and selfish of you.
Eventually, the truth will come out. When the children are older they are likely to figure out why their parents broke up years earlier. On an episode of Frasier, the Kelsey Grammar character discovered his mother had an affair at one point. When Fraser asks his dad why he never said anything. Marty Crain replied, “Will you tell Frederick that Lilith cheated on you?”
If you are a New Jersey father who is thinking about getting a divorce, our support group for divorcing men and dads may help you find ways to talk with your kids about the divorce. If you have any questions about the divorce process including custody, co-parenting and visitation, or child support payments, feel free to call me or any of our firm’s divorce lawyers for men and fathers in New Jersey at either 973.562.0100 in Nutley or, in Montclair, at 862.245.4620.