Separation, divorce, break ups…they are horrible. Painful, full of good-byes to all that was precious, or expected to be, in an intimate relationship. And like all humans, pain often makes even the best parents a little self-centered and short-sighted.
As hard as it is for you to say good-bye to what you dreamed could be with your now-ex, it is exponentially harder on your children. Don’t get me wrong, while divorce is difficult for kids, it’s “less bad” than living with parents who are in constant turmoil or icy disconnection. That said, as parents, you have a big responsibility to help your children through the transition to the “new normal”.
Here are a few tips
Be certain that this is what you are doing and have a plan: This is not the time for ambiguity – if splitting is your final decision you still need to work together to have a plan. That way, when you tell your children this difficult news, you can also tell them what it will look like in the near future. Be positive in all aspects of this, but don’t minimize your children’s fears or concerns. They don’t need a lot of details, but will feel better knowing the basics about where they will be, where parents will be, etc
Time it right: Avoid the “hit and run” of telling kids and having a parent immediately move out. Give it at least a week so both parents are available to answer the inevitable (and usually repeated) questions. However, don’t let the time between telling kids and a parent moving out drag on – have a date set to be out and a plan for when your child(ren) will begin seeing their parents in different homes.
If at all possible, find a time that you will both be fully available (the beginning of a weekend) and avoid dropping the news right before school, social or other activities, or bedtime. If you really can’t be around your ex, take turns being with, and fully present for, the kids.
Don’t blame, criticize or accuse: As partners, you didn’t work. You must still be supportive of the qualities your co-parent has, outside of whatever perceived deficits they have as a partner. That is your child’s other parent – not their ex. Keep the talk about your ex neutral or positive. The same applies to friends and family members of your ex. Discourage gossip and don’t participate in it. This is going to be hard on your kids. Don’t make it harder by destroying their vision of the people they are relying on to get them to adulthood.
Keep it simple: You can say “we get along better and can be nicer to each other if we don’t live together”. Do NOT ever say “We don’t love each other anymore so we are breaking up”. This gives your children the idea that you can stop loving them too. If infidelity or betrayal has contributed to the split, they do NOT need to know. In fact, beyond a very general statement (see above), your kids do not benefit from hearing the whole story.
Insulate children from the impacts of the split: Avoid having children witness the packing up and moving out. Many adults can barely manage break-ups, don’t expect your children to keep it together if you are falling apart. Get therapy, ask for help from other adults and keep your emotions in check around the kids. Keep routines as consistent as possible and help your children know what to expect. A big wall calendar showing where they will be and who they will be with is a great tool to reassure children that your change of status won’t impact their ability to continue participating in school and activities.
Be mindful of young ears: Of course you will need and want support during this transition. Your friends, relatives and community want to help and often express their love by being “on your side”. Be vigilant that your ex is not the subject of insults, blame or speculation, especially in front of your kids. Better yet, discourage that kind of talk and attitude completely. Even if you manage to keep it out of the children’s hearing, gossip gets repeated. You want your contact with your network to support not only you, but your children as well.
With thoughtful consideration and care, you can make this very difficult transition much less painful for your children and yourself. You and your ex WILL move on. Your kids are relying on you to help them do that too.