How Do We Tell The Kids Our Divorce Story?

Dear Kate,

My 16 year-old stepdaughter has done a few things to make us think she is wondering why her parents divorced. We’re hoping to ease her mind by sharing more information.  

Did you tell your children why you and Billy divorced? What’s a kind way to go about having that conversation? What worked?  What didn’t?

Jennifer


Dear Jennifer,

The simple answer to your question is yes, the children do know why Billy and I divorced.  We share our divorce story in age-appropriate, loving ways often.

I’ll let that present tense sink in a moment.  Nearly half a lifetime later, we’re still talking openly and actively about why we divorced.

When we first separated, I dreaded telling the children.  I planned carefully for that first conversation, and couldn’t wait to put that discussion behind me.  I thought once we’d addressed that painful topic, we would never look back.  I was wrong.

The truth is, the divorce discussion is never really behind us because children grow so quickly.  The children I talked to about divorce five, three, two years ago are not the same children living in my house now.  They have different life experiences, different levels of understanding, and different perspectives on romantic relationships.  They see things differently, including the story of why Billy and I divorced.

Just last night, Simon asked why Billy and I nearly always agree on consequences (high-five for coparenting), but got divorced because we weren’t good partners.  “Seems to me you parent the same way,” he grumbled.  It was an opportunity to share with Simon that parenting was only one of the components of my former relationship with his father.  It is the component that remains today, but we had countless other ways we related (or didn’t) as husband and wife.  Simon, at nearly 16, can understand that in a way he couldn’t at 11.

Even as we tell our divorce story multiple times, we stick to a few guiding principles.

We talk about it calmly. Sometimes this topic comes up innocently in the car, or sitting on the couch during a commercial break.  Sometimes the triggers are more difficult and laden with emotions.  If grief surfaces, we address that emotion first before beginning an in-depth discussion.  We work hard not to be triggered ourselves, defending our decision or becoming frustrated that we’re talking about this again.  If both parties can’t stay calm, we postpone our conversation.

We keep the conversation age-appropriate. Our divorce didn’t involve infidelity, substance dependency or abuse so it is PG rated to begin with, but we still don’t divulge all the details (from our biased perspective).  In situations with a more adult rating, this is even more important. Keep it simple and address the question asked.

We don’t put kids in the middle. The divorce conversation can feel like parent-bashing to a child, even when it isn’t.  Our simple story is that we wanted different things and we weren’t healthy partners for the other.  When pushed I give examples of where I was a poor partner to Billy. I remember that the kids love Billy every bit as much as they love me, and think carefully about what I say to ensure they do not leave the conversation feeling divided. Remember, kids will replay your conversation in their minds. Soundbites matter.

We don’t involve the stepparent: Gabe isn’t a primary source on the topic of Billy’s and my divorce.  Neither is Stephanie.  Both certainly know many details of the end of our first marriage, but they are not credible storytellers in the children’s eyes. Conversations about the divorce stay between the parent and the child in our house; the “we” in this story is Billy and me.

We acknowledge growth. We share what we’ve learned and how we’ve healed.  We show that pain can be a teacher.  We don’t go on and on about how much better things are, as that can sometimes ring hollow for children.  We do work to demonstrate that we have each learned from our relationship and the idea that beauty can come from brokenness.

We hold space: Because the children’s understanding of our divorce evolves as they grow, they react differently each time we have the conversation.  Sometimes it is a simple factual exchange, and they move quickly to the next topic.  Sometimes the discussion brings deep emotions forward, and we’re faced with rage, anger and deep sadness.  We comfort and listen and create a safe spot to fall even though we inflicted the wound that caused the pain.  We move forward on the healing path, offering support and resources. We allow for grief.

I’m still learning, Jennifer.  I’ve told our divorce story a hundred times, and I am sure I’ll tell it thousands more before I’m done.  As long as the children need to talk about it, we will, because I want them to understand why their father and I made the difficult decision to end our marriage, and what came next.

Sending you all the love and strength I have for this conversation and the hundreds that will follow,

Kate

Names have been changed to protect privacy.  Responses are Kate Chapman’s opinions, shaped by her personal experience as a divorced mom, a stepmom, and a professional coach.  Those opinions should not replace readers seeking professional support as needed. Kate Chapman is not a licensed therapist.  By submitting a question, readers agree to hold Kate Chapman and This Life in Progress harmless.  
By | 2017-05-12T08:55:38+00:00 February 21st, 2017|Ask Kate, Coparenting, Divorce|

2 Comments

  1. Sarah March 15, 2017 at 2:43 pm

    How do you tell that same story if substance abuse and infidelity were involved. Especially in the case of a high conflict ex spouse who wants the kids to know VERY adult details? Its a tactic to put all the blame on the new partner of a parent and not take any responsibility. I should also mention there are copious amounts of alienation involved.

    • Kate Chapman March 15, 2017 at 3:22 pm

      Wow, tough stuff. I’m sorry you’re in that spot. I don’t think substance abuse and infidelity are topics to be handled on your own. I’d work with a counselor closely to think about what is appropriate for that child in terms of age and experience, and go from there. Alienation and blame are other tough topics. Until then,I’d think about what you can personally share that is comfortable and safe for the child. A client I am working with now chose to share that “Mom and Dad recognized that we are healthier apart than we were together,” and leaves it at that for his younger children. For his older children, he has focused on “There are adult issues that played a part in our divorce that do not play a part in our parenting of you. Some parts of our story are private, and, just like I respect your privacy, I’d ask you to respect mine.” He then focuses on ensuring the child understands they are safe and loved and wanted and moves forward from there. I have a post publishing soon on my response to a reader asking about what to do when an ex sabatoges a new partner, so stay tuned! Hope that’s helpful and love to you.

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