Telling the kids can be one of the scariest, most gut-churning moments in divorce—for the parents. But there are ways to break the news to kids that will help them accept it more easily and feel reassured that that their parents will always love and protect them.
Conversely, some ways of telling the kids can make adjustment harder than it needs to be. As a sixty-something adult, Jane still remembers how upset she was to learn of her parents’ divorce by overhearing an argument between them as she was in bed, at age 11. “I heard my father screaming at my mother to go to Alabama or somewhere like that to get a divorce. I was shocked. They argued all the time, but no one had talked to me about the possibility of divorce.”
Although she believes the divorce was clearly the right step, she says that learning about it by overhearing a fight made her feel that her family was at war and that perhaps she was at fault.
“After they separated, we had a lot more peace in the family. But I wish they would have told me that the divorce had nothing to do with me or my little brother, that it wasn’t our fault, and that as little as possible would change," she says now. "I might not have thought of it in exactly those words, but those feelings were there. The whole fact of it, and the way I heard about it, made it seem like a dirty secret. I thought maybe I hadn’t been a good enough child. The mystery and anger left me with no good way to think about it.”
Jane says she also wishes her parents had assured her that they were committed to her happiness, rather than focusing so much on their own anger. “In my 11-year-old mind, I thought about it as something that was happening to me rather than something that was happening to them. I also worried what people would think of me. No one else had divorced parents. What would have made it better for me was a recognition of how hard a time I was having and perhaps even an apology.”
While child psychologists say that many kids blame themselves for a divorce, planning ahead how to tell them can help them avoid this misunderstanding.
Two years after her parents split up, Jane’s father remarried. She was 13, and though she’d always been a good student, she began to get in trouble at school. “I think it brought back my bad feelings from when the divorce first happened. I worried I wouldn’t be getting as much attention from my father during our visits, now that he had a new wife."
Still, as each parent created a new, stable home life, Jane began to accept the new normal of her reconfigured family and to adjust. Her parents did some things that helped.
“Separately, they each tried to make us feel like a family. They tried to keep life the way we had known it, except not with the two of them together. My mother was a stay-at-home mom. She kept the same routines we always had, like having snack with us in the kitchen after school.”
Jane says she also appreciated the effort her parents made to include positive experiences in her life. “They took us on vacations, and I was allowed to bring a friend. My early teenage years were a very social time. My focus was far more on my social life than on my family life, so having a friend come on vacation was all the more important. I wouldn’t have been excited to go away with just my broken family.”
For Jane, getting a stepmother also helped her adjust. By not trying to take on a maternal role, her stepmother helped ease Jane’s anxiety about the changed dynamic with her dad and a new wife.
Like many adult children of divorce, Jane’s childhood experience helped her know what to do right when faced with a similar situation as an adult. When she was 49, years after an early first marriage had ended, Jane married a divorced man with two sons, ages eight and twelve. Because of her positive experience with her stepmother, she felt confident about her role in the boys’ lives.
“I tried to be more of a friend than another mother,” she says. “They spent half the time with us, but in our home, I left discipline to their father. For example, they kept very messy rooms. I didn’t want to be the one who was always nagging them to make their beds and pick up their clothes from the floor.
“We are all adults now, and the boys are really comfortable and feel like they have two sets of parents,” says Jane. She credits her positive relationship with her stepsons in part to the wise actions her own parents took in their divorce.
Susan Orlins is an award-winning journalist and author of Confessions of a Worrywart: Husbands, Lovers, Mothers and Others and co-author of Still Standing: How an Ex-Con Found Salvation in the Floodwaters of Katrina. She has three grown daughters and has been divorced since 1998. For more than a decade, she has taken yearly vacations with her ex-husband and daughters. She lives in Washington, D.C., where she is an editor of Street Sense, a newspaper written and sold by homeless vendors.