Ask Scary Mommy is Scary Mommy’s new advice column, where our team of “experts” answers all the questions you have about life, love, body image, friends, parenting, and anything else that’s confusing you.
This week… How do you tell your kids that you and your spouse have decided to separate or divorce? What is the right way to tell them the truth about what’s going on while keeping their feelings at the forefront of your mind? Have your own questions? Email [email protected]
Dear Scary Mommy,
After years of trying to work through the problems in our marriage, my husband and I have decided to separate, and I am sure will eventually divorce. He’s done some things I just can’t get over and we both know we need to move on with our lives in order to be happy. I don’t feel like trying any more and neither does he.
I’m so afraid of having the conversation with my children, who are eight and ten, but I know we have to. Please help us get started — we don’t even know where to begin or what to say. We just aren’t sure there’s ever going to be a good time to tell them, or a good way to spill the news, so we’ve been putting it off.
First, I am so sorry you are going through this. Ending a marriage is a big decision. I’ve been there. It takes a lot of tough emotional work to get through, and you are both right to prioritize your children right now. This will have a huge impact on them, but you should know that it doesn’t have to be a horrible one. In fact, it can change their lives for the better. After all, happy parents equal happy kids.
You should definitely tell them together — I can’t recommend that enough. It’s not your job to sit them down and tell them, nor is it your husband’s job. It’s something you have to do as a team, as difficult as it may be.
If things are heated between the two of you, it’s important you think about your children at this time, and try — just for a few minutes — to rise above your own feelings for the sake of your kids’. You should be a united front. If being in the same room is too difficult, try a Zoom meeting or FaceTime call with your children. They deserve to be in the presence of both of you upon hearing this news, even if it’s virtually. It will make them feel safer, and like this is a decision you’ve made together, which will put their minds at ease about what’s to come.
Second, it requires some planning. It’s an unpleasant thing to do and is easy to put off. Set a date and stick to it, period. If you wait until the time is “right,” you’ll be waiting forever, tensions will like rise, and patience will grow thin. You’ve already made the decision to move on separately, so this is the next logical step.
Kids are smart, and will know very soon that there is something going on with their parents. Even if you think you’re faking it and everything seems normal, it doesn’t. If you don’t tell them, they will start asking questions and forming their own stories in their minds. Look at it this way: Telling them as soon as possible, before they form perceptions that may be wrong, is the kind thing to do.
Be matter of fact. Tell them the truth, but do leave out unnecessary details. They don’t need to know whose “fault” it is, or if one of you is willing to try harder than the other to make it work. They don’t need to know all the things your husband did to hurt you. He is their dad, and that relationship needs to be protected regardless of how hard it is for you to not express your feelings. Venting is what friends and other family members are for — not your kids.
All they need to know is that you’ve decided to separate because you aren’t getting along, and you feel this is the best way to make everyone happy. If you have no intentions of reconciling, don’t give them false hope because you want to make them feel better in the moment, regardless of how tempting it is.
Also mention what the plan will be (if you have one): who will be moving out? Where? Will the kids be going back and forth or will the parents be going back and forth? What days will they be with each parent? It’s ideal to come up with a plan before talking to them, but if you haven’t yet, be as honest as you can be. Make sure they know they know they will be safe and loved, have access to both of their parents, and that you both will keep them informed as more information becomes available.
Prepare yourself for their big feelings. Validate, validate, validate. This is going to be hard on all of you. Your kids may shrug their shoulders and want to get back to playing, or they may be devastated and cry. There’s no getting around this and it is, for a lot of couples, the worst part of separating. Be there for them, hug them, let them know it’s okay to be sad, and answer their questions. Then keep a close eye on them in the following weeks (and months) to make sure they’re handling the transition appropriately, and line up a counselor for them to speak to, if possible, if they seem to be struggling. They may not be willing to show you they are hurting or struggling, so these feelings may present as behavior changes and/or regression. Make sure to lead with empathy and grace, and address any pressing concerns with their pediatrician.
Prepare yourselves for this reality too: they may side with one parent during this conversation, and in the months to come. While this is obviously frustrating and panful, it’s totally normal. It’s in the best interest of the child to gently redirect this behavior and try to remain a united front. You two are still the parents. They are looking to you to guide them through this. You have always been their safe place, and that isn’t going to change. They need you now more than ever, even if they don’t act like it — and it will all start with this conversation.
It won’t be easy or fun, but you can do it. And there’s nothing wrong with having a fun activity, or family meal, planned after the talk to show the kids that you’re still a family who can be together. They may not be ready for that, and may need to retreat to their own spaces to decompress, and that’s okay too. Every child is different and there is not one ‘right’ way for them (or you) to handle this transition.
Have your own question?
Email [email protected]