Posted by: itneverrainsinseattle | December 10, 2010

Divorce. When to tell the kids?

I am confronted with a dilemma, and I’d like to know your thoughts.

Our story so far: I’m a 42-year-old father of three children, the oldest of whom is eight-years-old. My wife and I have been locked in a platonic marriage that has been little more than a business and in-house co-parenting arrangement from the outset. Penny and I are both well-educated, entrepreneurial, and otherwise quite compatible, but the lack of intimacy and the constant rejection in our marriage has taken its toll on me. Nobody has cheated on the other; there has never been any physical abuse or intentional cruelty. Penny does not want to remain married to me, but just as she has not participated in our marriage, she has not been actively participating in our divorce, either. I dare say, we’ve both been living in denial for a very long time.

Oh, and I should also mention that our household took a severe hit during the recession, and although our (mostly my) income situation is now better than ever, we fell enough into arrears on our marital house that it is not possible for us to avoid foreclosure without heroic efforts. Given our path to divorce, those heroic efforts would not be well-advised, and so we are about to lose the house and our credit (jointly and singly) is trashed. Penny and I have begun negotiating our divorce via a mediator rather than adversarial lawyers; I’ll post more on how that works out as the situation develops, but there is reason to be cautiously optimistic that we can avoid acrimony as we split.

Yesterday, I reached an agreement with a property management company over the rental of a house in a nearby neighborhood. Today (Friday) after work, I will be signing a lease. The stalemate (or rather, the Mexican Stand-off) of our separation has been broken, and now the dominoes start falling down the line. Soon, I will be building my new household and Penny and I will begin dismantling the marital household. (The homes Penny is looking at are in the same neighborhood as the one where I am going to be leasing.)

Three young children. None of them have any reason to expect divorce is imminent; none of them really have much reason to know what divorce is. Yes, they have friends their same age whose parents are going through divorce, but from what I’ve seen, the topic doesn’t seem to find any purchase in our children’s minds. They’ve never seen Penny and me fight, and we present a united front to them as parents.

Our children do know, however, that our family home is for sale (this is part of our effort to satisfy the first mortgage holder by allowing for a short sale), and they understand that we will be moving at some point before too long, but we haven’t dwelled on what that would look like, either.

But now I am securing a new place to live, and Penny has rental applications out on a house or two, herself. The move is upon us. Since we would both be moving to a nearby neighborhood, a change in elementary schools for the eight-year-old is in order, and it would make logistical sense to make such a move over the winter holiday break. I don’t know, however, if that would be best for the child.

This is where I ask for your help. You may have divorced with children, or may be facing divorce with children, or have friends or family who are going through or have gone through this kind of situation. Again: our kids have no real context for understanding divorce, but they are aware that we will need to move soon.

Oh, and Christmas is two weeks away.

My (our) dilemma: when do we tell the kids? What and how do we tell the kids? And following that, when/how do we start moving the kids into their new two-home lives?

I have some thoughts, but I’d sure like to hear your thoughts as well.

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Responses

  1. I would think the sooner the better. You are kinda screwed on the holiday situation but they need time to proces and I found that was better with both Dustin and I around and doing everything slowly. I don’t come from divorced parents so I don’t have that childhood experience to gage from. I don’t really think this is a rip the band aid situation however. Mentioning divorce, moving and new school all in one day may be a bit much to process.
    I hate to say this but that was abslutely without a doubt the worse part of my divorcce. They day we had to tell Bear. I can say it was much harder on us than her and kids are so resiliant. Good luck my friend.

  2. I’m a little older than you, started dating my wife back in college; we married 3 months after she graduated. However, my parents split when they finished Grad School and I was in 6th grade. By the middle of 9th grade Dad was remarrying. Mom remarried about a year-and-a-half after them. Both are still married to their second spouses.

    So I think I was 12 when I was told. I don’t remember much from my childhood…just occasional snapshots. But I remember being taken to the nearby park. Because the split occurred as Dad finished grad school, I was under the impression that moving was imminent, so when he moved out, I assumed he was moving to his new job, that they were letting us finish the school year, and we’d be joining him shortly.

    So it was early summer break when Mom told me.

    I don’t have any emperical evidence, but better, I think, to tell them around the beginning of the Christmas break. Before Christmas. I’m inclined to give them the details of the move at the same time… processing those details will kind-of distract them from the Divorce detail. It won’t really, but it’ll give them other things to think about. Because they already know about the impending move, giving them details about where they’ll live won’t be a big shock…other than the divorce.

    I’m just thinking all about this right now…there has to be something wrong with my timeline, because I want to say it was 2.5 years from Dad moving out until he remarried and that I didn’t see him for 2 years after the split (he moved 8 hours drive away… apparently he thought, when he left, that we’d be joining him)… but I know I knew my now stepmom for well over a year before they got married. So either they split a year earlier than I remember, or my estrangement from Dad was longer than I recall.

  3. My first thought has to do with moving your child’s school. *IF* it is possible (and I understand that it may not be), you might want to talk to his school and see if he can finish the year. There are district transfers that can be filled out. Schools like to keep their students. As a teacher, I get freaked out when they leave and don’t come back over the holidays. I was VERY upset on Monday when I was called by the office and told, “It’s M’s last day. He needs to clean out his desk.” WHAT?

    Given that a new school may be necessary, I’d say sooner is better than later. If Christmas is a highly celebrated holiday, than, again, sooner is better than later. You don’t want their holiday memories negatively mashed-up with divorce. Also, the school might have resources to help as well.

    The students I’ve had who’ve been happiest are the ones whose parents continued to put them first. I’ve had excellent parents who are divorced but both come to the conference. I have students who understand their schedule with their parents and are fine with it. The kids who don’t do well are the ones whose parents don’t talk, avoid each other, carry anger, and generally are still negatively enmeshed in each others’ lives.

    When my parents finally considered D-I-V-O-R-C-E, I was thrilled. I was older. Mind you, I believe my reaction made them seek therapy so they actually made a good go at it until my dad’s death. They just sat me down, told me there was something serious they needed to discuss, and said it. I’d make sure you don’t have ANYTHING else planned at all to give them time to ask questions, cry, worry, and then come to something like terms.

    If you’re like us, the break starts 12/17. Nothing much happens this week in school that’s new or hard (usually). It’s a bit abrupt, but I’d tell them TOMORROW. Plus, anything you can do to keep them from switching schools until summer break would be good too.

    Just my 2 cents.

  4. As I don’t have children, I don’t feel I can fairly weigh in, but just to offer support to you. You are a fantastic father, and will do right by your kids, so however they are informed, I know it will be in the most respectful, honest way possible. Hang in there!

  5. I was 13 when my parents split and my mom told me about my dad moving out during a car ride to an extended visit with my cousin. It ruined my vacation and I wasn’t there to say ‘good-bye’ to my dad (not that I didn’t see him again, but still…). So I don’t reccommend handling it that way.

    I’d suggest doing it as soon as you can give them the TIME it will take to have the conversation and answer their questions. And, even if they don’t ask, tell them as much as you can. Let them know when and where you are going. If you know the custody schedule, tell/show them what to expect. Describe your apartment, where they will sleep, etc. In order to feel secure about the change, they need to know what to expect and they need time to get used to the idea.

    Good luck and congratulations :)

  6. I would recommend if at all possible not changing schools right now – that would be a lot to handle for an 8 year old with all the other stuff going on. My parents divorced when I was 7 and I switched schools and it was pretty hard – from age 7 to 18 I switched schools 5 times and being a new kid is hard. It does develop your social skills and independence but it also is hard on a kid.

    Just make sure you emphasize to the kids that you both still love them, you aren’t leaving them, and they haven’t done anything wrong. They will still think it – I remember thinking all kinds of crazy things when my parents divorced none of which was true. LOL Just keep repeating the above.

    Good luck.

  7. My own experience more than a decade ago led to my writing a guidebook for parents on how to create a storybook with family photos and history as a successful way to have this tough break-the-news conversation. I’m recognized as The Voice of Child-Centered Divorce and my book is How Do I Tell the Kids about the Divorce? A Create-a-Storybook™ Guide to Preparing Your Children — With Love! What makes the book unique is that I don’t just tell parents what to say. I provide customizable templates to say it for them!

    Therapists, attorneys, mediators, educators and other professionals from around the world have endorsed the book, attesting to the value of my fill-in-the-blanks, age-appropriate templates. Six therapists contribute their expertise to the book, as well. My goal is for divorcing couples to stop, talk and create a plan before having that crucial “divorce” talk with their children. I hope, for the sake of their kids, they will decide to move ahead in creating a child-centered divorce. For free articles, ezine and other valuable resources on this topic, visit http://www.childcentereddivorce.com.

    Best wishes to you,
    Rosalind Sedacca, CCT
    The Voice of Child-Centered Divorce

    I am recognized as The Voice of Child-Centered Divorce. My own experience

  8. Glad you posted. Hope someone has the magical answer.

    A couple of random thoughts:

    Tell them somewhere neutral. Not your current home, not your new home. Take them somewhere like a park to tell them. You don’t want them to later associate the place they were in with the moment.

    Get them each a calendar (even the 2 yr old). Pencil in their schedule with Mom and Dad. While you’re at it, start a Google calendar that you can share with P.

    Give them options for the new place. Let them pick out the shower curtain, the dinnerware (plates). Get some vinyl stickers for the walls (cheaper and easier than painting).

    Good luck. THinking of you!

    • good point about someplace neutral. 33 years later I *still* associate the bridge at the park where my mom told me with my parents splitting up.

      • The good thing about telling them in the current family home, is that they WON’T later associate that place with anything, ever again…They’re moving from there, never to return.

  9. being among the non-parents in the world, i don’t have a whole lot of perspective from that side of things. i was 15 when my parents separated and 17 when they split up for good, so i was in a much more intellectually mature place than the little ones are.

    that being said, it seems to be a universal truth that kids are great at sensing when they’re being “finessed” about important things. be gentle, be truthful, be supportive and be prompt. from a kid’s point of view, that’s the best service i think you can do them. and just pour love over them. that soothes everything.

  10. I have only this to add…
    It appears your situation is unique in that there is no fighting, no other woman (or man) and the one thing you and Penny do well together is parent. SO…I think you should tell them together, at home, and this is why:
    If you tell them in the current family home, they can process their initial feelings in familiar surroundings with both of you still living there for a while, and they can see and feel that even though Mom and Dad are divorcing, things are still the same in many ways.

    The next step is that they have two homes, and quality alone time with each parent. I think they get some of that alone time now, right?
    I see you still doing things as a family, like birthday parties and such, so I don’t think this is going to be as traumatic to your kids as most.

    Changing schools at winter break would be the most traumatic thing, and I wholeheartedly agree that you should do everything in your power to avoid that.

  11. You’ve gotten lots of advice here. I have experienced divorce with young children, younger than at least your oldest. Couple of things to think about.

    1. As much stability as possible is preferable. If you can keep her in the same school for the rest of the school year I’d certainly try and do that.
    2. I’d try to wait until after the holidays, if possible, to tell them. Get that out of the way then use the idea of a ‘new home’ to help ease some of their uneasiness and make it exciting. new rooms, new neighbors, etc.
    3. Have a plan for them. Uncertainty is will go thru their minds, what happens next? Have it all planned out where they will be, what will happen, visitation – what it will look like. Try to alleviate any “I don’t know” answers that they might ask.
    4. Tell them together, both you and the wife. Show a united front with all of them.

    I can tell you that children are extremely resilient. As painful as this may be you’ll be surprised at how they will adapt as long as they know your love and support is their for them.

    All the best,

    Papa

  12. I just asked my kids about how we told them when we were getting divorced. First, they all cried…even the ones I didn’t think would cry. Mostly their tears were about themselves. They wanted to know how their world would be affected (my oldest wanted to know if she could still go to her private school). One thing all the experts say is to stress to your kids that THIS IS NOT THEIR FAULT. It’s got nothing to do with them. It’s nothing they did to cause this.

    The only other thing was we told the kids and then their dad didn’t move out for another couple of weeks and things kind of continued on like normal. They said that was very confusing to them. My kids were 12, 8 and 6 when we split up. I would say they have adjusted very well because there really is no drama between me and their dad and we co-parent very well together (which means, basically, that I am very flexible).

    • Or…since nothing else is really changing, perhaps before Christmas is the best time to tell then, as it may distract them from the divorce, especially since they will still have Christmas as a family this year (and I suspect next year, and the year after that…) Remember, this is not a situation where Mom and Dad hate each other. Other than changing schools, these kids are not going to have that much of a change.

  13. I can’t answer the immediate question as to when to tell your sons about the divorce, but I can tell you from experience what a pain it is to have to get used to a new school in mid year. I had to go through three different schools in one year due to moving, and the differences in what I already knew with where the new class was always put me in a bad spot. I was younger than your eight-year-old, and not wise to the ways of meeting new people. The other kids were a bit hostile as my arrival upset what social balances they had already created among themselves, and I became inured to being an outsider at a delicate time in my life. The effects are forever, as I am still more of a “professional” in my relationships than I am a friend due to the defensiveness I developed to protect myself.

    My advice, if such is possible, is to keep him in his current school for the remainder of this year. Changing schools with the change in grade is a lot easier to adapt to, for everyone is focused on the same page in their education. No one gets left behind or called dummy because you don’t already know something the other kids do, or gets seen as an object of ridicule because “you’re so smart” (in other words, we’re going to take you down hard for showing us up with your knowledge). You will be doing your son a great favor to keep him where he now is. Take it from someone who knows all too well.

    Suzanne above tells a similar tale from the teacher’s perspective, I see. I sure wish I had a teacher like her during my new school trials! Mine didn’t seem to give a damn about me, and I went both to public and private schools during that year.

    One last point: the year I changed schools so often was the year I figured out that Santa Claus was a myth. I was miserable and hoped for emotional release that didn’t come. I’ve never looked at Christmas the same since. Announcing your divorce prior to Christmas might cause the same to happen in your sons. Are you ready for that?

  14. Why in the world, after all the delay, would you choose to sign a lease, and consider telling the children NOW… at Christmas time???

    Changing schools AND a divorce at the same time? Not fair.

    I say wait, and make a better situation for the 8 year old.

  15. For what it’s worth, I had a client in my office yesterday, who told me a very sad tale of how SHE got the news that her parents were getting divorced:

    She and her younger brother had NO idea anything was wrong.
    Mom and Dad took them to Disneyland for the day, they all had a wonderful time, then came home, took their baths and were summoned to the parents’ bedroom.
    Mom and Dad were in their bed (together) and Mom had tears in her eyes… Dad told the kids that he was getting a job transfer out of state and that they would not be coming with them.
    She said she was confused but didn’t ask questions. She doesn’t remember her Dad packing or leaving, just that he was gone 2 weeks later and they (she, her Mom and her brother) had to move to a smaller house. She was going to have to change schools, but she pitched a fit and her Mom was able to keep her in the same one.
    However, to this day (she’s now 37) she cannot go to Disneyland or see commercials for Disneyland or even think about Disneyland without getting heartburn.
    She never had kids, because the thought of having to take them to Disneyland made her sick.


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