Divorce can be difficult for the whole family, and especially hard for kids to understand. Here are some helpful tips from Amelia Peck, LMFT, to help you work through the process.
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My wife just left me and our three kids, and I don’t know if she’s coming back or what this means for our marriage. It will probably end in divorce. How do I talk to my kids about this, even during separation? I don’t want to lie or give them false hope, but I don’t want them to feel abandoned. - Grieving Dad
Dear Grieving Dad,
I am so sorry to hear about what you’re going through. Divorce and separation are often challenging situations to navigate, and when it comes upon you in such an unexpected way, it makes it just that much more complicated. However, when addressing the situation of your relationship with your kids there are some definite core themes to make sure you get across.
It is so common with complicated adult situations that kids begin to feel complicated emotions they don’t understand and they are processing while you are working through your own. If you are unsure of something, it’s ok to let them know that. But always, tell them they are loved, cared for, and not alone. Reassure them it’s ok to feel confused and upset. This will help them find ways to cope in a healthy way. Encourage them to talk about it and muddle through thoughts while they adjust. Assurance of love and acceptance in a time that feels insecure and uncertain will help their resilience build through the process.
You may be feeling very alone during this time, but you are not. If family members offer to help bring meals or take the kids out, say yes. Many parents catch themselves trying to remind themselves of how strong we can be. It can lead us to feel like we have to convince others of that as well. This may not be the best way to cope. We know you are strong, and strong people can accept help. You will need some time to yourself to process your own grief and get thoughts in order.
For you and maybe your kids also. These are big changes and it is emotional. A therapist will provide a space where you can be unfiltered in your grief. You are going to feel different emotions on different days. Some days you are going to be fairly balanced and others you might be so filled with anger you need to scream. Talking to a therapist will also help you piece together the words you need to tell your children when the time has come to have those hard conversations.
I don’t know the details of why your wife decided to go, and your children will need some version of that story to help them adjust. Something age-appropriate, and not a lie. That can be a hard balance to strike. She isn't just the other parent. She is their mom. Wrestle through it. It’s better to work out a dialogue with someone in a professional setting and have a good plan when you go into that conversation than thinking of something in the moment. It’s ok to ask for time to answer questions with the right words.
Therapy may also come in handy if you and your wife need to decide on co-parenting arrangements during your separation.
Particularly for your children, it will offer them someone to reassure them of what you are already doing. Offer them a space to talk about divorce and ask questions they may not be ready to ask you.
In addition to therapy, support groups through community resources and churches offer great assistance as well. Depending on how involved your wife was in the community, or how removed she is from it now, it could be helpful to seek a group outside of the people you know best. Strangers going through similar challenges offer unique support. Often, finding a new community in some areas of your life may be comforting as well, and help you as the conversations you have with your children continue.
Books are an excellent resource as well. There are many out there for parents, and for you to read to your children as well and they feel out their new family structure. Books that give vocabulary and language to situations around, separation, custody, parents living in different houses, and the new life situations and emotions it introduces will be a guide.
Common suggestions from therapists and others in this field are:
Helping Your Kids Cope with Divorce the Sandcastles Way by M Gary Neuman
The Truth About Children and Divorce by Robert E Emery, PhD
Dinosaurs Divorce by Marc Brown
I Don’t Want to Talk About It by Jeanie Franz Ransom
There are many other resources available on Amazon.com and I always recommend reading book descriptions and reviews from other consumers to give you the best implication that a particular book is right for your family. Some may focus on more specific topics in addition to separation and divorce, and more specifically on co-parenting, parenting on your own, and even new relationships you may explore one day
I hope your family finds its new normal soon. This will be an uphill climb but you can get through it. Take everything one day at a time and know you are doing the best you can.