As you are probably aware, the all-consuming “Holiday Season” is upon us, and for those of us struggling on the precipice of divorce, the pressure can be on to put on a happy face for the sake of the kids during what is supposed to be a time of joy. If all else fails, and divorce is an inevitability, is faking it for the holidays really the right way to go in order to preserve some sense of security for your soon to be broken home? Or is it better to be honest with your kids about the state of affairs, so that they can begin the new year with realistic idea about the future? The truth is there are no easy answers when it comes to the breakdown of familial relationships, and whether the news becomes before or after the holiday season, the kids are going to feel it the most. HOW you choose to break the news can be far more important than when you choose to do it.
First of all, give your kids some credit. Unless your children are very young, or otherwise impaired, they probably know something is up. If they have gone to a friend’s house where the parents are happy, they will know the difference between that situation and the relationship of their own parents. Also, if they have any friends at all that have experienced divorce, the idea is already floating around in their consciousness, because kids talk to each other. If mom and dad fight, or if one or both parents are seen trying to hide tears or signs of unhappiness, they wonder if divorce is being considered.
In these situations, it does the child no good to see their parents swallowing their unhappiness in favor of keeping the peace. This gives the negative impressions about marriage, relationships, and conflict resolution. Many experts agree that there are major psychological risks for children exposed to environments laden with anger, frustration, and pain. They see their parents making these poor relationship decisions and can be conditioned to repeat those choices in their own relationship dealings.
The other side effect of trying to preserve family unity for the sake of the children is that parents are often so consumed with their own inner turmoil that the very reason to do so is avoided and neglected, by which we mean those kids you love so much. If you are incapable of dealing with your soon to be ex in a way that is civil and/or respectful, your natural inclination will be to avoid situations where you will interact. If you are both avoiding those circumstances, who is addressing the physical and emotional needs of your children? Certainly not both of you at once, and maybe not either of you since you can’t communicate in a meaningful way. To your kids, this either indicates a problem with your relationship, or they will naturally infer that the problem is with THEM. That is one of the most common obstacles that impede healing and happiness for children after the divorce is final-their propensity to blame themselves for the breakdown of the primary adult relationships. Therefore, you must control the narrative by communicating ahead of time.
Get ahead of their inner dialogue, their doubts, and self-blame. Have that difficult conversation alone with your spouse in which hopefully you can agree that you want to make the separation as easy as possible on the children. Discuss what is appropriate to tell them and come up with some bullet points that you can agree on, such as that the kids are still loved, not at fault, and that both parents will still be a part of their lives. It is very important that you agree to these points before you meet with the kids, because they will look to you to make things ok. The more positive you are (or at least can sound), the better they will be able to handle the change.
When you finally do sit the kids down and tell them the news, make it as much in advance of the actual holidays as humanly possible, so as to disassociate that day from the memory of them finding out that their world is going to change forever. Be frank, be concise, be loving-stick to the talking points that were agreed upon by both of you, and if they ask a question you don’t feel comfortable answering honestly, be honest about the fact that you can’t answer because you too are sad…after all, you are losing the family you are accustomed to as well, and you are entitled to your own grief. This can give your children the message that it is ok to be sad, but that you are ALL feeling that way, and you will all weather the storm together.