I realize that I'm in a privileged and unique position when I say that divorce has never been a big part of my family's story; both sets of my children's grandparents are still married, as are most of our extended family and close friends. So when we got some new neighbours, a blended family with three kids and two adults planning for a second marriage, my second-grader was intrigued. "Why don't the kids live with both of their parents? Are they brother and sisters even though they aren't really related? Are a lot of families' situations similar to this one? Is this something that might eventually happen to our family?"
Like with most complicated issues, I tried to be as honest with her as seemed appropriate for her age. Yes, divorce is something that happens to many families, I told her. Some parents try very hard to stay together, but they just can't get along and eventually realize that their family will be happier if they live apart. Of course, that doesn't mean they love their children any less or are less committed to being the best parents possible. And no, she didn't need to worry about it happening to our family. Her father and I get along quite well (well, most of the time) and plan to be together forever.
She seemed to accept those facts pretty easily, but it's a conversation I'm prepared to continue as she gets older and divorce inevitably reenters her life through friends and acquaintances. If your kids are starting to ask about divorce or you find yourself in a situation where an explanation seems necessary, here's how to start the discussion.
- Be honest, but age-appropriate. We all want to protect our children from life's harsher realities, but honesty is usually the best parenting policy. Tailor your responses to an age-appropriate level, but even young kids can understand that sometimes two people, even when they're a mummy or daddy, can't always get along and that sometimes they can't get along so much that they decide it's better to live apart.
- Be real about life's difficulties. Children need to learn that all lives — including their own and those of their friends, siblings, and parents — will have setbacks and unwelcome surprises. More importantly, they can and will survive and learn from those hard times and come out in a better place.
- Don't get overly specific. Tell kids the truth, starting with the most basic information, expressed in easy-to-understand language, then let them know they can come to you with any questions or concerns. Give them time to process what you've told them while you prepare for any questions they might have, recognizing that those questions might not ever come. Often, all a child wants or needs is a simple explanation.
- Reassure them about your family's and their own stability. Of course, none of us can totally predict the future, but reassuring your children that you and your spouse aren't getting divorced (unless you're currently planning to) is probably the right move here. When most children ask about divorce, what they're really asking is if divorce is going to affect them, so assure them that it's not something that they need to worry about, and even if it is, you and your spouse will always keep them safe and love them, and you will all always be a family.
- Treat it as an opportunity to teach compassion. Approach the conversation as a way to discuss how to help and be empathetic to others. If it's a close friend who's dealing with their parents' divorce, how can you support her? How do we express our love and compassion to those going through a difficult time? This is a skill that will serve your child well throughout their life.