How Do I Tell the Kids about the Divorce
Using a storybook format to break the news to your children in a loving way.
I’ve faced many difficult moments in my life. Who hasn’t? But preparing to tell my son that I will be divorcing his father was absolutely one of the worst. The emotions surging through my body were overwhelming. Deep, gut-wrenching fear. Continuous anxiety. Incredible guilt. And the oppressive weight of shame.
My son, after all, was innocent. A sweet, dear soul who loved his father and mother both. He certainly didn’t deserve this.
I struggled with the anxiety for weeks in advance. When should I tell him? How should I tell him? Should we tell him together? And most frightening of all, what should we say?
How do you explain to a child that the life he has known, the comfort he has felt in his family setting, is about to be disrupted — changed — forever?
How do you explain to a child that none of this is his fault?
How do you reassure him that life will go on, that he will be safe, cared for, and loved, even after his parents divorce?
And even more intimidating, how do you prepare him for all the unknowns looming ahead, when you’re not sure yourself how it will all turn out?
I needed a plan. A strategy. A way of conveying all that I wanted to say to him at a level of understanding that he could grasp.
My son, Cassidy, was 11 at the time. He was still a child, yet old enough to feel the tension in our home that had been escalating for several years. He heard the frequent irritation in our voices when his father and I spoke. He heard the arguments that would flare up suddenly in the midst of routine conversations. He heard the sarcastic inflections in our communication, as well as the deafening silence when we were beyond words and engulfed in frustration and anger.
Silently, internally, my son was experiencing it all and, not surprisingly, he began to show signs of stress. Sometimes it came in the form of headaches which had been increasing in frequency over the past two years. Other times, it was his tears that revealed the pain he felt hearing what he heard and being helpless to stop it. Many times, he acted out, showing us his escalating temper, taking attention away from our drama and placing it on himself as he was quietly filling up with rage about controlling a situation that was moving out of control.
The most frustrating part of it all is that we knew better, his father and I. We knew better than to fight in front of our son, to allow him to be caught up in our difficulties. But as our unhappiness together grew over time, we lost a handle on what we knew and gave in to what we felt. It was a terrible mistake, one which I will always regret because my innocent child, the being I loved more than anyone in the universe, was paying the price.
I wrote a list for myself of what was most important for me to convey to Cassidy when I — or both his father and I — spoke to him. Six points stood out as most essential:
This is not your fault.
You are and will always remain safe.
Mom and dad will always be your parents.
Mom and dad will always love you.
This is about change, not about blame.
Things will work out OK.
But how do I say it? I rehearsed dozens of conversations in my head during those weeks. They seemed awkward. Rehearsed. Insincere. Nothing felt right or did justice to the importance of this conversation.
Everything I tried brought up more questions than answers. How do I begin? How do I prepare myself to answer all his questions? How do I cope with the inevitable tears?
And then what?
One night at 4 a.m., while my troubled mind rehashed my insecurities in bed, a thought came to me that resonated in a powerful way. I remembered that my son always enjoyed looking through the family photo albums, primarily because they were filled with photos of him. He liked seeing his baby pictures and watching himself change as he grew. The albums were like a story book of his life. They kept his attention for long periods of time. They also brought out his curiosity and questions which opened the door to many relaxed family conversations.
What if I prepared a photo album for my son that told the story of our family in pictures and words? And what if it spanned from before he was born right up to the present, preparing him for the new changes ahead?
The storybook concept gave him something tangible he could hold on to and read over again and again to help him grasp what was about to transpire. It would explain, in language he could understand, why this was happening and what to expect. Most important of all, it would be a format that allowed me to make sure I emphasized the six crucial points I knew I had to get across to him.
And rather than rehearsing a conversation that felt like a minefield of possible mistakes and detours, the storybook would give me a written, pre-planned script that was well thought out in advance.
The idea still had merit the next morning. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed to be the best option, both for Cassidy and his parents. With this new concept solidly in mind, I moved ahead in this creative new direction. And it worked.
When the storybook was completed, I showed it to my husband. It was important to me that we both agreed upon the message we were conveying to our child. What I said was not controversial, judgmental, or accusatory. On the contrary. The story in the book told the truth while focusing on areas of mutual agreement, the six crucial points that most every parent would want to get across.
While my husband was angry with me for initiating our divorce, he understood that the point of our storybook was not to air our differences but to show as much support to our son, during this difficult time, as was possible. He agreed the book was well done.
On the evening we set aside, my husband and I sat down with Cassidy and told him we had put together a storybook photo album about our family. He was immediately interested. I started reading aloud. At times, I stopped for a moment as we reminisced about a birthday party, vacation, or other memorable event mentioned in our story. It felt good to laugh together, even if only briefly, sitting on the sofa as a family for, perhaps, one of the very last times.
As I started reading about changes in the family, tensions, disagreements, and sad times, I watched as tears pooled up in my son’s eyes. By the time I reached the end of the story, he was weeping uncontrollably and holding on to both of us as tightly as he could.
That was followed by the inevitable anticipated responses. “No! You’re not getting a divorce. I don’t want you to. You can’t. It isn’t fair.” And then, as a family, we talked, cried, hugged, answered questions, repeated answers, reread passages in the book, and consoled one another.
The deed was done. It was awful to go through. But somehow having the book as an anchor, something to reread, hold on to, and keep was helpful for my son. We had the conversation about the impending divorce itself. Sometimes we’d refer back to a passage or two in the book as a reminder that mom and dad will still love him forever and that everything will be okay.
The book also helped me and my husband to keep a perspective about our son. To remember that this was not about good guys and bad guys, judgments, and accusations. People and situations change. Life evolves. And beyond our differences, our frustrations and disappointments, we were still both Cassidy’s mom and dad and always will be. So we needed to treat each other with dignity and respect.
It has been more than a decade since I prepared that storybook about our family. I have since remarried, and my son has graduated college and embarked on an exciting career. As a grown young man in his 20s, he is still very close to me and his father. And he tells us, much as he hated our decision at the time, he now believes we were wise to get a divorce and move on with our lives, both of us choosing more suitable mates. When I approached him with my idea about sharing our family storybook with others who are facing divorce and emotionally torn up about how to tell their children, he enthusiastically agreed that it was a great idea.
So did the six therapists I approached. They not only endorsed the concept but graciously contributed to the value of this book by adding additional suggestions and insights based on their professional experience. For this, I am truly grateful.
In my book, I share with you the templates I have prepared, which will enable you to create a storybook customized to your individual family. I help prepare you for the questions to expect from your children and how best to answer them. And I refer you to additional resources you can turn to for advice, support, and counseling at whatever level is appropriate for you.
By the end of my book, you will not only know how to tell your kids about divorce, you will also have a viable means with which to do so… your personal family storybook. May it be a resource you will create and turn to when expressing your love for your children as you move through divorce and beyond.
At this difficult time in the life of your family, I send you my heartfelt compassion and my very best wishes for the most positive and peaceful resolution for everyone involved.