Ask Dr. Meg: How to Talk Kids Through a Divorce
Dear Dr. Meeker,
First, I wish to thank you for Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters. It has been a very enlightening and educational read for me as a dad of a five-year-old daughter.
I write to you because, sadly, my wife has decided to end our twelve-year marriage. Needless to say, it is my daughter for whom I am very, very concerned.
Although my wife has also read your book and all the hard figures and statistics in it, she thinks saving a marriage “for the children” is an old, passé way of thinking. She thinks the impact on children—specifically my daughter—depends on how the divorcing couple manage the situation.
Frankly, I am heartbroken and desperate. I went through the divorce of my parents, and those were indeed horrible times for me—whose ghosts accompany me to this very date, and I am almost 40 years old! If I could only put my experience inside my wife’s head for her to see! But she just does not buy it. Admittedly, my particular case was aggravated by my father’s alcoholism and his virtual disappearance from my life after the divorce.
I have done everything in my hands to save my marriage, to no avail. I suggested couples counseling, I promised to try to change the things that drive her mad about me, etc., but my wife is determined. Apparently my mistakes have been too many and too aggravating for her to continue.
Truth be told, at this point our relationship is nothing but pieces of shattered glass; she is just too angry, too disappointed and too resentful to go on. We hardly talk to each other, and when we do we just fight. Very, very sad situation. It shocks me how a relationship can go from a cordial one to an absolutely hellish thing in no time!
Could you give me a few suggestions on how to handle a divorce? What does one tell children? How does one explain it? What to say and what not to say? Is there a book you would recommend?
My wife was saying we could tell my daughter that I am being sent out of town because of work, and that I would only be able to see her in certain days and so on… I am not too sure about telling lies. Plus, children are children—not idiots! My daughter would soon begin to question the whole alibi!
Dear Hurting Dad,
I am so sorry for the pain that you are experiencing. Divorce is traumatizing for everyone involved. By the tone of your letter, you sound like a wonderful father. I have some suggestions for you, and I encourage you to ask your wife to read this post.
First, make sure that you have asked your wife why she wants the divorce and then really listen to her answer.
It sounds as though you have done this, but I have found that when a spouse is willing to see the offenses he/she has committed against the other and is genuinely willing to correct them, many marriages can be saved. This is important for you to do and for your wife to do. Divorce is caused by two (not one) broken people.
Second, if your wife is dead set on getting divorced, there is little you can do.
She needs to be reminded that she can divorce you but that your daughter can’t. Many wives forget this. She can leave you behind but your daughter needs you for the rest of her life. So, if your wife really loves your daughter, she will do whatever she can to foster a good relationship between you and your daughter. Taking your daughter away from you will hurt you but it will hurt your daughter more. You are a developed adult; she is a child and needs your influence to develop into a strong young woman. For instance, studies show that the best way to boost a girl’s self esteem is to receive physical affection from her dad. You need to be around to give that to her.
Third, you need a good lawyer.
Many states automatically grant mothers far more time with children than fathers, so you need to fight for time with your daughter. This is the sad truth. Don’t give up; the fight is worth it.
Fourth, NO! You should not tell your daughter that you are working out of town.
She knows exactly what is going on and will feel deceived. Tell her the truth. You and her mother should talk over what you are going to say before you tell her and the two of you need to agree on ground rules. You should commit to not criticizing or blaming the other in front of your daughter. This will make her feel crazy and force her to pick sides. Never, ever do this.
How To Tell Your Daughter You’re Getting a Divorce
The two of you should sit together side by side and face your daughter. Then say something like this: “Honey, we have something very difficult to tell you. Mom and I won’t be living together anymore. There are many hurts that have come between us. You can probably tell that things around here have been very strained for the past months (years).”
I would encourage you to pause and let her react to you. This is like swallowing a bomb. She will cry and maybe scream at you and will have difficulty hearing what you say next. Then continue with something like this:
“Mom will always be your mother and I will always be your dad. We want to be there for you always and we need to work some things out to make that happen. I know you don’t understand, but there are issues that we have as adults that have nothing to do with you and they are the reason that we need to separate. Whenever you need to talk, we will be there for you. We are a family and we will get through this together. It’s going to be hard, but we can make it. We love you very much.”
Many times couples won’t talk to kids together; but if you can, it is best. If you must talk to her alone try hard not to pin the divorce on her mother (even though you do blame her and you don’t want it). She can’t be turned against either of you.
I’ll be honest. There is no good age for a child to suffer the divorce of her parents, but age 12 is a particularly hard age from a developmental standpoint. If your wife can postpone the divorce until she is through her teen years, it would greatly help your daughter. Then, she will be able to react with the emotional and cognitive maturity of an adult, not a child.
The notion that “staying together for the children is passé” is nothing but an excuse to do what you want.
There are hundreds of research articles that show how devastating divorce is for kids. That’s a reality that every parent who is divorcing needs to face. Staying together for children is an excellent reason to remain married, unless there is frank abuse.