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6 Tips for Talking with Your Kids About Divorce

Nate Riggs
Nate Riggs / August 31, 2010

getting-doughnutsThis post was originally intended for Man of the House, but it's kind of personal and so I'd rather share it with you here. It's a bit off my usual focus here, but family is important...

“Daddy, why don’t you and mommy live together anymore?”

[Silence.]

About a year ago, that question stopped me in my tracks. It came from my son, Kaden, who was two years old at the time. I can remember noticing what seemed to be a sad look on his face while we prepared dinner one evening. I was heartbroken by such a valid and genuine question from my little guy.

But it got me thinking.

Divorce is hard on kids of any age. I remember growing up in a split home, during the late-80s and early-90s, and dealing with issues of low self-esteem and lack of trust. I also always seemed to have trouble making friends at school. My parents split when I was five and the sudden changes in routines, locations and home life hit me pretty hard. There were occasions where I would get sick to my stomach for no apparent reason other than being stressed and upset. The upholstery in my Opa's Volkswagen Golf would ultimately pay the price (more than once).

Kids Remember More Than You Think

Kaden’s mom and I split not long before his third birthday. We thought that because he was so young it might be easier for him. Maybe, we hoped, he simply wouldn’t remember how things were before the marriage ended. We were even fortunate enough that the marriage ended on good terms.

Unfortunately, the consensus of experts is that most children gain the ability to recall memories somewhere between the ages two and five years old.

Taking that to heart, I think it’s a safer bet for parents to err on the side of caution. Even at a young age, our kids are aware of their surroundings, the decisions we make as parents and even snapshot-style memories of specific events. That’s a rather scary notion to think about when you're faced with the decision to split a family.

So what can you do as a dad? Are there overarching guidelines you can follow to make things as easy as possible for your child?

Here are some of the things I’ve learned over the past few years that might help:

  1. When Kaden wants to talk about the divorce, I drop everything. Eliminating all the distractions lets him know he has my full attention. At times, we even try to find a spot where he and I can be alone for one-on-one time. It also helps me to get down to his level so we can talk as friends would.
  2. I’ve learned to listen to his questions and be patient. Sometimes we find the words he needs together. If he decides that he wants the subject to change, it’s his call. I try to let him lead. Over time, as his language has developed, his questions have gotten deeper. His responses have also become much more insightful. It's been wonderful to watch his comprehension develop.
  3. I always make sure to never be disrespectful when referring to Kaden’s mom. This is probably one of the most important things that divorced parents need to remember. It’s not uncommon to have disputes or disagreements with your ex, but always respect your co-parent. The relationship they have with your child is real and it's important.
  4. Drawing pictures together can help aid in your explanations and answers. This is not only a good way to help boil down a complex situation, but it’s also an activity you can share as you talk.
  5. Make every effort to practice good communication with your ex. Kaden’s mom and I have been very fortunate to have remained good friends. However, this isn’t always the case. I do know this: ex-spouses who can find ways to stay civil, respectful and work together as parents, will see the positive effects of such effort in their children. It takes work, but it’s totally worth it.
  6. Get doughnuts. While I'm not a big fan of junk food, getting doughnuts on the way to school is one of Kaden's favorite things to do with me. The 20 minutes we have sitting in Tim Hortons creates a perfect situation for us to talk about anything he wants. Ironically, it's become a special place in our routine at least once a week. In reality, the spot or activity doesn't matter as long as you are getting some one-to-one time outside of home. Find your own special place.

What would you add? What has helped you talk with your kids about divorce?