One of the most difficult challenges facing parents who are planning to divorce is what to tell their children. While indeed this is perhaps the most painful conversation that parents will ever have, a frequently overlooked dynamic is the timing of this discussion. As a lawyer or mental health professional, you are often one of the first people in a position to guide your clients in not only what to say, but when to say it. You need to help your client see this experience from their child’s perspective.
Help Your Client Empathize
For many parents once the actual decision is made, they are often driven by anxiety to tell their children as quickly as possible; as much to inform them as to escape their own feelings of stress and tension that builds as time goes on as they are “keeping a secret”. What you can do for your client is to help them understand that hearing the news about parental divorce is their child’s own personal “September 11th”. This news is traumatic for most children, and typically unexpected. Consequently, just as the parent likely remembers exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard about 9-11, their child will likely remember many of the details surrounding this conversation. I personally compare it to where I was when I heard about the JFK assassination (although I’m clearly dating myself), but any such examples help your client to empathize with the impact of this news on their child and why the timing matters. Where they were, when it occurred, and what was going on at the time are all variables imprinted on the child’s memory and subsequent recall of this experience.
Avoid Recurring Events
It is therefore important that your client understand how critical it is to NOT to tell their child about a pending divorce around a “recurring anniversary” event that will get triggered every year. Your client remembers 9-11 EVERY year on September 11th, and even unconsciously relives the trauma that hearing about the Twin Towers crash caused them.
Similarly, if a parent tells their child about the divorce around their birthday, any holiday, the beginning of school, the beginning of summer, the beginning of camp, etc., each time that event recurs, potentially for the rest of their lives, they will recall “oh yeah, THIS is when you told me about the divorce” and re-experience, even briefly, a pang of grief and sadness that accompanied the original news, never really allowing that wound to fully heal.
Steer Clear of the Holidays
This is especially important as we are coming into “holiday time”. If you have clients, who have recently decided to divorce, and they have not yet told their children by approximately the third week in October, AND they have the ability to wait (which may not always be possible) I would recommend that they wait to have this difficult conversation until after the new year. Once Halloween occurs, holiday season has begun. Sharing this traumatic news between the end of October and the beginning of January will not only contaminate most children’s favorite time of year, but the divorce will be forever associated with the holidays, which will then serve as an annual reminder to their child of when their world turned upside down.
Parents in the throes of a divorce are often not thinking clearly, and it is therefore your job to help them share this painful news in not only the best possible way, but at the best possible time.