Timing is everything, isn’t it? You can expect the tough questions are likely to come tumbling out when your child is tired, hungry, angry and just stressed out. So the chances that either you or your child is actually going to be in the right frame of mind to have such a sensitive discussion are pretty slim.
Given that you are likely to have an emotional reaction to the unexpected question, the first thing you want to do is acknowledge to your child what an important topic it is, “This sounds really important.”
If you find that you can't answer "yes" or "no" even when the questions clearly demands it, buy yourself some time. Don’t answer spontaneously on the spur of the moment. Even if you think you can hide your emotions from your child and might be able to handle it, don’t take the risk that you might blow it in even small ways.
Assure the child you will answer their questions and make a commitment to do that soon, like sometime in the next day (24 hours.) “I need a little time to think about this. I promise we'll talk about it soon. I want to make sure we have the time to talk about this at a time when we both can focus on it.”
Once you have a bought yourself some time, email or call your most trusted, reliable, balanced adult confidante and start talking it through with them. Prepare, prepare, prepare...the three most important factors in discussing divorce with your child.
Prior to having this discussion with your child is a great time to refresh yourself on the developmental tasks and stresses that are a part of your child’s life just based on their age. Even though it may feel like it to you sometimes, every problem or challenge in the life of a child is not because of the divorce or separation. Young children often will not even remember they asked the question AND young children usually don't have a follow-up question so be cautious about giving too much information!
Clearly it’s not easy to sort out where your own trigger is sometimes, but it is really important to make the effort. Once you have grounded yourself through dialogue with a trusted confidante and oriented yourself about ordinary developmental stresses, initiate the conversation with your child.
If your preparation has been done well, you will be able to:
- stay focused on your child’s needs not your own (don't give too much info!)
- answer their questions in a child-friendly manner that protects them from adult burdens and emotions, and
- let them know, when appropriate, that you have your own struggles with accepting the changes in your family.
Your goals are:
- provide emotional support,
- share age-appropriate information for the purpose of reducing anxiety, and
- connect as openly and honestly as you can.
If the child asks about money or sex tell them those are adult matters are the responsibility of the grown-ups - tell them that even if, or especially if, it is clear that the other parent has already told them way too many details! Somebody needs to be the adult in this situation. Children cannot be in the adult role!! You only have control of yourself, Mom or Dad, so make sure that you make the right choice.
Do affirm that the changes in the structure of the family are final and share how difficult that is for everybody in the family. Don’t offer false hope of reunification. Do reassure your child in the love of both of his or her parents. Don’t even hint that one parent is preferred over the other or more responsible than the other.
Do remind your child that the changes are not his or her fault, that they are those of the adults. Don’t use your child as a go-between to create distance between the child and his or her other parent.
The key to helping children cope with their own feelings and struggles with the changes in your family is learning to calm your own emotions first, and then being thoughtful about the words you choose when you answer important questions.