Dear Dr. Wes and Ben: My husband and I are going to divorce. What’s the best way to break the news to our teenagers (13, 15 and 19)? We want to do the least damage possible.
Wes: This is one of those problems in life that actually has pretty strict and straightforward rules, yet in their hurt and anguish, far too many divorcing parents violate them all. So I applaud your concern and appreciate the chance to address this topic. The first rule is what I call getting the story right. You and your husband need to sit down and agree on a) exactly how you want to explain the divorce to your teens; and b) what you will and will not discuss outside of those joint discussions. Ben offers some excellent tips on that below, but suffice it to say that the person getting dumped in a marriage often struggles to keep out bitterness in any discussion with the children, while the person doing the dumping has a hard time not moving on too easily and too quickly. Nothing is worse for kids in the early stages of a divorce than hearing how bad one parent is or how indifferent the other. Remember, the less you say, the less you have to take back, so choose your words wisely.
The next rule is to create order. Kids need to know that regardless of the disaster at hand, the parents have it under control. The more you sound like you’ve actually thought this all through, the more easily the teens will adjust. While it’s temping to solicit input on parenting time (e.g., where the kids will live at any given moment of the week), and your kids are old enough to have input into those decisions, that task is better left to a therapist who can conduct these delicate discussions without revealing everything that was said. Find someone who is specialized in divorce and custody matters. That’s a whole different ball of wax.
Finally, DO NOT use your teens for emotional support. While there may be some tears shed together, you and your spouse should use social or professional support to do your venting and unloading. Your kids need to see you dealing with your own grief and loss in order to deal with theirs, so leave the garbage somewhere else.
Ben: Here’s a secret: your kids don’t care whose fault it is. That’s secondary. If your house burns down, you probably care less about who knocked over the candle and more about where you’re going to live. Your kids don’t need (or want) to know that you think your spouse is irresponsible or a liar or whatever the case may be. The instant you do that, they feel they need to pick a side, and someone is going to be resented. Even worse, if you tell your son that his father is a liar, then he might begin to project that into his future. Like father, like son, right? You trap your kids in a confusing blame game where nobody wins.
When you tell them, do it together. Explain the situation without accusations. They have to know that you’re still their parents, that they don’t have to choose a bad guy, and that you will both love them, regardless. That is what they care about.
Next week: My daughter wants to go away with her boyfriend and his father.