Tom Seeley is a holistic divorce mediator, attorney, and certified life coach who focuses on helping individuals and couples navigate emotionally challenging times, teaching how to rekindle a relationship that has gone off track or how to unwind a relationship with dignity, respect and the least disruption to families under the circumstance and leaving couples prepared to move forward with their lives with as little emotional baggage as possible.
Telling your children about your divorce can feel stressful and overwhelming. It is so hard to feel like we are letting our children down and can dig up feelings such as guilt, remorse, feelings of unworthiness and failure, and anxiety about whether you have ruined your children’s lives, among others.
How we tell our children about divorce can shape their entire experience, minimize the stress that they experience, and set the tone for how your family life will unfold as you redefine your family. Here are some guidelines to help you prepare your children for this enormous change in their lives.
1. Take your time and have a plan. There is no one right or easy time to tell the children. It can be tempting to want to speak with your children right away to protect them from the inevitable emotional roller coaster they will experience. It is imperative, however, that you resist this temptation until you and your spouse have created at least a temporary parenting plan and discussed how and what you will tell the children so they can clearly understand how this will affect their lives. In many cases, the age of your children can inform when to tell the children. Elementary age kids and below generally do not need to know more than a few weeks before one of the parents moves out. Adolescents and teen-agers may need a few months to process and plan for the changes. It should go without saying, that you should avoid telling the children around their birthdays, holidays, or other special occasions.
2. Break the news together. When you are ready, break the news together. This will allow the children to feel more confident that the decision is mutual, that no one is at fault, and that they don’t have to choose between their parents. You and your spouse should discuss your children’s anticipated response and prepare yourself emotionally so that you can be supportive of them together as they respond.
3. Keep it simple. When you tell your children, it is helpful to draft a script with your spouse. The goal is to explain the situation in a way that will offer them a sense of security and also prepare them emotionally for the changes that are coming. The conversation should be age appropriate and, in most cases, relatively brief. The exact length will be specific to your situation, but it’s best to keep the message to a few simple points, and then leave extra time for questions and emotional reactions. If you children are far apart in ages, you may wish to have a shorter conversation with your younger children, then a longer, separate conversation with the older ones.
4. Explain the new normal. Children benefit from predictability and certainty. The specific message will be tailored to your individual situation, but there are some things all children need to know. First and most important is that they will continue to have two parents who love them and who will always love and care for them, that the children will continue to be their number one priority, that each parent will spend as much time with them as possible, and that neither parent will be leaving them, they will just be sleeping in a different home. Sharing expressions of love offers your children assurance that all of you will move forward with confidence, even though there will be periods of sadness and other emotions. The children also need to know that the separation and divorce is a reflection of problems between their parents and has nothing to do with them; they were not the cause of the problems and there is nothing they can or need to do to change the situation.
5. It’s Okay to be sad. Your children, and you, will likely get emotional during this conversation. This is a sad and deeply emotional time for all of you. That is not only OK, but is to be encouraged. If your children cry, let them know that is a totally normal and expected response. While you may be emotional too, be sure to focus your full attention to them and respond to their needs as necessary. Offer them comfort and be sure to hug, touch and provide whatever nurturing presence they will need.
This is likely to be one of the most intense emotional experiences of their lives. Following these simple steps and being really intentional about how you inform your children about these enormous changes to their life will put your children in the best possible position to heal and have hope for the future. Moreover, this will shape all of your family relationships and create a framework for positive outcomes for your entire family.
For more information and help drafting a script, I’d recommend: Putting Children First: Proven Parenting Strategies for Helping Children Thrive Through Divorce, by JoAnne Pedro-Carroll, Ph.D.; and/or Helping Your Kids Cope With Divorce the Sandcastles Way, By M. Gary Neuman, L.M.H.C., with Patricia Romanowski.
Recovering from the myriad, challenging emotions of divorce requires a strategy. For most people, divorce is the most emotionally challenging situation they will encounter in their lifetimes.
When experiencing such powerful feelings, it is not uncommon for such feelings to overtake our sense of awareness, leading to wild swings of emotion that, if not checked, can cause us to act outwardly or inwardly in ways that can be destructive to ourselves or to others.
The good news is we can train our brains to create enough mental space between the moment our powerful feelings are triggered, and our eventual response. We can do this by recognizing when our attention is being hijacked and redirecting our attention from the powerful feelings from the reactionary part of our brain, or the limbic system, to the rational thinking part of our brain, the prefrontal cortex.
There are many similar, but different variations on how to train our brains. My favorite is a simple four-step process sometimes referred to as SBRC or Stop-Breathe-Reflect-Choose:
Step 1: STOP. Recognizing when you feel powerful emotions permeating your psyche and you feel yourself starting to react. In this moment, catch yourself before you say anything or do anything.
Step 2: BREATHE. Take three deep breaths. Find a comfortable place to sit if you can, but it is not necessary. Breathing will trigger your body’s relaxation response.
Step 3: REFLECT. Notice the feelings you are experiencing. Ask yourself questions like: what am I most concerned about; what is making me feel such strong emotions; are there negatives thoughts about myself that are arising; is there another way to view the situation; do I need to reach out to another person to help me with these feelings?
Step 4: CHOOSE. From this space, you will have the decide how to respond to this situation in the way that is the healthiest for yourself and in the most positive manner possible.
In divorce or separation, this can be the difference between acting out of a rushed emotion such as anger and acting out of a reasoned emotion such as patience. This can literally be the difference in thousands of dollars in legal fees, months upon months of extended conflict, and irreparable damage to relationships. Not to creating more challenges for your children, if you have any.
This may sound easier said than done and if so, you are in the right place. Make no mistake, this is a practice and it can take time to reprogram the way our brains operate. With practice and training, however, we can create a one-second mental space between the stimulus of events that trigger us and our response to them.
At New York Holistic Divorce we pride ourselves on encouraging those going through separation or divorce to learn to learn how to practice mindfulness, whether they are clients of ours, or as a divorce coach to those who have engaged other attorneys. If you would like to learn more, please reach out today.
When a marriage reaches a point where communicate has broken down to the point where repairing problems on a day to day basis is no longer possible, the death knell of the marriage has already begun to sound.
Relationship expert John Gottman has identified the final four stages that signal divorce is imminent:
You see marital problems as severe.
Talking things over feels useless—you solve problems yourself.
You start leading parallel lives.
Loneliness sets in.
By the time you get to these stages, the emotional separation is so acute that it is likely too late to salvage what is left of your relationship.
It’s not that healthy relationships are without conflict. Quite the contrary, conflict in relationships is inevitable and 65% of marital conflicts will never be resolved. Happy couples simply are able to work though the conflict and repair their relationship before negativity permeates all interaction.
It is so important to tune into one another every day to make your love last to ensure you will never have to find out what these stages feel like.
“Alertness is the hidden discipline of familiarity.”
— David Whyte
I was reminded recently of the expression “Love is not what you say, Love is what you do.” It’s so easy in a long-term relationship to forget this simple lesson.
I see too many couples, who have learned this the hard way, AFTER resentment and contempt takes over and it is too late to resurrect the relationship.
In any relationship, the secret to preventing stagnation and making love last instead is really simple: paying attention to one another with genuine interest, respect, and caring over and over again each day. Unfortunately, too many couples in long-term relationships become complacent and take each other for granted.
Whereas at the beginning it seemed as though love would last forever, somewhere along the line, one or both partner lost sight of the things that made each fall for the other in the first place. Usually, if not always, this drifting apart doesn’t happen intentionally or with any ill will, but simply from a place of honest ignorance to the true meaning of love.
This might seem like every day has to be a RomCom complete with vacations on the beach, candle-lit dinners, decadent bubble baths, and rose petals waiting on the bed, but the truth can be quite the contrary. It’s the little moments repeated over time that count. It could be something as simple as noticing a cardinal in the tree out the window, listening to the news together, doing the dishes, or simply listening to one other recount the events of their day. Or it could be as affectionate as tuning in and sending love notes, or offering a back rub at the end of the day.
John Gottman, the psychological researcher from the University of Washington pioneered this concept with what he refers to as ‘bids’ for attention. By turning toward each other moment by moment, day by day, couples can keep the proverbial pilot light of their love burning so when it is time to turn up the heat, the love will ignite effortlessly and love will flow freely between one another. Failure to do so will eventually lead to distance, long periods of awkward silence, increased conflict, criticism, contempt, and ultimately, the death of the small civilization that was once a happily ever after.
Couples I work with are often surprised that making love last is so easy to accomplish. This is why it is so important to learn and develop these practices early in a relationship BEFORE it becomes too late.
Tom Seeley, JD, Certified Life Coach
“Don’t ask the mountain to move; just take a pebble each time you visit.”
~ John Paul Lederach
“You can’t control the waves, but you can learn how to surf.”
~ Jon Kabat-Zinn
“To invent your own life’s meaning is not easy…but it’s still allowed…and I think you’ll be happier for the trouble.”
~ Bill Watterson