Dear Dr. Jann: I was at the park with my son yesterday and I struck up a conversation with two little girls, around 4 and 6, who were with their mother. The younger one whispers to me, “My mommy and daddy are getting a divorce, but my daddy just doesn’t know it yet.” The mother spent the rest of the afternoon telling her she shouldn’t tell family secrets to strangers. What I am trying to figure out is what kind of mother would tell their 4-year-old something as important as breaking up with her father before telling her husband?
Dr. Jann says: There may be more to this story than you know. My first inclination was say this woman was a complete lunatic, however, before we draw that as a permanent conclusion, lets brainstorm to consider all the possibilities—there are a few reasons why a divorcing parent might tell her children before she tells her spouse.
First, if the other parent is mentally ill and possibly institutionalized or, the father may have already disserted them. There may be a history of violence and the parent fears for her safety and the safety of the children and they may be on the run. I know this one sounds like a Lifetime made for TV movie, but those movies are often based on fact. And, I’m not saying that it’s the correct procedure, but it’s understandable if under such circumstances, a parent chooses to handle it in this way.
There are very few who are surprised when their partner asks for a divorce. Granted, when your partner is having an affair and you’re hit between the eyes with the information, then you’re surprised, but most couples have been fighting for a while and divorce is the result of some very turbulent times. And, as afraid to tell the kids as you might be, they probably already have a good idea–they live with you. Then, the proper procedure is, first, look for ways to repair the damaged relationship–whether that means some good old fashion soul-searching or intense couples counseling–at least try. After that, if you still decide to divorce, it’s best that you are together when you tell the kids.
Have a plan in place for how the divorce will affect their life before you say anything. You see, your parents divorcing is at the top of a kid’s, “The Worst Thing That has Ever Happened to Me” list, and it’s doubtful that it will ever change, so when you say the words, “We’re getting a divorce,” take it seriously. Tell them how their life will change and what will stay the same. Give them some time to ask questions, and then offer age appropriate answers that doesn’t supply more information than they can process when they first hear the news. Most important of all, make sure you emphasize how much you both love them.
I know I make it sound simple. I know it’s not.