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What All Parents (Even Happily Married Ones) Should Tell Their Kids About Divorce

Whether you're happily married or filing for divorce (or somewhere in between), it's always a good time to review how you present the topic of divorce to your own kids.
08/01/2014 04:52pm ET | Updated October 1, 2014
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"How should I tell my kids we're getting a divorce?" That's the question that was put to me recently. I have opinions on this topic--opinions borne of having to do this super no-fun thing myself, and shaped by years of reflection on that major bummer of a conversation.

Unless your soon-to-be ex was abusive, telling your kids that you're getting a divorce is one of the least-fun things you'll ever do. For most of us, it doesn't just involve breaking the news to them that they will no longer be seeing as much of one or both of their parents as they are accustomed. Nor does it simply mean that their living situation will now feature an additional layer of complexity, complete with an extra schedule to keep straight and a weekly routine of hauling soccer uniforms and a bunch of other stuff from one house to the other for the rest of their childhood. Worse than all of that, it involves telling them that you've broken a Very Big Promise.

Despite ample evidence to the contrary everywhere they turn, society still tells all of us--including our kids--that marriage is supposed to be a "forever and ever" kind of thing. Chances are you personally promised them that, too--and that's the much trickier part. Explaining to them that you're getting a divorce after you promised you'd never do that can cost you some big credibility points. It's not that they think you straight up lied, it's just that they realize you don't have as much power as they previously thought, and that you're not right about everything--including some very important things. That can cause them to put less stock in what you say about other topics, too. Not exactly what parents want, no matter how old your kids are.

While you can't control the message that society sends your kids, you can control the one you give them. The best thing you can do to help prepare your kids for divorce comes long before you're even considering getting one yourself. That's because the best thing you can do is to never promise them that you won't get a divorce to begin with. I know that sounds counter-intuitive, but hear my out.

Getting a divorce is like getting into a car wreck. You can't promise your kids you won't ever be involved in a car accident. You hope and pray that you won't, and you try your best not to. But despite all of that, you still might get into an accident someday--maybe even one that's your fault.

The same thing goes with divorce. Everyone who walks down the aisle hopes it will last. Most of us try really hard to ensure that it does. But still, about half of us will end up divorced. We all know of marriages that seemed rock solid that ended up crumbling. And everybody also knows of marriages that seem fatally flawed yet somehow manage to endure. In other words, it's impossible to predict with certainty whether a marriage will last or not--even when that marriage is your own.

Pre-divorce, tell your kids that you and their father will love them forever. Underscore to them that you will always be their mom and he will always be their dad, no matter what. And feel free to tell them that you and their dad love each other like crazy, and hope and plan to be together forever. But whatever you do, don't promise them that you will never get divorced.

And when you learn of someone else's divorce, don't receive the news as if it's a terrible tragedy from which those involved will never recover. Characterize it as a difficult challenge rather than a fatal blow--more broken hip than terminal illness. It's not happy news, of course; but it's not the end of the world, either. Remember, in many cases divorce can end up being the best thing for everyone involved--even (and sometimes most especially) the kids. Let them know that you have confidence that those involved can work through this transition, adjust to their new situation, and be okay in the end. This does not convey the message that divorce is no big deal. It conveys the message that people can get through really hard times and still be okay.

Whether or not you've laid that groundwork, when it comes to your own divorce, it's important for you to explain to your kids what it will and will not mean for them: Divorce will mean that their mom and dad will no longer be husband and wife. Divorce will not mean that the kids will lose any family members. Their family is getting restructured, but as far as they are concerned, no one is getting written out of it. The schedule and the addresses may change, but who their parents are and how much their parents love them will remain the same.

Whether you're happily married or filing for divorce (or somewhere in between), it's always a good time to review how you present the topic of divorce to your own kids. Doing so won't just help lay a foundation for them should they ever have to process the news of their own parents' divorce, it will also help them to better support any of their friends who find themselves in that position. And ultimately, it will help them grow into adults who possess the knowledge that they can weather their own divorce should that fate befall them.