My Family Care asks Kate: Divorce is never something you enter into a marriage thinking about, but in some situations it's the only answer. What advice do you have for working parents on how to address the issue with their children and how to keep the impact on their professional lives to a minimum?
Communication is key
If there is one piece of advice I could give all parents starting on the divorce journey it would be: 'talk to your children'.
It's natural for us to want to protect our children from the harsh realities of life but leaving them in a vacuum when separating, or divorcing, is worse than having a 'difficult family conversation'. Planning to tell children you are separating is, of course, a daunting task and with busy working lives - and children of different ages, with different routines - it can feel like there's never a right time.
Communication however is a vital source of support for all family members. Having the courage to tell work, the children and their schools about what is going on ensures you have set up the best opportunity to access the support you and they need, and to make the transition manageable.
My top tips when discussing divorce
Parenting seems to have a healthy slug of guilt attached to the job description for most of us, but it's worth considering that the ending of an unhappy marriage is a sad thing not a bad thing, and what feels bad and what is bad are different things. Listening to parents in the course of my work, I have learned many top tips and compiled them below to help busy working parents boost their confidence when talking to their children about the difficult topic of divorce.
- If possible, talk to the children as a parenting team: Find a time when you are both able to be with the children together. Take time away from work, if possible, when you are not rushing back to work or about to start, and switch off your phone. If you are unsure what to say, agree a script between you and agree who will say what.
- Keep it simple: The key message to convey to your children is that you are no longer together as life partners but you are still together as their parents. The key messages are: 'We love you, we're sorry our decision is causing you distress, it's not your fault, we will both still continue to look after you, but it will be in different houses because we don't get on well enough with each other to want to live in the same house together anymore.'
- Tell all of your children at the same time: A logistical challenge yes - but it's important even if they are very different ages as they will gain support from each other. No one will feel excluded, no secrets, everyone's heard the same thing. Expect to phrase it in different ways for younger children, but try and do this at the same time as telling the others.
- Tell children the truth: "Truth" and "everything" are different. Children need to be protected from some aspects of the truth if it harms their need to feel safe with both of you. Don't blame the other parent for being the instigator of the split as this will cause a child to feel insecure. Be agreed and on the same page when talking to the children - you have both come to recognise this is the best way forward.
- It's ok if you become emotional when you tell the children: It's fine and real to be upset by the news you are conveying (it won't damage your children). Your own release of emotion will signal to them that it's ok to feel sad and cry. Bad-mouthing or blaming because you lose control of your sadness, however, is harmful.
- Plan when you're going to tell them: Tell them when they ask questions - i.e. they notice/hear something and need you to be honest with them - or when you're in a position to show them what separating actually means. In other words, when you've made certain practical decisions that you're about to act on - such as a changes to living arrangements or time spent together as a family. Limbo can be very damaging for children, so try and wait until something is "happening" before talking to them.
- Keep an open-mind about children's reactions: You may get a strong reaction or no reaction - everything is "normal" at the early stage. Try to acknowledge and accept their reactions. Try not to be offended or affronted if they appear to ignore the news. However they react, they will have heard you, and will be processing what they've heard in their own way and at their own speed.
- Do get some additional support if you get reactions from any of the children that concern you: A Family Consultant, School Counsellor or Child-Psychologist, can provide additional support. Professionals provide direct and indirect support to children and may recommend support groups, books or activities that help children adjust to changing family situations.
If you've already told the children before reading this and you did it differently, don't worry. It's an imperfect world and it's never too late to start a new way of relating within the family.
Kate Daly, founder of the Family Change Portal & mother to Imogen & Lucas