The first working day of the New Year is known among divorce lawyers as 'D-Day' - or 'Divorce Day' - as this is their busiest period, when the strain of Christmas prompts unhappy couples to seek divorce advice.
Here, bestselling author Sophie King offers an insight and a helpful list of dos and don'ts on how to help children through divorce.
By Sophie King - author of the #1 bestseller The School Run and Divorce for Beginners
Not long ago, I used to write a family column for a woman’s weekly magazine. Every now and then, we’d run features on how to help children through divorce. At the time I thought - wrongly, as it turns out – that I knew what to say.
Ironically, when my own 27-year-old marriage then broke up, I found myself lost for words when it came to breaking the news to my three teenage children. It was so hard to find the right words, even though writing is my trade. Looking back, I would have done it very differently.
Of course a lot depends on how old the children are and whether they have any idea that divorce is on the cards. But below, I have attempted to give some hard-earned Dos and Don’ts.
The good news is that eventually, you will come out the other side - and so will your children.
DO try and break the news to your children at the same time, especially if they are at the age where they can understand what you are saying. Otherwise, the ones who know first have a heavy burden to bear. The ones who find out later might well be upset that they were the last to know. They can also be a comfort to each other if you tell them together.
DON’T assume immediate responsibility for this. Ask your partner to be there to break the news – but only if this isn’t likely to lead to a horrible row.
DO explain in simple terms why you are getting divorced. It might be very tempting to go into depths about your partner’s infidelities or drinking etc., but this isn’t going to help the children right now. There’s plenty of time for them to learn the details in the future when they are stronger. Right now, it’s enough to keep it brief. You might say Daddy (or you) is going to be living with someone else, for instance. Try, however tough it is, to keep your voice neutral.
DON’T criticise your partner in front of the children. All too often, divorce becomes a game of tit for tat. He may then be critical of you and the children won’t know who to believe. No one wins. This also applies to other people involved. You may want to tell the children that their father has gone off with a tart or that their grandmother isn’t to be trusted because she’s taken his side but in the long term, it won’t do your cause any good.
DO tell the children that the divorce is not their fault and that you both love them very much.
DON’T concentrate too much on emotions. Children want to know about the practicalities too. Where they will live; if it means a change of school; how often they will see each parent.
DO tell school, or any other involved adults, what is going on. If you don’t feel that they understand enough, talk to another teacher at school. One young woman who taught one of my children complained about his behaviour in class. When I reminded her that we were all in a post-separation transition stage, she said: ‘I’ve given him six months to get over it. How much longer does he need?’ This still makes me very cross.
DON’T assume that your children are ‘fine’ about it, even if they seem so on the outside. They can hide their feelings too. Be on the lookout for reactions further down the line, in a few months or even years. If they are behaving badly as a result or having panic attacks or even telling you that they don’t love you any more, remind yourself that this is just a stage. They won’t always feel like this.
DO consider finding a kind adult or responsible teenager for your children to talk to. This might be a counsellor or it could be a family friend. Your children might find it easier to let out their feelings to someone else. If you can find someone to talk to (especially another mother who’s been through it), that might help you too.
DON’T expect them to change their lives overnight. Try to keep some old routines going. We had to move house but for some months I drove miles to our old area so they still did some of the activities they used to do. At the same time, we started some new things – see below.
DO try to be positive, even though your own heart may be breaking. Use this new time to start fresh traditions. It might be something simple like going for a walk in your new area, if you’ve had to move house. One of my children and I started bowling as a monthly treat. We also watched a certain television programme once a week.
DON’T be hurt when your children want to see their father. However hard it is, encourage them to keep contact with their father and his side of the family (providing it’s safe). I used to ask my first husband round for Sunday lunch for several months. It wasn’t easy but it was actually helpful for me as well as for my youngest son.
DO suggest to your ex that you share certain events like birthdays and Christmas. He might need persuading but it’s important for children to see that their parents can do things together. On the other hand, some children feel really awkward about having their two separated parents in one room. If they’re old enough, ask them what they’d like you to do about this.
DO stop yourself from transposing your own feelings onto your children. My parents split up when I was a teenager and I can still remember the pain very clearly. I assumed my children had the same pain but in fact each one of them reacted in different ways. We’re all different.
DON’T expect your children to take sides. Some children need ‘permission’ to love the parent who has behaved ‘badly’, out of loyalty to you.
DO resist the temptation to ask your children what Daddy is ‘up to’ when they visit him. I used to do this but learned it made my three very uncomfortable.
DON’T beat yourself up if you think you’ve done it wrong. There are no easy ways of doing any of this. You can only do your best. Divorce might be agony. But it can also strengthen you all by teaching you to cope with the tough stuff in life.
For more information, visit www.sophieking.info
Sophie King's new romance novel Divorce for Beginners is out now. Sophie brings us another witty and heart-warming story of likeable characters you'll recognise from everyday life. Lizzie, Alison, Karen and Ed are all coming to terms with life, and love, after marriage. Whatever your own love life is like, you'll find yourself rooting for them to find happiness as you laugh and cry along with all four.