Q: I have a kindergartner and I often help out in her class. It was time for Show and Tell and some of the kids brought in things to share and talk about with their classmates. One of the children stood up in front of the class and said, "Daddy doesn't know it yet, but Mommy is going to divorce him." The teacher and I were speechless. Shouldn't the mother tell her husband before she tells her 5-year-old? That can't be good ex-etiquette.
A: Well, of course it's not, but there may be more to this story than we know. Our first inclination was to say the child's mother was a complete lunatic. We like to consider all possibilities, however, and we came up with a few reasons that a divorcing parent might tell her children before she tells her spouse.
Maybe the other parent is mentally ill or institutionalized, or the father may have deserted them. There may be a history of violence and the parent fears for her safety and that of the children. They may be on the run. We know this one sounds like a Lifetime made-for-TV movie, but those movies are often based on fact. Under such circumstances, a parent may choose to handle it in this way.
Few are surprised when a partner asks for a divorce. 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 to at least try to repair the damaged relationship, whether through good old-fashioned soul-searching or intense couples counseling. 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 lives before you say anything. The divorce of a child's parents is at the top of that kid's "The Worst Thing That Has Ever Happened to Me" list, so when you say "We're getting a divorce," take it seriously. Tell your children how their lives will change and what will stay the same. Answer their questions with age-appropriate answers that don't supply more information than they can process. Most important of all, make sure you emphasize how much you both love them. We know we make it sound simple. It's not.