Discussing Divorce with Children

Toby Hazlewood

Father and Son on a jetty sitting
Photo by Kelli McClintock on Unsplash

At the end of summer 2005 my wife and I reached the reluctant conclusion that our marriage was over. There were no catastrophic events as such, we’d just got together too young, had kids at an early age and our relationship had burnt-out after 6 years together.

By then we had two daughters aged five and two. At the forefront of our minds was a desire to limit the effects of our parting on them. It seemed logical that they’d initially live for the majority of the time with their Mum, due to being so young. I was keen to maintain an active and regular role in their lives as well.

Discussing divorce with children is never easy for parents since divorce fundamentally disrupts the structure of their lives. Their age made it even more difficult – our youngest was only just learning her first words.

It’s become a cliché to say that “communication is key” but in divorce or the parting of any long-term relationship, it is fundamental in determining the experiences and lasting effects for all concerned, especially the kids. 

Discussing divorce with children at the outset of parting

We were keen to agree a unified and consistent message regarding our reasons for parting, which we shared with the kids to help them understand the forthcoming change in their lives. I doubt in truth that the message really sank in, certainly for our youngest daughter. 

We wanted to emphasize though, that life would change in a number of key ways and in many others would remain just the same:

  • We would no longer all be living together in the same home at the same time.
  • The kids were still loved equally by us both and had no reason to feel like anything had changed or would change in that regard in future.
  • While they would initially be apart from one or other of us for a few days at a time, they could always speak to the other parent as and when they wanted to.
  • They would still see all their grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins on both sides of the family.
  • They could always talk with either of us about what was happening, how they were feeling and so-on and we’d do what we could to answer their questions honestly.

I felt a little helpless as a parent in trying to deliver such messages to kids who were so young. My instinct as a father was to feel like a failure, as I’d felt since their birth that my responsibility was to protect them from harm and from feelings of hurt and sadness –through my and their Mum’s actions we were throwing their lives into uncertainty and chaos.

In spite of how I felt, I was resolute that I’d stick by the message we’d given them and determined that I wouldn’t lose my place in their lives.

We parted, sold our family home, and in spring of 2006 just after my 30th birthday our parting became a reality. The girls moved into a rental property with their Mum, close to where they were already established in pre-school and nursery. 

I changed jobs around that time, and for the first 18 months after parting moved to the south west to be nearer to my family. We determined that I’d see the girls for three weekends in four, collecting them from Manchester on a Friday night and returning them on a Sunday. 

I spent a lot of time driving during those first few months, but it reaffirmed just how much I wanted to retain my place in their lives, and the lengths I’d go to in order to maintain that contact. It wasn’t quality time as such, but it did at least give me a lot of opportunity to talk with them and to maintain my place in their lives.

Communicating on an ongoing basis

I recall in the early days there were frequent harrowing phone calls when my eldest daughter would call me in tears. She couldn’t come to terms with why things had changed and didn’t understand why we didn’t still live together in our old house. She missed me of course but I think she also missed the structure that had been lost in her life. I wonder how her younger sister processed it too? She’s grown up without any living memory of us all being together as a family unit before divorce and I guess it’s always been the norm for her. Nonetheless, it’s hard to contemplate whether she was suffering or not.

I always did what I could to answer the kids’ questions honestly and to minimise the impacts upon them and their Mum did the same. We assured them that we both loved them the same and that we were both there for them. 

We went to lengths to demonstrate through our actions that we were both still their parents and jointly attended events at school – plays, assemblies and so-on. This was difficult in the early days due to me living further away, but it has remained a feature of our joint parenting throughout.

We made sure there were never raised voices or visible signs of discord or anger between us. It was difficult at times and while our parting was amicable, there was still emotional pain that we each needed to process. We were careful to ensure that our girls were shielded from any of this and have never used them as go-betweens, to convey messages or to act as intermediaries in any way. 

Communicating effectively as a separated family demands care when communicating with your kids, but also in how you communicate with each other as parents. 

Research cited in the book “For Better or For Worse – Divorce Reconsidered” suggests that 20 to 30 percent of children of divorce experience long-term negative issues following parental divorce. Two of the most common and harmful effects are acknowledged as the loss of relations with one or other parent, and difficulties caused by ongoing parental feuding over the years that follow. We were determined that neither of these would be a feature of our parting and this drove many of our decisions and actions, most fundamentally in remaining civil in our communication. 

Photo by Steven Van Loy on Unsplash

Co-operative and equal parenting involvement

Around 18 months after parting, I was tired of the endless driving to see the girls. They’d become used to our new way of life but it was clear that the travel was a challenge for them too. My ex first proposed the idea of equal co-parenting. 

The premise was that I’d find a new home and job back in Manchester. We’d then each take on 50% of the custody of our daughters, with them moving between us and living in each home for alternate weeks.

It remains an unconventional set-up for separated families and I’m not entirely sure why – it has since become the basis for their entire childhood through to their teenage years. 

The girls have received equal and regular input from both parents. We’ve both had our share of the highs and lows through being regular features in their lives. We’ve each benefited from free-time to work through the pain of parting and then to build our careers, establish new lives and eventually to find new partners. The set-up also enables continuity in the lives of the kids, a factor which Frances Xavier Labiran emphasizes as a beneficial side-effect in his article on co-parenting here on Music Football Fatherhood

It feels like the ideal set-up, and while it’s been made easy through us being amicable as parents and focused on the kids’ needs first and foremost, it hasn’t demanded much in the way of direct contact between us. Many cite this as a potential barrier, but I really don’t see it as such. 

In recent years, we’ve even experimented with an extreme form of co-parenting known as “Bird’s Nesting” where the kids remain in a single home and we move in and out as custodial parent of the week. You can read more about this in an article I wrote for The Daily Telegraph if you’re intrigued.

The critical success factor has been for us to remain communicative with each other as parents, actively tackling what needed to be dealt with for the benefits of the kids and putting their needs to the fore. Equally important is discussing things with our children to ensure that they are:

  • clear on what is happening and why.
  • happy with the situation and understand how it will affect them in the short and longer term.
  • free to express when things aren’t working for them so that we can discuss and adjust things if necessary.

We acknowledged a long while ago that we only get one go at life – adults and kids alike. We’ve always done what we can to ensure that we all get a fair opportunity to live a life that’s stable, structured and fair to all involved and for the most part I think that’s been achieved. 

This comes about through advocating communication, fairness and equality throughout life.

An ongoing need for communication

Our equal co-parenting is now entering into its 13th year and is well-established as the structure of our separated family. Both my ex and I are happily re-married and our new spouses accept our commitments to our daughters and play an active part in the kids’ lives. Our eldest daughter is now at university and the youngest will likely follow the same path in a couple of years.

There have of course been times when the kids have expressed dissatisfaction or unhappiness and while it’s been hard and at times painful as a parent to hear, we’ve tried to adapt and react as best we can. 

The move to equal co-parenting was partly due to the kids being unhappy with seeing me only at weekends and having to spend so much time in the car, but it was also about finding a more equitable split between us as parents.

The move to Bird’s Nesting was in response to the girls, now teenagers, craving a single, stable base to call home rather than having to shift their possessions from home to home on a weekly basis.

When they’ve had difficulties adapting to our new relationships and have felt marginalised or confused about how life was changing for them, we’ve sought to adapt and recalibrate to address their concerns.

They’ve been able to express things to us without fear or reservation as we’ve always tried to engender a spirit of communication between our daughters and us as their parents. We don’t always give-in to what they ask or agree with what they say. At times we have to push back on them – all parents do. 

Our lives as an unconventional separated family haven’t been any harder, easier, happier or sadder than any other family as a result of us divorcing when the kids were younger, but I see that as a good thing. 

I’m biased of course, but I see my daughters as happy, accomplished, well-adjusted, polite and capable young women. They often express that they’re grateful for our unusual family and acknowledge that they benefit from having a parenting team of four adults behind them!

Maintaining structure in their lives has been our utmost priority. Critical to this has been remaining communicative between ourselves as parents, and with them as kids since divorcing. 

Photo by Chris Benson on Unsplash

Summing up

My greatest fears at the outset of us parting as a family were that my daughters would be harmed as a result of divorce and that I’d lose my place in their lives. I’m relieved to report that neither of these fears seems to have manifested. 

I feel lucky to have been so actively involved in their upbringing and have a closer relationship with them than I might have had in a conventional family setting. I certainly don’t advocate divorce but equally I don’t see that it has to end a father’s relationship with his kids. A study by the Judicial Council of California echoes this sentiment. Their 20-year investigation of 173 divorced families showed that the majority of kids of divorce felt that their relationship with their fathers had remained stable or improved over the years following divorce – I find this heartening and hope that other fathers on the verge of divorce or separation might also feel reassured. 

Divorce is certainly hard for all involved. The effects of parting for the kids (and for the parents) will be determined significantly by the quality and frequency of communication between them. Nothing is easy of course, but by the parents investing themselves in communicating with the kids frequently and openly as we’ve tried to, they can help their children to thrive in the years that follow, just as ours have. 

Toby Hazlewood is a writer, parent, husband, project manager and in his spare time, cycling enthusiast. He is passionate about helping others to overcome the challenges he’s overcome, by sharing the things he’s learned along the way. He specializes in topics including parenting and life after divorce. You can find out more about his latest projects or just say hello at tobyhazlewood.com.

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