Nobody likes a harsh sentence. Not convicted criminals…and not kids. And among the harshest sentences handed down to kids is, “I sentence you to live without one of your parents.”
Of course, it’s not phrased quite like that. The introduction may be, “Daddy and I have something to say to you,” if it’s being presented by a united (but about to disunite) front. The introduction may be, “Kids, I know change isn’t easy…” or there may be no preamble at all: “Kids, your father and I are getting a divorce.” Or the kids may come home from school one day to find half the closet empty in your bedroom, Dad’s belongings gone from their respective places throughout the house, and a large shock waiting for them when, stunned, they ask what’s happening.
But no matter how it’s introduced to them, the news is never received happily. And that’s when the bargaining starts.
Usually it’s a promise that things will be different if only Daddy will stay.
You see, kids tend to think their worlds revolve around them, and they don’t realize that the divorce is due to factors having nothing to do with them. What’s more, you and your about-to-be ex may have even said or done things that reinforced that belief.
Did either of you, in the midst of sibling warfare, or in the face of defiance on the part of your 10-year-old, ever scream, “I can’t take any more of this!”? It may even be that you were the one who proclaimed you’d reached the end of your rope, and he is the one who is moving out. No matter. The kids will put 2 and 2 together and get 7. They will still assume they drove Daddy away.
Did either of you reflect the increased tension in the household (which is common in the run-up to a decision to split) by yelling at the kids more frequently or more easily? If you and your husband have been having serious marital problems, or if, perhaps, you were already discussing the possibility of divorcing, it’s understandable that your tempers could be on edge, your patience frayed, and you’d be quick-triggered. In such circumstances, naturally you’ll “lose it” more readily when your kids fail to clean their rooms, or don’t do their homework, or do anything at all that upsets you. These quickened tempers and heightened tensions don’t go unnoticed by the kids and, once again, if a parent leaves—whether or not it’s the one who’s been doing most of the yelling—the kids will assume that they drove Daddy away.
This makes the “plea bargaining” understandable: “I’ll clean my room every day if Daddy will stay.” “Daddy, don’t go! I promise I won’t ever fight with Jeffrey again.” “I promise I’ll be good.”
You need to explain to them that, while you’d appreciate their cleaning their rooms, not fighting, and so on, that isn’t why Daddy is leaving…and that the divorce has nothing to do with them.
This is important because you don’t want the kids shouldering a burden of misplaced guilt. What a heavy weight to carry: “I made Daddy move out of our house.” Wrong. Untrue. And yet it’s exactly what they’ll be thinking. You need to intervene. You need to make sure they understand that they did not drive Daddy away.
Explain to them, in plain, simple, and direct language, that this was a matter between you two adults and had nothing to do with the kids, their behavior, their obedience, their attitudes, or anything else pertaining to them. You do not, of course, have to give them the actual reason for the divorce. If it’s something “adult” in nature such as infidelity, or an addiction problem, of course you’re not going to tell them. And if it’s simple incompatibility, nothing more, you can tell the kids that you and Daddy decided you would be happier not being married to each other anymore.
But you must stress that this will never happen between you and the kids, that even though you and Daddy no longer love each other, you will always both love the kids. The love of a parent for a child is special, and never goes away. Even on days when you are upset with them or angry with them, you still love them and will never stop.
They can’t “plea-bargain” Daddy into staying, but even though he is leaving the house, they will not lose his love; and no matter what they do to upset or annoy you, you will not leave them.
These are the messages you must be sure to deliver.