You and your spouse have decided to divorce, and now you face the daunting task of telling your children. Be aware that how you explain your family’s changing circumstances can soften the blow, help kids process the information, and begin the adjustment to their new life. Before you sit down with your kids, here are eight tips to be mindful of when you talk to your children about divorce.
If possible, deliver the news as a team. Ideally, you and your spouse should rehearse what you plan to say to your kids before you sit down and talk to them. Although you may have different ideas, try to set egos aside and make the conversation child-focused. Consider this announcement as practice for co-parenting; you need to get in the habit of making decisions with your ex that are in the best interest of the children. If your spouse is MIA, refuses to participate, or so much conflict exists between the two of you that you can’t be in the same room, then you have no choice but to talk to your kids solo.
Be age-appropriate. Young children may not ask for a lot of details [see our blog: questions about divorce younger kids ask], but questions from older kids 10 and up are often about the particulars of the break-up. Give children only what is needed to explain the situation, something along the lines of: “You probably know that your mother and I have been arguing a lot. We tried for a long time to solve our problems, but we couldn’t. We decided the best way to have peace is for us to get divorced and live in different houses.” If older kids have overheard or witnessed things that are disturbing (evidence of a parent’s substance abuse or affair), don’t gaslight them by denying their reality – but don’t share information that would be even more upsetting.
Be a good role model. Remember: you are modeling how to handle a painful situation. If you resort to blaming and bad-mouthing your spouse, you are teaching your children to externalize their problems on to others. You are also disrespecting one of the most important people in their lives, as well as setting the stage for a war zone. And be mindful of your non-verbal language. If you tell your kids you and your ex are getting along, but you’re glaring or rolling your eyes at him, you will confuse and scare your children.
Explain what will change and what will be the same. If you’re feeling destabilized by your divorce, imagine what it’s like for your kids! Children need to know what their lives are going to look like now that you’re no longer living in one household. If you don’t have all the answers (for instance, you don’t yet know where you’re going to live), then acknowledge that you’re in the process of figuring that out and you’ll let them know as soon as you can. Do tell them what’s going to be the same: for instance, “you can keep all your toys” and “you will have the same friends.” Most important, assure them that they will see both of you (assuming both parents are involved) and can call or text any time.
Assure them that the divorce is not their fault. Kids usually think they did something to cause the divorce. Because they mistakenly believe they have that kind of power, they also believe they can get the two of you back together. Relieve them of this emotional burden by telling them that the divorce is an adult problem and has nothing to do with them. They didn’t cause it and it’s not their job to fix it.
Tell them you will always be their parents. Small children worry that you will also be divorcing them – especially if your spouse is staying in the family home and you’re moving out. Stress that even though you won’t see them everyday, you are working on a regular visitation schedule. Tell them that divorce will never change that you will always be their parent and that you will always love them. Just as kids misinterpret divorce as evidence that you have resigned from parenthood, they also worry that it’s evidence you no longer love them. Explain that your love for them is another thing divorce will never change.
Tell them it’s okay to have their feelings. Whether it’s anger or sadness or fear, your kids are entitled to have their feelings – same as you. Assure them that however they feel about the divorce is okay and – this is important – it’s safe to talk to you about it. In order for your kids to be comfortable opening up to you, you need to be able to tolerate your own feelings and respond to theirs non-defensively.
It’s normal to be worried about explaining your divorce to your kids. Try not to stress too much about your word choice and focus on your intention to make them feel as safe as possible. If you concentrate on loving your children instead of hating your ex, you’ll bring your best self to the conversation.
When you divorce and are a parent, safeguarding your children is your top priority. We understand. To discuss your concerns and get answers to your questions, please contact us to set up your initial consultation with one of our highly skilled family law attorneys.