If you’re reading this article, chances are that you and your partner have decided to divorce and you are wondering how to tell your children with the least amount of upset possible. While your pre-schooler may not have ever heard of the word divorce and probably will not have any idea what this means, your school-age child will more than likely understand that this means the ending of their parents’ marriage. Regardless of their age, your children will have questions and may experience some anxiety about how this decision will affect their lives. They will have questions about things such as which parent they will live with, if they will have to move and if they will have to change schools. Some children may show signs of insecurity or regression which could show up as clinginess, sensitivity or other uncharacteristic behaviors that require extra parental patience and attention. However, children are surprisingly resilient and how you talk to them and treat them in the divorce process will make a difference in how they cope and adapt to this season of change. One of the most important things that your child needs to understand is that their parent’s divorce is not their fault and that they are still loved, cared for, and equally supported by both parents. So, how do you break the news?
Pick the right time.
If you and your spouse are only “thinking” about separating or divorcing, there is no reason to involve the kids until you know for certain. The uncertainty created by knowing that mom and dad are “thinking” about getting a divorce will create unnecessary confusion and worry. However, when the decision has been made that the divorce is inevitable, it would be important to tell the children at an appropriate time. It would not be a good idea to tell the kids on the way to school, right before a sporting event or right before bedtime. Choose a time when you and your children are able to spend some time together afterwards. This will give you time to reassure and console your child without feeling rushed or pressured.
Break the news together.
In the best scenario, parents should disclose this information together. Telling the kids together prevents confusion from hearing different versions of the story and more importantly, communicates that the parents are still a parenting team. Ideally, this approach helps to preserve the kid’s trust in both parents and promotes a sense of confidence in the parents’ desire and ability to continue making healthy decisions together.
Be straightforward and keep it simple.
Talk to your kids using clear and developmentally appropriate language. For example, your preschooler will understand language such as “Daddy and Mommy have been doing a lot of thinking and we have decided that Daddy is going to live in a different place than Mommy”. You would use different language with your grade school child, but know that the older children will probably have more questions for you – if not now, in the very near future. If you know where the other parent will be living, it may be reassuring at this time to share this information as well as information about visitation and new schedules. Sharing details in this manner will demonstrate to the children that there is a plan in place and both parents are working together to create a climate of support and stability. Children of any age will feel reassured to know that mom and dad are still in charge and have control of what is going on. Keep in mind that when parents can’t agree on a course of action, it’s usually the children who suffer the most.
Avoid over-sharing and blaming.
Although it may be difficult, spare your children the details and avoid blaming your spouse for the breakup. While it may be tempting to disclose information about affairs, financial or legal issues, this information will only create confusion for the children and may be viewed as a betrayal against them. As with most situations that involve children, the child’s emotional needs supersede the needs of the parents. During difficult times such as divorce, it can be hard for the parents to enforce strong emotional boundaries but is usually what is in the children’s best interest.
Reassure your children that the divorce is not their fault.
Regardless of how well you tell your children, they may still blame themselves. Even if the child isn’t willing to admit it, children often personalize decisions and may think that “if only they had been a better kid or were better-behaved” their parents would have been able to stay together. It would be imperative to reassure the children that the divorce has nothing to do with anything they have or haven’t done and that the breakup is out of their control. This may also be a good time to calmly discuss previous conflicts if your children have witnessed you arguing and acting hostile towards one another. Acknowledging the conflict and reassuring the kids that the arguing is not their fault will feel comforting. Lastly, some children may believe that they can “fix” the problem and somehow keep the parents together. Using explanations that are clear and simple, the children need to know without a doubt that their parent’s divorce is not their problem to “fix”.
Now that you’ve broken the news, it is important to remain positive and keep in mind that no matter what the child’s age, some open and honest communication will continue to be necessary. The important things to remember are that sharing should be age-appropriate, consistent, and realistic. Even the most amicable of separations can create a tremendous sense of loss in your child and it will take time to work through not only the logistical issues that divorce creates, but the emotional issues as well. Discussing the divorce with your children will be a process – not a one-time event. It will require you to listen, validate, and patiently work at understanding your child’s experience on more than one occasion.
by Robin Watts – Robin Watts is a Licensed Professional Counselor with expertise in the areas of perfectionism and control issues, family of origin issues, boundaries, life skills, self-esteem and assertiveness issues as well anxiety and depression management. She also works as a Mental Health Professional to facilitate collaborative divorces and settlements assisting clients in communicating in ways that facilitate reaching agreements. Robin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.