One of the hardest parts of divorce is breaking the news to your children and helping them through the transitions that lie ahead. At a time when you are not certain how you personally are going to survive the divorce process, it can be challenging to support your child.
When to Talk to Your Child
When to initiate a conversation with your child about divorce depends on where you are in the process and your child’s age and level of understanding. In general, it is a good idea to wait to discuss divorce or separation until you and your spouse decide to divorce or live apart. Once you know that is what will happen, you can decide on a good time to talk to your child. Do this before anyone moves out. Children of all ages should be informed, but what you tell them depends on their age and understanding. Don’t assume that because your child is very young that they will not recognize a change in living arrangements.
The Conversation You Should Have First
Before you tell your child anything, you and your spouse need to talk about what you’re going to say, how you’re going to say it, and what your actual temporary parenting plan is. You should not tell your child you’re getting a divorce and not be able to explain where they are going to live, at least for now. You have to formulate a plan together and be on the same page.
Make these agreements with your spouse if possible:
- Agree that you are going to tell your child about the divorce together, at the same time
- Agree on what details you will share, such as where the child will live and how time will be shared
- Agree that you will use the word “we” as much as possible to present a united front
- Agree on what exactly you’re going to say. Will you use the word ‘divorce’ or ‘separation’? It can help to rehearse the explanation together so that you are both in agreement about what is going to be said
- Agree you will not blame each other for the divorce or separation or get into details about the reasons why this is happening, but instead offer broad and general explanations
- Agree that you will always continue to parent together and that you will make this clear to your child
- Agree that your primary goal is to make sure your child will be ok
- Agree that you will not argue or challenge each other during this conversation with your child
This initial conversation is crucial for your child’s well-being moving forward, but it is also a key first step in your new co-parenting relationship. Parents who do not plan this talk together often make missteps which create bad feelings with each other that they carry through their relationship as they attempt to parent together. If you have absolutely no idea how to have this talk, consult a therapist who can help you plan what to say and how to approach it.
If you and your spouse are not able to talk to each other or agree, it is worthwhile trying to see a counselor or mediator together to attempt to reach a point where you can at least do this one thing together. If that is not possible, then you will need to talk to your child alone and hope that you can deliver the news first.
It can be helpful to purchase some age-appropriate books about divorce in advance (make sure the children do not see them before you talk to them) and have those ready once you’ve talked to them. It is also a good idea to locate a therapist for your child and have an appointment scheduled for after you have this talk so that you have a support plan in place and ready to go.
Telling Your Child
When you talk to your child, be sure to do so together at a time when everyone is calm and there are no distractions. Say exactly what you rehearsed if possible, but be prepared to answer questions you don’t expect and deal with reactions you could not have predicted. It is completely normal for your child to be scared, sad, angry, upset, frightened, stunned, confused, or even to seemingly not react at all.
You might expect a lot of deep and difficult questions, but most children are very self-centered and will primarily be concerned about what this will mean for them. Where will they live, where will they go to school, can they see their friends, can they still play soccer, will they still have Netflix, where will they spend Christmas, can they still go skiing over winter break, and who is going to take them to dance class? Helping them completely understand what their lives will look like moving forward will help them deal with the change and process it. Visual aids can be very helpful, such as a color-coded calendar showing how you will share time.
If you have more than one child, it is a good idea to talk to them together, then follow up with them individually with more age-appropriate details. Understanding this change to the family takes time and as they process it, your kids will come back to you with more questions which can come at the most unexpected moments, so in the weeks and months after this conversation, be ready for out of the blue questions at strange times. Always try to answer honestly but in an age-appropriate manner that gives them the information they need without burdening them with things they should not know.
Things to emphasize in this conversation:
- You and the other parent will always be their parents and will always parent together
- You are still a family and will always be a family
- The divorce might be hard but it is a good thing because there will be no more arguments and less unhappiness
- You both love them immensely and will never stop
- Your children did absolutely nothing wrong and did nothing that caused this to happen
- Neither parent is to blame for the divorce, and it is good for them to love you both
Things NOT to say:
- Nothing will change (because things will change no matter how hard you try)
- Mom or Dad is making me get a divorce (there should be no blame involved even if there IS blame)
- You get to pick where you live (children can have an opinion but unless they are 17 or 18, their opinion is never determinative)
- Anything about money (children should not be involved in the financial aspect of the divorce)
- Don’t cry (instead, encourage your child to fully express whatever they feel and accept any reaction as normal)
- We’ll do whatever you want about visitation (do not place that burden on your child – hear their opinions and as parents take the responsibility and blame for the schedule)
Talking to your child about divorce is hard, but it’s important. There is no perfect way to do it. If you are honest, straightforward, and loving, you can handle the situation much better.