5 tips for telling your children about your divorce

With all the emotional turmoil you feel about your divorce proceedings, it can be easy to forget — or simply to overlook — the impact the end of your marriage is having on your children. Children see the world through the filter of their parents’ words and actions, so they may be particularly confused by the behavior they see as you and your spouse split up to live separate lives.

Despite your best efforts, they are likely to witness harsh words or fights between their parents — potentially showcasing a level of anger they may have never seen from you before. Confusion can give way to disillusionment and anger as they determine that you and your spouse have broken  thechild-parent trust.

Their perception of the situation can be colored further by fear, divided loyalties, guilt, and the sense that this upheaval of all your lives is somehow their fault. While you can’t avoid these feelings in your children, you can take steps throughout the process to recognize their fears, validate their emotions, and create an environment as emotionally safe as possible for your children to express their feelings.

Talking about the Decision

You may think it goes without saying that children should not find out about their parents’ divorce by overhearing a shouting match — but all too often, that’s how a child discovers that his parents are splitting up.

The worst part about this situation is that the parents may not even realize they have been overheard. With the information delivered accidentally, with tensions mounting in the household, and with clues piling up like so many packing boxes, the child often waits in fear for the parents to finally admit that they are divorcing. That day may take weeks or months to finally arrive.

By the time children are three or four years old, they can pick up quickly on clues that tell them that something is wrong in the family — and they understand far more than you may think. While they may not comprehend each and every detail of the conflicts between you, they certainly know that the both of you are mad all the time, and that one of you doesn’t want to play with them after dinner anymore. As they get older, the cues that mean conflict become less and less opaque to them. The last thing you want to hear from your child when you tell him about your divorce is, “Well, it’s about time you said something.”

Planning a day together

Once you and your spouse are sure that you are moving ahead with the divorce, plan a day and time to tell your children as soon as you can. You may dread the conversation and its impact on your children, but the sooner you do it, the sooner you can address your children’s fears and make the entire situation less terrifying for them.

Discuss the conversation with your spouse ahead of time, and agree on the language you will use and the information you will share. Children of any age do not need to know every detail of your spouse’s infidelity or whatever other breach may have contributed to the divorce, but they do need to understand that you have tried to reconcile your differences and have reached a final impasse. Many parents become tongue tied or freeze up altogether when they have to talk about a subject their children will find painful. Your best defense against this is to know exactly what you want to say, and how you will say it. Ideally, you will rehearse this with your spouse — perhaps getting your anger and sarcasm out of the way before you sit down with your children.

Ask each other the questions you think your children will ask you, and plan how you will answer them. You may not be able to anticipate every possible question, but knowing the language and tone you will use will help you respond to surprise questions with some confidence.

Keep these in mind as you plan the conversation

The thought of telling the kids can almost raise anxiety levels more than that of the divorce itself. Here’s 5 things to keep in mind;

  1. Work as a team with your spouse (or try to)

    Above all, make a pact with your spouse that neither of you will turn this conversation with your children into an argument, even if your children lash out in anger. You will not gain your children’s trust or quell their fears by having a family shouting match — in fact, that’s exactly what they fear will happen. Keep your cool and avoid language that will cause tempers to flare.

    If possible, arrange to tell them together and talk to all children at the same time. This means everyone is on the same page and no one is left out. Siblings will be able to talk to each other knowing exactly what each one of them have been told. You and your spouse should feel some relief knowing you have done this one major task together – it can even help build a rapport towards getting through the other divorce procedings you will need to deal with in coming weeks/months.

  2. Tell the truth, but don’t blame your spouse

    You and your spouse are getting a divorce, and even a small child will not be fooled if you try to dismiss it as a minor occurrence or act as if nothing is really wrong. Your children want to know what happened between you, and they deserve a cogent explanation — but pointing fingers at one another will not help your child.

    Determine in advance what reason you will give, and gain your spouse’s agreement on what you will say. “Mommy cheated on me,” is probably not the best thing to say, but “We just can’t get along anymore, so we’ve decided it’s time to stop living together,” is a fair statement and likely more appropriate.

  3. Use an age-appropriate level of detail

    For example, a child in his late teens may be ready to hear that Mom has determined that she is a lesbian or Dad prefers men, but a child who doesn’t know what sex or romantic attraction are yet might not be ready for that level of detail. If you truly don’t know what information your child can understand and cope with, consult a child counselor or social worker.

  4. Explain what happens next

    You may not have all the details of your divorce settlement worked out, but your child does not need to know where every dollar will go. Your child’s first concern will be where they will live, and with whom. If you plan to sell the house, your child has a right to know this. “We’ll be moving to a new place in the same area” can be a comforting statement, as your child won’t have to go to a new school district and make new friends. “Daddy is moving to a new apartment, but you will see him for three days of every week” will help him understand that while the family relationship is changing, both parents will still be in the child’s life.

    Tell them what will change, and emphasize the things that will not change — in particular, that you and your spouse will continue to love him, as you always have. 

  5. Be straightforward

    A discussion about a major life change is not the time for cute quips, personality jabs, rolling eyes, or sarcasm. Treat your child’s reaction and emotions with respect, and with the same honesty that he is showing you.

This first realization that love can end may be a terrifying discovery to your young child, one that will make them fearful every time you raise your voice or seem irritated with them for years to come. Make it as clear as you can that parents never, ever divorce their children, and that you and your spouse will always love and protect them and want to be with them. This is a message you will need to reinforce through words and deeds for some time to come.

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